A few days ago at Nuggets practice, Michael Malone took Michael Porter Jr. aside to deliver a succinct message: I’m proud of you.

Porter Jr. has met every challenge that the Nuggets coaching staff laid out for him entering this season, and Malone wanted to let the 24-year-old know that his buy-in wasn’t going unnoticed. Be a better and more committed defender. Put more effort in on the defensive end of the floor. Trust that the ball will find you in this offense. Be more than just a spot-up 3-point shooter.

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Porter Jr. has done it all.

“I think Michael Porter [Jr.] has been just tremendous on both ends of the floor all season long,” said Malone after Porter Jr., who played under the weather Monday, tallied 20 points on a clean 7-11 shooting (4-6 3FGs) against Toronto. “That’s maturation.”

Porter Jr. has gone from a luxury to a necessity on this Nuggets team. Now, late in the regular season, Porter Jr. is a key to what the Nuggets do. Denver counts on him to produce every night and the Nuggets need him at his best in order to reach their championship goals.

You felt that again Monday in the Nuggets’ 118-113 win over the Raptors. The Nuggets don’t get their 30th win of the season at Ball Arena if Porter Jr. doesn’t show up. That’s been the case often this year.

It was also Porter Jr.’s fifth 20+ point game across his last seven outings. There’s a consistency and reliability to Porter Jr.’s game right now that’s never been there before. There’s a steadiness to his minutes that you didn’t feel in years past. You no longer have to wonder about the impact he’s going to make every night. You can now simply pencil Porter Jr. in for a good game. You can assume that he’s going to play winning basketball. In the 32 games since Porter Jr. returned from a heel injury in late December that sidelined him for around one month, he’s averaging 17.7 points (49.8 FG%, 40.5 3P%) and 5.2 rebounds per game.

He’s giving the Nuggets exactly what they need. It’s inspiring to think about where Porter Jr.’s at now after three back surgeries, three lengthy rehabs, all the time he’s spent away from the court, and the non-basketball family matters he’s navigated this year. What a story he’s writing.

Porter Jr.’s also feeling healthier than he has in a while, and that’s reflected in how often he’s looking to go to the rim. He’s trusting his body and exploring his offensive game. Porter Jr. is so much more comfortable attacking off the dribble now than he was earlier in the year. It feels like there’s still another level (or two) that his offensive game can reach.

And then there’s his defense, which completes the arc of Porter Jr.’s year and makes his maturation this season arguably the best storyline of this current Nuggets campaign. Porter Jr. has become a fine defender, and he’s been a fixture in the Nuggets’ starting lineup as Denver has scaled the NBA’s defensive ranks. The Nuggets are currently the 12th-best defense in the league and the 5th-best defense since Dec. 7. That’s a 41-game sample, or more than half the season so far. Denver has also maintained the best clutch defense in the NBA for most of this year. Porter has been on the floor to close out plenty of narrow Nuggets wins.

“I think it’s definitely gotten, better,” Porter Jr. told DNVR Monday regarding his defense. “I’m going to continue to grow and continue to use my intangibles to be disruptive on that end.”

“It’s about experience, locking into what the other team does, and effort.”

These anticipatory steals have become commonplace for Porter Jr.

His teammates have taken notice. There’s an appreciation within the Nuggets locker room for how Porter Jr. has bought in and committed himself to being a better defender. There’s a level of respect inside Ball Arena for how he’s rounded out his game this season.

Because for the Nuggets to win a championship, everyone, including Porter Jr., knows that he has to be reliable on the defensive end of the floor. He can’t be singled out in the playoffs and get taken advantage of. He can’t be played off the court. He’s too important to this team. Porter Jr. has approached this season with that exact thought in mind.

“When teams try to target him, he’s taking that personally, and he’s stepping up and stopping them,” Aaron Gordon told DNVR. “That’s big because teams were targeting him last year and they can’t do that this year. It just makes us that much more difficult to play against when you’ve got everyone on the court defending.”

“He understands what it means this year, what the moment means this year, and he’s really stepped up to the challenge. He’s really stepped up to the plate defensively.”


Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. Hear him every day on the DNVR Nuggets Podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind