Michael Porter Jr. is Nuggets’ X-factor for rest of playoffs

Five years ago, it was still up in the air whether or not Michael Porter Jr. would make it as an NBA player.

The talent was always there. He was the No. 2 ranked high school player in the country in 2017 behind Marvin Bagley, but he played in just three games at Missouri before sitting out the rest of his freshman season with a nagging back injury. That same ailment caused Porter Jr. to fall all the way from a presumptive top-5 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft to No. 14 overall and a spot with the Nuggets, and it caused him to miss all but one game during his rookie year with Denver in 2018-19.

It’s wild to think how far he has come since then.

Porter Jr. was arguably the Nuggets’ second-best player in their recent first-round playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers. In the five games against LA, the forward averaged 22.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 55.3% from the floor and 49.8% from 3-point range. In the closeout win over the Lakers in Game 5, he finished with 26 points, four rebounds and two steals, finishing with a team-best plus-minus of +12 on the night.

“Michael Porter’s offense in this series was incredible,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told reporters after Game 5. “Buckets were hard to come by but Michael hit some timely shots. And when he didn’t have his shot, he was able to get downhill and get pressure on the rim.”

Part of the reason why Porter Jr. has had this level of success recently is his willingness to play off the ball behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Porter Jr. would probably be the primary ball-handler and top scoring option on a team like the Hornets or Wizards, but the Nuggets don’t need him to play hero every night. Instead, he has embraced his role as a 3-point specialist who is also a plus rebounder and solid on-ball defender.

During the 2023-24 regular season, Porter Jr. ranked second in the league behind Stephen Curry in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (42.9%) among players with at least five catch-and-shoot attempts per game from beyond the arc. That is slightly down from the 43.8% he shot on catch-and-shoot threes in 2022-23, but he has knocked down 20 of his 41 (47.8%) overall attempts from beyond the arc in the postseason. The rest of Denver’s lineup made just 33-of-131 (25.2%) of their threes against the Lakers in Round 1.

Prior to this postseason, Porter Jr. averaged 13.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 45.2% from the field and 37.2% from 3-point range in 49 career playoff games.

Perhaps the most underrated part of Porter Jr.’s game is his defense. While not an above-average on-ball defender, Porter Jr is a strong rebounder on the defensive glass and has the length at 6-foot-10 to disrupt players when they’re taking jumpers or layups at the rim. Porter Jr. ranked third on the Nuggets with an individual defensive rating of 113.8 during the regular season, just behind Jokic and Peyton Watson.

Porter Jr. has done all this all while dealing with some pretty intense family drama off the court. In early April, one of Porter Jr.’s brothers — Jontay — was permanently banned from the NBA after an investigation found he wagered on games and disclosed confidential info to sports bettors. On April 19, another brother — Coban — was sentenced to six years in prison for killing a 42-year old woman in a drunk-driving accident in 2023.

“At the end of the day, this is basketball. I got way bigger stuff going on off the court,” Porter Jr. told reporters. “To come in here with my sanctuary and be able to play well, it feels good. There’s a lot bigger stuff going on than this.”

Denver will face an even tougher test in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who swept the Phoenix Suns in Round 1. The T-Wolves feature several high-caliber perimeter defenders, including Jaden McDaniels — who has already done a stellar job defending Kevin Durant this postseason.

With Jokic facing off against two seven-footers down low in Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jamal Murray still nursing a calf injury, Porter Jr. might be even more relied upon in the upcoming series between Denver and Minnesota. If he can continue to play at this high of a level, the Nuggets should be the favorites to win the series, the Western Conference and their second straight NBA Championship come the end of the playoffs. 


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