EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Nuggets preview, Pt. 2: Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. is the X-factor

Jun 5, 2021, 2:35 PM
Michael Porter Jr. #1 of the Denver Nuggets shoots a free throw against the Detroit Pistons during ...
Michael Porter Jr. #1 of the Denver Nuggets shoots a free throw against the Detroit Pistons during the first quarter of the NBA game at Little Caesars Arena on May 14, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

“Teams, they ain’t trust what he was gonna be, but everybody else that know hooping knew exactly what he was going to be.”

That’s Phoenix Suns wing Mikal Bridges on Denver Nuggets wing Michael Porter Jr.

He’s the X-factor to the teams’ upcoming playoff series, and given that he might not be a familiar name for you yet because of how his NBA career has unfolded thus far, let’s briefly go through that.

Porter is one of the best talents to come out of the draft in the last five years. At 6-foot-10 with a wiry frame, Porter’s combination of size, speed, fluidity and shooting ability has him well on pace to becoming one of the league’s signature scorers for the next decade.

So, to what Bridges said, Porter fell in the draft because of health problems and no real sample size to go off in his one year at Missouri (four games). But in the 2018 NBA Draft that featured high-end ability from the likes of Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and others, Porter was right alongside those guys in the discussion for the top pick in the summer before.

But he slid all the way to 14th — past Bridges at No. 10 — because of concerns with his back, and now Denver has a third pillar to stick right next to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray for its primary foundation.

Part of that fall was because Porter didn’t play his entire rookie year as the back got better. Denver slowly incorporated the 22-year-old in his rookie season last year, and it was just as clear with his rawness that he was also going to ascend.

Fast.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone had no choice but to play him, even on a contender. Porter’s minutes spiked from 16.4 to 31.3 this season. He posted 19.0 points per game while shooting a laughably awesome 54.2% from the field, despite taking nearly half of his shots from three-point range: 6.3 of his 13.4 field goal attempts at a 44.5% mark.

If you’re wondering if someone 22 or younger has ever shot 50% from the field while averaging at least 15 points and 5 3PAs per game, the answer is no, per Stathead. That season for all ages has only happened a total of 16 times in league history. All of them have occurred in the last 15 years, and the only two players who topped Porter’s 66.3 true shooting percentage were guys named Kevin Durant this season (66.6%) and Stephen Curry in 2015-16 (66.9%). Maybe you’ve heard of them.

The game is changing. You’re going to start seeing guys like Porter a lot more in the next two decades.

The Suns get to see Porter now. He’s playing phenomenal basketball since Murray’s season-ending ACL injury, and again, as Bridges said, it was not rocket science for those that saw Porter’s skill.

“He’s an unbelievable talent. He can shoot that thang with a high release,” Bridges said. “As just a hooper and watching games, you knew his shots and his numbers were going to go up when Jamal went out. He’s being aggressive and just taking advantage of the opportunity right now.”

In his 17 regular season games after Murray went down, Porter’s shooting splits look like they are out of a video game.

He shot 82% at the rim, 51% from the midrange and 48% on 3s, per Cleaning the Glass, scoring 23.5 points per game. Those numbers, respectively, mostly held in the Nuggets’ six-game removal of the Portland Trail Blazers at 79%, 55% and 41% for 18.8 points a night.

The biggest challenge with Porter is that due to his shooting and athleticism, it’s very difficult for him to score less than 10-15 points a night. That’s because of what he’s going to get on kickouts, cuts, offensive rebounds and especially in transition.

The Suns will need to try and limit everything else and that’ll probably be on Bridges the most. He’s got the length and agility to track him around the court, but Jae Crowder spent some time on him in the regular season and we’ll likely see Cam Johnson get chances too.

Denver primarily gets Porter the ball through off-ball motion, a screen or two Bridges will have to navigate.

Two things to absorb on those clips: Yes, he consistently makes those very difficult-looking shots. They just go in. His off the bounce game will develop over the next couple years, but for now, he doesn’t really even need it all that much because he’s a terrific shot-maker.

Secondly, watch that last example again and you’ll see Portland’s C.J. McCollum on Porter freeze for a brief second. That’s either a tweak to what the Nuggets usually run or worrying about Jokic, but either point emphasizes some of the challenges in stopping Porter.

He’s got one of the best passers on the planet setting him up that also commands the usual defensive attention an MVP does, and even when the job gets done, Porter just hits shots anyway.

“All he really needs sometimes is a little bit of space,” Bridges said. “He’s tall, shoots it from the top and jumps high.”

Bridges is going to see a few makes like this go in, even when he’s in the right spot.

The Suns can’t lose Porter off the ball. He shot an astronomically high 59% from the corners in those 17 games post-Murray injury.

A dig on Austin Rivers is not worth this:

With Chris Paul’s right shoulder still a question mark, Jokic and Devin Booker are definitively the two best offensive weapons in this series. But after that, it’s debatably Porter.

There’s a lot of variance in a playoff series. Porter going bananas could swing the series entirely, as could him putting up a few duds. When considering his talent and experience level, either are possible. We will find out which end of that spectrum he lands closer to soon enough.

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Suns-Nuggets preview, Pt. 2: Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. is the X-factor