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The Winding History of Otto Porter Jr.’s NBA Potential

Plus, James Harden’s magic and some Boogie-Embiid mutual respect from Monday night in the NBA

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: Otto Porter Jr.

Quick recap of the winding path that brought us to Otto Porter being named King of the Court:

1891: Basketball is invented in Massachusetts by a Canadian-American schoolteacher.

1906: Peach baskets are replaced by metal hoops and backboards.

1928: East Coast basketball leaders meet in New York City to create new rules to curb a new technique called “dribbling.”

1930s: John Cooper takes what many consider to be the first jump shot. “My feet left the hardcourt surface and it felt good,” he would later say.

1949: The National Basketball Association is founded.

1978: The Washington Bullets win the NBA championship.

1993: Otto Porter Jr. is born.

2013: The Wizards select Porter with the third pick overall.

2014: Porter largely disappoints.

2015: Porter gets regular minutes.

2016: Otto Porter enters his first contract year.

If we consider Otto Porter Jr. a late bloomer — and I think that’s a fair assessment — it’s because so many players in his cohort blossomed unnaturally early. Porter was considered the most NBA-ready prospect of the 2013 draft class, an ideal wing for the small-ball era. On paper, Porter plus John Wall (2010 draft class) and Bradley Beal (2012) equaled the embryonic outlines of a dynamic young core.

Only it didn’t turn out that way. Otto injured his hamstring in summer league, which led to a variety of minor lower-body twinges and aches, which resulted in a belated debut 19 games into the 2013–14 season. He played 14 minutes, took three shots, missed all of them, and scored zero points, with two boards and an assist. Then-coach Randy Wittman — unsure of a great many things, including what he had in Porter, and under pressure after two desultory seasons — buried Porter on the depth chart under Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster. Porter played only 319 minutes, in 37 games, over his rookie campaign.

His sophomore season was marginally, though definitively, better. Porter averaged a fraction under 20 minutes a night, giving the Wizards 11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and a steal per 36 minutes. And, he showed real [extremely Andrew Sharp voice] “OTTO PORTER IS THE X FACTOR”–type flashes over 10 playoff games in 2015. Still, at the start of his third pro season, the musky scent of Bust Body Spray hung heavy over Porter. This was probably unfair. But, considering the respective trajectories of some of his notable contemporaries, understandable.

By the 2015–16 season, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes had won a championship as part of the most devastating five-man lineup ever; Anthony Davis had taken wing as an actual god; Giannis Antetokounmpo was turned loose as the most athletic playmaker since Penny Hardaway; and Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis erupted into their rookie season like twin volcanoes.

But, now, finally, a few seasons later than expected, cometh Otto Porter. Monday night, against the Milwaukee Bucks, he put up 32 points — on 13-of-18 from the floor, including 5-of-9 from 3 — plus 13 rebounds, one assist, and one block, outdueling 2013 draft classmate Giannis. The Wizards won 107–102. In three full seasons, Porter had never scored more than 30 points in a game; this year, he’s already done it twice.

Porter is building his restricted free-agency résumé on a potent, modern mix of knife-edged rim runs and 3-pointers. He’s putting up career numbers across the board, but the most impressive improvement is his shots off the catch — this season, Porter is shooting a healthy 56 percent when he fires without taking a dribble, compared with 48 percent on the same shots last season.

It’s never too late for a breakout season. If Porter can sustain this pace — he’s currently 18th in the entire league in real plus-minus — someone is going to offer him a max deal. Then it’s on the Wizards to match.

Runner-up: James Harden

Ho-hum, just another game in which James Harden orchestrated the Rockets offense with a combination of Beethoven bombast and Philip Glass efficiency. The Rockets put their whole foot in the Suns’ ass, 131–115, and Harden scored 32 points (on 18 shots), 12 assists, and five rebounds, and clubbed the Suns to death at the free throw line. The full power of Mike D’Antoni stat juice is pumping through Harden’s veins, oozing out of his pores, and giving his beard a oily, virile luster. In his seven seasons before D’Antoni, Harden had notched more than 30 points and 12 assists nine times. He’s already done it five times this season, and we’re not even in 2017 yet.

Defense is still for cowards, but the Rockets’ stinginess has been increasingly hater-ific since the return of Pat Beverley in mid-November. Through 32 games, Houston is posting a 101 defensive rating. Extrapolated out to a full 82 games, that would be the third-best mark in the league this season and top-seven last year.

Meanwhile, the Rockets can weather the loss of the long-limbed Clint Capela (who is in the midst of a career season), because D’Antoni plus an elite point guard is basically Satan magic and should not be allowed. Someone named Montrezl Harrell started and put up 14 points just by setting screens and hustling to the cup with his hands out. Harden assisted on three of Harrell’s five baskets because of course. The Beard just makes his teammates look like it’s last call at the bar on the night before Armageddon.

Here’s Sam Dekker cutting to the rack off a Harden pass, putting his thing down, flipping it, and two-hand reversing it.

The Rockets, at 23–9, are currently third in the West, 2.5 games behind the Spurs. Are you ready for a James Harden–powered D’Antoni-Popovich rematch? Pop is already thinking about it.

Runner-up to the Runner-up: The Process and Boogie