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Michael Porter Jr. Will Get His Moment … If He’s Ready for It

With Jamal Murray sidelined, MPJ will get his first real chance to play a featured role. But while the Nuggets’ third-year phenom has already secured max money, he’s learning that with great usage rate comes great responsibility.

Matthew Kam

The last time the Denver Nuggets held training camp in the soft breeze of San Diego, Michael Porter Jr. was a professional basketball player in only the theoretical sense. The former prep standout had appeared in just three games and played all of 53 minutes in his lone collegiate season, and wasn’t able to actually participate at Nuggets camp following his second back surgery in less than a year. A career marked for stardom threatened to buckle before it could even begin.

When Porter returned last month to the same seaside hotel some three years later, it was a chance for him to close the circle on the camp he never had, and more materially, to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on a five-year maximum contract extension worth up to $207 million.

“When things like that happen,” Porter tells me of landing his new extension, “that’s kinda when you think back to when people were really saying I wasn’t gonna be able to play again.” A predraft medical report filed by the Clippers’ team doctor now lives in infamy. “It was brutal for us,” then-Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said during the 2020 playoffs, as Porter and the Nuggets were in the process of knocking his team out of the second round. “We had [him] on our board, just the medical report—the red flag was so hot.” Word got around. Eleven other teams declined the opportunity to draft Porter before the Clippers passed on him twice: first for star-in-the-making Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (which, fair enough) and then for Jerome Robinson, who isn’t currently on an NBA roster.

Porter, meanwhile, has opened up new possibilities for one of the NBA’s most compelling contenders. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic gives Denver its way of life. Jamal Murray—who could miss much of this upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL tear—syncs with the 6-foot-11 Serbian for an immaculate two-man game. Yet it’s Porter’s transformative promise that allows the Nuggets to dream bigger, and to operate now as a franchise that doesn’t hope to someday make a trip to the Finals, but one that fully expects to sooner rather than later.

“I told him, these contracts are about projections,” Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly tells me. “Where he is today can’t be where he is a year from now, two years from now. We’d be disappointed—as would Michael—if we don’t see a rapidly evolving and improving player.”

In many ways, the trajectory of the franchise depends on it. Until Murray returns to the lineup, Porter is a lifeline—a natural scorer who put up an easy 19 points per game last season, positioned now to assume an even greater responsibility. In NBA.com’s annual survey of the league’s 30 general managers, Porter was voted one of the players most likely to have a “breakout season,” in whatever sense that tracks for a 23-year-old who already has some of the best shooting numbers in NBA history. Yet if this opportunity to expand his role does unlock something new in Porter, it could explode the potential of the Nuggets in brilliant new directions, with one of the best cores in the league for years to come.

“For me, I try to win a day at a time,” Porter says, grounding himself back in the present. “I read the Bible, so the Bible says don’t worry about tomorrow. Today has worries of its own.”

Tomorrow’s worries, though, have a way of catching up to all of us. The better Porter plays, the more questions he creates about the team dynamics upon Murray’s return. The more essential he becomes to who the Nuggets are, the more they let ride on the very assumption of his availability—which is at risk even beyond the possibility of injury. These are the sorts of problems that NBA teams long to have: three stars, soaring expectations, and the mounting internal pressures of playing for everything. A player like Porter is so phenomenally talented as to make things complicated—and, just maybe, to push Denver to the summit.

2021-22 Denver Nuggets Media Day Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

For years, the best basketball prospect in the country spent his days shuffling through the offices of chiropractors and physical therapists, desperate for relief. Porter played through back pain throughout most of his high school career, but the accolades came anyway—including the Gatorade Player of the Year, the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, and the McDonald’s All American Game MVP, essentially the triple crown of prep hoops. “We all knew Mike could’ve been the no. 1 pick in the draft,” says Nuggets guard Will Barton. “That’s no secret.” The surgeries that gave Porter hope of finally being healthy were also the only conceivable way Denver could draft a player of his caliber with the 14th pick.

The Nuggets bet not only on modern science and their own medical staff, but on a player who could never stay out of the gym. Porter is the sort to pick up and fly across the country just because he heard about a good run on a college campus somewhere. “I don’t know what all the other coaches would say, but out of the 15 guys in their locker room, how many truly love the game?” asks Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “Michael Porter loves the game of basketball.” He comes by it honestly. The Porters aren’t a basketball family so much as a roster in and of themselves. Michael’s father, Michael Sr., played and has coached at the college level. His mother, Lisa, averaged 58.7 points a game in high school before playing at Iowa and then professionally overseas. Porter’s two older sisters played for their aunt, Robin Pingeton, at Missouri; his brother Jontay spent last season with the Memphis Grizzlies; one of his younger brothers will suit up this fall for Denver University; and the three youngest Porters are all slated to play varsity.

The tough sell wasn’t whether to draft Porter. It was to convince him, after losing almost an entire year to back surgery, that he would need to keep waiting.

“Michael, if it was up to him, I’m sure he would have played his first year,” Connelly says. “He worked so hard. But the message to him from the minute we drafted him is you’re here for the long term and we want you to be part of something—part of a group of guys that can hopefully play in the most important games.”

Joining that group meant learning to accept its established dynamics. Porter made his NBA debut in the fall of 2019 for a team that had won 54 games the season prior and come within a few contested CJ McCollum jumpers of the conference finals. Jokic wasn’t just a star, but a revelation—an All-NBA first-team center taking the position to places never seen before. Murray had just made the first of what would be several leaps forward. And then there was Porter, eager to show the full range of all he could do, vying for time in the rotation of a tough coach who favors veterans.

“When Michael Porter walked into any gym in this country, it was: Give Michael Porter the ball, and let Michael Porter do Michael Porter,” Malone says. “That’s probably really smart, because he was probably the best player in every gym he walked into during that four-year high school career.” But in the NBA, not everyone gets to cook. Sometimes you just have to work the line, peeling garlic and chopping onions all day long. For a time, Malone seemed to actively resist relying on Porter, whose spacey defense led to breakdowns and who, even at his best, could be a touch too eager to fire away. Porter would produce in spot minutes for a few games, and then have all the air taken out of his run by a DNP-CD. It wasn’t until a regular-season date against the Pacers that Porter, all on his own, took off sprinting across the Rubicon.

The greater arc of this Denver team can be drawn through moments in time. Back in 2016, Malone brought Jokic into the starting lineup, put the ball in his hands, and never looked back. In 2018, the Nuggets missed out on the playoffs by a single possession in the final game of the regular season, but proved something to themselves in the process. Murray played so poorly in the first three quarters of a 2019 playoff game against the Spurs as to nearly tank the series, but Malone told the point guard that he loved him and he trusted him, and Murray responded with an incendiary fourth quarter to effectively save the season. Then, on January 2, 2020, Porter checked into the game against Indiana, breezed through 25 points in 23 minutes, and made it impossible for his coach to even consider not playing him.

Maybe this season will bring another moment for Porter: some incontrovertible proof of full-bore stardom that we can never unsee. Last season, Porter’s production surged after Murray went down without any cost to his efficiency. It was as if he simply opened up his game and brought out a few extra buckets a night. Going so long without Murray this time around may require even more from him—to reach for something even deeper and more profound.

“I’m gonna be aggressive, obviously,” Porter says. “There will be a bigger role where more shots will naturally come. But my goal is to help the team win. So without Jamal, I’m gonna have to be more assertive—but I’m always assertive.” The biggest difference between this season and last is the broadening of Porter’s opportunities. The day after Murray tore his ACL, Malone conveyed a vital message to his team: There is not another Jamal Murray on our roster. No one player could take the point guard’s place. “I don’t coach and try to be like Gregg Popovich,” Malone says now, remembering that day. “You have to be who you are.” But for Porter, being true to himself means being true to his undeniable ability. Not just manning a spot, but ascending.

His new contract is an affirmation of the now-considerable role that Porter plays in Denver’s entire operation. Only three other players from his draft class were signed to max extensions: Gilgeous-Alexander (now a member of the Thunder), Luka Doncic, and Trae Young. Porter’s deal, however, has something theirs do not: a partial guarantee in its fifth and final season, notable given his injury history. According to league sources, only $12 million of Porter’s fifth-year salary is guaranteed. Making an All-Star team would lock in another $5 million. Hitting any one of six different performance-based triggers would guarantee the whole thing ahead of schedule. Regardless, the fifth year would become fully guaranteed by default during the July free-agency moratorium ahead of the 2026-27 season.

Even with those caveats, the deal all but cements Porter as a max player, a designation that comes with its own weight. “With a contract like that, you have more responsibility,” Porter says. “You’re looked at more as a leader. I’ve got a lot of steps to take and a lot to prove this year.”

Responsibility. Leadership. Those ideas echoed around Porter throughout training camp, a natural outgrowth of the respect he’s earned in Denver’s locker room. With Murray sidelined and Jokic attending to the birth of his child, Porter was the Nuggets’ most important active player in San Diego. He isn’t a come-and-go rookie anymore—he’s a pillar of the franchise who spoke, repeatedly, to what he feels he owes to the people and organization around him. “I try to bring energy every day, and not just wait for the older guys to give me energy or tell me where to go,” he says. “Now it’s how can I help my teammates.” And at the same time, Porter also explained the rationale behind his decision not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which—beyond his obligations to society at large—leaves him more vulnerable to infection, and thus to missing time in a season in which Denver will rely on him more than ever before.

“My main thing is: We don’t have years and years of data for how it can affect you,” Porter tells me. “So for me, I know I’m immune to COVID right now—more immune than a lot of people with the vaccine are. I’ve had it twice. I’ve got the antibodies, all those things. It’s just laying off on it for now. I’m not against the vaccine. What I’m against is not allowing other people to have a choice, or people trying to force it on other people.”

(While natural immunity does occur in many people who have had COVID-19, there is still much debate about its efficacy and durability—which is why the medical establishment recommends getting the vaccine, even after infection.)

Porter isn’t the only NBA player to express this perspective, nor is he the only member of the Nuggets to start the season unvaccinated, despite the best efforts of management and even other teammates. “The numbers are overwhelmingly supportive of getting vaccinated,” Connelly says. “I shared those opinions loudly not with just Michael—he’s not the only guy on our team that shares a similar stance. It’s something I don’t agree with, but it’s a very personal decision. It’s not something we can or would mandate.”

Porter attempts to walk a fine line. He insists to me that he isn’t against the vaccine, and says he doesn’t believe that taking it would hurt him. He empathizes with people whose lives have been affected by the pandemic—including his own siblings, cousins, and friends who have caught the virus. “A lot of people have lost jobs,” he says. “It’s affecting the whole world. A lot of people get very sick from COVID. A lot of people are very scared by it.”

Last year on Snapchat, Porter described the fear of COVID-19 as a means of controlling people’s behavior, and said of the pandemic: “It is a serious thing, it’s a real thing, but yeah, this is being overblown.” In San Diego, Porter took a very different stance. “People that say it’s not a big deal,” he clarified, “are definitely misinformed.”

Unlike Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, Porter doesn’t play in a market that would prevent him from participating in home games. Yet as an unvaccinated player, he’s still subject to a stricter array of health and safety precautions from the NBA. Porter won’t be allowed to leave his home or leave the hotel on the road for anything beyond official team functions or absolute essentials, and if he violates those rules in Toronto, in particular, he could be subject to criminal charges and face up to six months in prison. He’ll be required to quarantine for a week if any close contacts test positive for COVID-19. He’ll need to sit in a section separate from his vaccinated teammates on team flights and buses, or take a different bus altogether. He’ll have to sit 6 feet away from all other players at any team meetings, and won’t be allowed to eat in the same room as his teammates for team meals.

The Nuggets rave about Porter as a “connector” who brings people together, but his decision to forego vaccination makes that sort of camaraderie difficult, if not impossible. For as much as he welcomes the call to be more of a leader, his vaccination decision complicates that case.

“You can lead all type of ways,” he says. “For me, I like to lead by example, being one of the hardest workers on the team. So guys can see how hard I work, and maybe it motivates them to want to work hard. And also I think when it comes game time, guys develop chemistry and stuff like that in the locker room. I’ll be in the locker room with the guys. We’ll be in practice. The NBA is different because guys have families—we’re not all hanging out off the court anyway. So that’s how I look at it. I can definitely lead in ways. I hope they don’t make it so that we’re too separated from the team, but, you know, we’ll see.”

Nuggets leadership, while respectful of Porter’s choice, has made their framing of the matter quite clear.

“Would I love to say that we’re 100 percent fully vaccinated? Of course,” Malone says. “I hope we get there at some point. But as we wait for that to happen, we’re gonna stay together. We’re gonna support guys and not judge or alienate or put guys in the corner. … It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re still loving Michael and supporting him. And hopefully at one point, he makes that decision that he thinks is in his best interest as well as our best interest as a team, to do that.”

Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

This is an especially loud moment in human history for anyone who dares to own a smartphone, not least of all a professional athlete embroiled in nationwide controversy. “I’ve been called anti-vax, MAGA Porter Jr., things like that,” he says with a chuckle, shaking his head. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth.” Regardless, there has never been an easier time to tell Porter exactly what you think of him, seeing as social media works as a direct pipeline for all the bile the internet has to offer.

“That’s why I think anxiety and things like that have skyrocketed,” Porter says. “We’re too busy. We’re too distracted. As humans, we’re not supposed to receive that much hate or praise.” In the lead-up to the season, Porter has been reading Battlefield of the Mind by evangelical author Joyce Meyer. “A mind that is too busy is abnormal,” Meyer writes. “The mind is normal when it is at rest—not blank, but at rest. The mind should not be filled with reasoning, worry, anxiety, fear, and the like. It should be calm, quiet, and serene.”

Porter knows himself well enough to know he needs safeguards against his social media usage, and that he alone cannot be trusted in keeping them. So whenever he logs off, he texts his sister, Cierra, to log back into his account and change his password. She has effectively been deputized a gatekeeper of Porter’s emotional well-being. “I don’t think she goes through my DMs,” he says. Even without the constant buzz of life online, it’s already difficult enough for athletes to find the precise balance between approaching every game with complete focus and letting its result define their entire world.

“Basketball accolades, it doesn’t matter how big they are,” he says. “They come and go. Good games come and go. Bad games come and go.” All a player can really do to stay level is anchor themselves in process. Porter has always felt at home in an empty gym, repping out jumpers from a release point so high it seems unblockable. Teammates marvel at how much he invests in his game. The Nuggets, meanwhile, are hoping the security that comes with that work might help the normally affable Porter—who turns stoic between the lines—to find some bliss in the heat of the action.

“We’re telling him: ‘It’s OK to smile more in the game,’” Connelly says. “You put in the time. You put in the work. No one you’re gonna face is gonna say they’re working harder than you. So go out there and have fun. You’ve earned it. It has not been an easy path to where he is presently. We really want him to enjoy it and play with a sense of happiness and spirit that the work ethic kind of belies.”

For Porter, this summer was about learning to see the forest for the trees—or really to look for the veins on every leaf. “You could see for Michael, it’s all about the details,” Malone says. There are challenges from every corner of the organization for him to become even more of a factor defensively. Scoring is easy, especially for a 6-foot-10 forward with impossible touch; Porter can get to 20 points without ever taking a dribble, subsisting on spot-up jumpers and offensive rebounds alone. Defense is more challenging, especially when the hurdles for Porter aren’t how to affect the game but when.

“He’s very good when he’s in the play, but he lacks awareness sometimes and loses sight of the ball,” says Nuggets GM Calvin Booth. Porter is already a better rim protector than he was when he first came to Denver, and with how much meaningful basketball he’s played already, it’s easy to forget that he’s played only two NBA seasons, both crunched due to the pandemic. Part of the process for Porter is learning how to use his length to better contest shots, but he still has a ways to go on holding down his assignment, and a coach who has no interest in protecting him.

“In the past, I think maybe my first couple years, I would try to hide a guy,” Malone says. “Hey, we’re gonna hide Jamal Murray. We’re gonna hide Michael Porter. And I think after my second year, I said: I’m not hiding anybody anymore. That’s how you grow up in this business. You get your ass kicked, you learn from it, and you own it.”

Some of that ass-kicking is mitigated by the presence of Aaron Gordon, who was acquired by trade in March and signed last month to his own contract extension. When Porter first met his lanky and athletic running mate out on the practice court, he joked that it was like seeing his twin. “It’s probably his bizarro twin, more than anything,” Booth says. “Everything that Michael doesn’t do, Aaron does, and vice versa.” Most notably: Gordon could guard all the players Porter wasn’t suited to. Against the best teams, however, there’s no escape; even if he doesn’t have to check LeBron James, Porter still might have to figure out how to survive Anthony Davis.

Denver’s coaching staff is also taking smaller, practical steps to get players like Porter thinking about their defensive fundamentals. As part of their pregame warm-ups, the Nuggets have begun to introduce soccer-style cone drills—scrambles in short bursts to simulate things like closing out under control or rotating to contain a ball handler. That alone won’t make Porter a more competitive defender, though it might get his brain firing in a way that helps him bring the team’s concepts to life.

Porter doesn’t need as much help from the coaching staff on the other side of the ball. In the history of the NBA, only five players who have attempted as many 3s as Porter did per game last season (6.3) have ever shot a higher percentage (44.5). He joined one of them over the summer for a week of workouts in Portola Valley, California, home to venture capitalists, tech moguls, and, on this particular week, two of the best shooters in the world. Porter has come through Stephen Curry’s offseason workouts since he was a teenager, but this time he arrived with a different standing and worked through more rigorous sessions. When other pros have tried to join Curry for workouts, they’ve been shocked by their inability to keep up—just shot after shot after shot in dead sprints, off every action and angle imaginable.

“It doesn’t matter how physical guys are,” Porter says, in admiration of Curry’s game. “If you can outlast guys, conditioning-wise, you’re gonna be able to get open and get your shot up.”

Norman Powell, the 6-foot-3 Blazers guard, managed to stifle Porter in several games of the Nuggets’ first-round playoff matchup despite coming up roughly to his collarbone. Powell bumped and held Porter off the ball, knocking him off his routes; he dug up under Porter whenever he tried to post, stealing away his leverage; and even when the second-year forward managed to cut through open lanes, the timing of the offense was thrown off to the point that Denver’s playmakers missed him. “I think he had a game where he only got a couple of shots off,” Malone says. It was three. Denver (and Porter) recovered to close out the series over the next two games, but those difficulties hung over Porter’s summer.

Simple math would tell you that Porter will shoot more this season without Murray in the lineup, but the offense itself will still flow primarily through Jokic, who got as many touches as any player in the league last season. In a way, it’s Porter’s gravity that allows it. Almost 80 percent of Porter’s made baskets last season were assisted—a Klay Thompson–like figure for a shooter with a Klay Thompson–like impact. The fact that Porter’s mile-high release point is so difficult to contest draws defenders to the wings, making way for all of Denver’s more elaborate choreography.

“I think a lot of guys pick their spots or whatever,” Porter says. “I’m always trying to be a threat.”

The mid-post will be an important space for his creativity to flourish, as Porter has honed enough no- and one-dribble moves to turn his massive height advantage into more consistent looks. “A lot of those smaller, stockier, fast dudes, you don’t really wanna dance with them on the perimeter,” he says. He’s starting to look the part of Gumby Melo. But as opposing teams make Porter more central in their scouting reports, he’ll have to match them detail for detail, doing more of his work early to give himself the best opportunities possible. You don’t beat the Powells of the world at the point of release. You do it with your footwork. You weaponize your timing.

The dribble moves he’ll use to break down out-of-their-depth bigs and create space from thin air are more compact than what you’ll see from smaller wings. “Other guys who are shorter and have a tight handle, they have really drastic separation moves,” Porter says. But when you’re roughly as tall as a starting center, you can make a smaller, simpler play and just launch a shot up over the top.

It’s that simplicity that makes it difficult to understand where the limits are for a player like Porter, if they even exist. Should he keep pressing forward as a creator until he fully weaponizes his size in isolation? Should he completely dedicate himself to being an all-time shooter next to one of the game’s all-time passers? Is he the heir apparent to Kevin Durant’s turnaround jumper? Is he the game’s next great mismatch hunter? Or yes, all of the above, and more?

It remains to be seen how all that unspooling promise will fit back into the box once Murray returns. The games we saw from the fully functional Nuggets last season—between trading for Gordon and losing Murray—were sensational, a vision of a championship-level team in perfect and immediate harmony. Yet enduring a longer absence from Murray will inevitably require Porter to stretch out from his role and create, possibly into some entirely new shape. To channel the best player in every gym he walked into as a high school phenom without losing touch with the low-maintenance scorer he’s become for the sake of his team. Everything that Porter could potentially become introduces a homegrown contender to its own kind of superteam problems.

“The scary thing is: He’s not even 100 percent,” says Nuggets guard Markus Howard, who spent part of last season crashing in Porter’s guest room. “That’s the thing that blows my mind. He was playing last year and had a historic season, and he was a shell of what he really is.” Being healthy enough to play isn’t the same as being fully healthy. Major surgeries have months-long recoveries and years-long after-effects. Porter told reporters on media day that a back tweak he experienced during the second-round playoff series with the Suns was limiting enough to take him out of action had it happened during the regular season. Porter, whose team was already down one star, played through it.

With every season, Porter moves a bit more freely, a bit more explosively. He feels lighter. His game could go almost anywhere, blistering beyond the limits of any role he takes on, whether now or when Murray comes back to make the Nuggets whole again. His ultimate legacy as a player is, at this early stage, unfathomable.

Every time Porter takes the court this season, he’ll have new license to decide for himself how he wants to approach the game. What he wants to accomplish. Who he wants to be. It’s been a long time coming—years of treatment and patience. Now the ball swings to him, and if he’s ready, he’ll feel the weight of it.

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