Welcome to "Summer Workout Plan," our annual offseason series in which we dive into a specific area for improvement for certain players to take the next step in their development. After looking at the next step in Fred VanVleet's development, Michael Porter Jr. takes the spotlight.
The Denver Nuggets sent a clear message this offseason.
Following a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2020 and a second-round appearance in 2021 despite not having their second-leading scorer in Jamal Murray available due to injury, the Nuggets have made a big commitment to their core. First, they signed Aaron Gordon, who they acquired at last season's trade deadline, to a four-year, $92 million extension. Then, they reportedly reached an agreement with Michael Porter Jr. on a five-year, $207.0 million extension, $145.3 million of which is guaranteed.
Entering his age 26 season, Gordon still has room to grow but we have a pretty good sense of what kind of player he is - a versatile defender, dynamic cutter and capable 3-point shooter with some playmaking chops. Porter, meanwhile, is more of a blank slate.
Amid injury concerns, Porter fell to the Nuggets at the No. 14 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He sat out his rookie season after undergoing back surgery and played 55 games in his sophomore season, only eight of which he started in. He then had a breakout season in 2020-21 with averages of 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on .542/.445/.791 shooting splits. Those numbers helped him earn the third-most Most Improved Player votes, trailing only Julius Randle and Jerami Grant.
Entering his fourth season, Porter is widely expected to make another leap. Some of that has to do with the position he's in - it's unknown when Murray will return from injury, so Porter could see his role increase even more - but a lot of it has to do with him only scratching the surface of his potential.
What's interesting about Porter is that he's been more of a finisher than a creator to this point of his career. According to NBA.com, 79.2 percent of his field goals last season were assisted, which made for one of the higher rates in the league. In fact, it put him on the same page as the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Matisse Thybulle, Jeff Green and Dorian Finney-Smith, players who are known more as specialists.
That Porter averaged a shade under 20 points per game with such a high portion of his shots being assisted speaks to how well he plays off of others. He's already a knockdown 3-point shooter, one who is capable of getting his shot off against almost anyone thanks to his massive frame and silky smooth release. He's also developed into one of the league's best cutters. It helps, of course, that he's teammates with Nikola Jokic, who is arguably the best passer in the league today, but it didn't take long for Porter to learn that Jokic will reward him for being active.
"He definitely be looking out, for sure," Porter told NBA.com's Carlan Gay during his rookie season when asked what it's like to play with Jokic. "I know he's always looking to pass, so I try to find my little spots where he can see me and he'll give me the ball."
Those skills alone make Porter an incredibly valuable player. Not only is he someone teams have to be careful helping off of because he needs little-to-no space...
...but him being a relentless cutter means teams have to account for him at all times.
According to NBA.com, Porter generated 38.6 percent of his offence on spot-ups and cuts last season. He generated an additional 21.8 percent of his offence in transition, where he was primarily a rim-runner and spot-up shooter.
How Porter builds on that foundation will shape his ceiling in the years to come.
Statistically, Porter was one of the most efficient pick-and-roll and handoff scorers in the league last season, but he didn't generate much of his offence on those plays. Same deal in isolation - we rarely saw Porter go one-on-one, but he scored at a high rate when we did. On the other hand, he was one of the least efficient scorers with his back to the basket last season, but it's not hard to see the appeal of a 6-foot-10 and 218-pound forward with his shooting ability and a decent handle getting post touches. He's someone who should one day be able to attack mismatches in a variety of ways.
Again, the uncertainty surrounding Murray's return should lead to more opportunity for Porter this season. He made the most of them down the stretch last season, bumping his scoring average up to 23.5 points in the 17 regular season games he appeared in following Murray's injury. As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor detailed, he still did the bulk of his damage off-ball in those games, but he did more than double his plays in handoffs, pick-and-rolls and isolations.
It's not only about his scoring in those situations. Learning how to leverage his scoring ability to create high percentage opportunities for others is an equally important step. (For what it's worth, Porter ranked in the 9th percentile for his position in assist percentage last season. He says improving as a playmaker is one of his goals moving forward). But the more he improves as a self creator, the closer he's going to get to being the star the Nuggets are now paying him to be.
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