One by one, minutes after Twitter already knew what he would say, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the names of the lottery selections in Thursday's draft. It did not appear Michael Porter Jr. had anything to worry about.
Everything was, for the most part, going according to plan. Not even the Doncic trade was too astounding.
Only then, at No. 7, did we enter Porter range.
Wendell Carter to the Chicago Bulls. Collin Sexton at No. 8 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kevin Knox at No. 9 to the New York Knicks. Mikal Bridges, later traded to the Suns, at No. 10 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Something was off.
Aaand, wow. Could Porter actually land outside the lottery?
A back injury limited him to three appearances at Missouri, and his recent brush with hip spasms was no bueno. But, like, damn. He was a near-consensus top-three pick fewer than eight months ago. Now, here he was, on draft night, waiting on the Denver Nuggets to determine whether he even qualified as lottery talent anymore.
The Nuggets picked Porter at No. 14, the final lottery selection, in what was a genius gamble, backed by a swell of good fortune, by a team ideally positioned to take it.
In a vacuum, yes, Denver stepped out on a limb. A 53-minute sample size isn't a lot to go on—especially when the returns weren't good:
Projecting Porter's future is impossible without knowing whether he has a clean bill of health. Teams were clearly scared of his prognosis. He wouldn't have plunged to No. 14 otherwise. The Athletic's Michael Scotto reported the Sixers considered using Markelle Fultz and their Nos. 10 and 26 picks to trade into the top five with the intention of drafting Porter, but his back chased them away.
And yet, that Philly thought about this scenario even for a second—even for a fraction of a second—says it all.
Porter is the kind of player who makes you think—who makes you want to ignore the warning signs in favor of the potential reward. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman had him going to Chicago at No. 7 in his final mock draft. Porter only recently dropped out of the top 10 for ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony.
Consider what The Stepien's Cole Zwicker wrote in November, just a week-and-a-half before Porter suffered his trajectory-derailing setback:
"Porter Jr. is perhaps the best wing/combo-forward scoring prospect to enter the draft since Kevin Durant a decade ago. He isn't Durant, lacking that combination of handle and generational off-the-dribble shooting (along with plus length), but he's a notch above everyone else as a shooter especially. Porter Jr. might be best utilized in a Paul George type role as primarily a gravity shooter off pin-downs and screens with his size, but there might be more handling upside if he shows comfort here at Missouri. Right now Porter Jr. is best approached with an open mind as a tight-space handler and defender. If he shows both, he looks like the favorite to challenge Doncic for No. 1 pick honors."
Denver nabbed this guy 14th. Think about that. Fourteenth. This was a pick the Nuggets were expected to use in a salary dump, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t Denver Stiffs' Ryan Blackburn). And they turned it into a player deemed borderline transcendent when he's at full strength.
All of Porter's functional concerns remain. He won't create high-quality looks off the dribble right away. His handle is too awkward. He's not viewed as a ready-made playmaker; it could be a while before he's captaining pick-and-rolls.
The Nuggets shouldn't care. They don't need Porter to be an alpha scorer or primary ball-handler. They have Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray to shoulder those workloads. Porter instead enters the NBA with the freedom to develop a general feel off the ball.
Deploying Porter in a similar capacity should work. He will terrorize defenses in transition if he doesn't settle for jumpers, and he has the release point and speed to make the most of his catch-and-fire looks.
Convincing Porter to buy into accessory duty could be tough. He's someone teams are supposed to build entire attacks around. By his own words, he's itching to disprove his draft-night plunge:
Grooming him for more responsibility without compromising the offense's well-established rhythm will be key. The Nuggets have the room to do it. Letting him headline bench-heavy units for brief spells would cater to both his learning curve and ego.
Things will get tight if Denver re-signs Will Barton. But he fancies himself a starter. Promote him, and the second unit could be Porter's to run, beside potentially Wilson Chandler (player option). Or Barton could leave altogether, in which case staggering their minutes won't be an issue.
Maybe that won't even matter. Maybe Porter's offensive involvement won't be an issue at all. Jokic has a way of keeping everybody happy, and the Nuggets' other main ball-handlers (Murray, Millsap) are not the self-serving kind.
Porter's defensive fit figures to be more of a dilemma—and that puts it strongly. If Porter is healthy, his vitals will take care of the rest. He's 6'10" but moves with the gait of a swingman or wing—smooth, not explosive. His length and fair-weather quickness will get him by against 2s, 3s and 4s. He should only be a liability when chasing around larger wings and fringe bigs with Adonis builds.
Indeed, almost everything is blue skies and rainbows on draft night. The relative unknown begets optimism. But then prospects take the floor, and then they play games, and then things are subject to change.
Denver may look back at this as a gamble that didn't pan out. It will be years before Porter's arc allows for a sweeping verdict, but it could happen. And you know what? It wouldn't matter. The Nuggets will be fine.
They finished one de facto play-in victory shy of the playoffs last season. A healthier Millsap would get them over that hump in 2018-19. Their cap sheet isn't great, but three of their four best players will be under 25 when next season tips off: Harris (24), Jokic (23) and Jamal Murray (21). And now they have a soon-to-be 20-year-old Porter—at a discounted rate even by rookie-scale standards:
End-of-lottery selections aren't supposed to be franchise cornerstones. Porter might be. Opportunities like this don't come along often, if at all. The Nuggets' long-term outlook was bright enough before. It could be blinding now.
Whatever happens, they can't lose.