Michael Porter Jr. Reminding NBA How Good He and the Nuggets Can Be

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2020

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 02:  Michael Porter Jr #1 of the Denver Nuggets dribbles the ball during the game against the  Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on January 02, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana.    NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Years from now, the 2018 NBA draft class may be one of those groups we look back on with reverence.

In his second season, Luka Doncic is close to averaging a 30-point triple-double. Trae Young isn't far behind in points and assists. Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have all shown flashes of immense potential. A handful of others look like they'll have long and fruitful careers.

Around three years ago, when many of those players were in the college-recruitment process, Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. was ranked ahead of almost all of them. And over his last four games—particularly Thursday's, when his 25 points helped secure a 124-116 win over the Indiana Pacers—he's reminding everyone of his elite pedigree.

"Porter's talent would have been in demand in any era, but he feels uniquely suited for the way the game has been trending recently," Ricky O'Donnell wrote for SB Nation back in 2017. "He's the type of versatile, hybrid forward every team wants but so few have."

"A face-up scorer with shot-making skills, takeover potential and vision, Porter plays an offensive game that's easy on the eyes," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "Bigs won't fare well against his perimeter shooting or off-the-dribble attack, and wings can't match his size."

247 Sports and ESPN both had him as their No. 2 prospect. Rivals had him at No. 1.

Then, an injury-plagued freshman campaign at Missouri changed everything for a player who had legitimate aspirations for No. 1-pick-in-the-draft status.

The Nuggets capitalized on his slide, snagging him with the 14th pick after each team ahead of them worried about lingering back issues. For Denver, the health concerns weren't as alarming. It was going to be good with or without Porter.

If he never got right, he would be a failed end-of-the-lottery pick, and those selections already don't have high return rates. If he fulfilled his potential, however, he would elevate a team that was already strong.

Thursday night, it looked very much like the latter was happening.

His touch in the paint was phenomenal. His confidence from outside the three-point line, particularly on a second-half step-back, was the kind you see from a superstar.

His shot chart looked like a great night from a modern center:

Michael Porter Jr. on January 2, 2020.
Michael Porter Jr. on January 2, 2020.NBA.com/stats

After his only miss, he quickly scurried to a tap-out from Mason Plumlee and hit a pull-up jumper just inside the free-throw line. In the second quarter, he hit a catch-and-shoot three with a hand in his face. Toward the end of the third quarter, when he really started to take over, he scored in a variety of ways:

Fastbreak Breakfast @fastbreakbreak

Michael Porter Jr is currently doing things. On consecutive possessions: a dunk, a wild reverse layup, then a step back 3 https://t.co/U3zOmpSMBx

The confidence to even take that step-back is big. It gave the Nuggets the lead with just over two minutes left in the third quarter. The Pacers briefly reclaimed it twice before the fourth, but the momentum had been seized. And MPJ was the one who did the seizing.

Hook shots, runners, reverse layups, step-back threes, pull-ups in the mid-range. There weren't many deliveries Porter didn't display against Indiana. 

As Pacers play-by-play commentator Chris Denari said in the fourth, "He's got all the shots."

What's most encouraging here is that Porter broke out on one of Nikola Jokic's off nights. Through three quarters, the first-team All-NBA center had 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting. He spent much of the first half in foul trouble.

Over the years, Denver's offense has been reliant and often influenced by its mercurial star. In the past, a three-quarter funk on the road against a solid team would mean a loss. But Porter picking up the slack until Jokic was able to get going (the big man had 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the fourth) adds a new and scary dimension to this team.

"Michael Porter Jr. is ballin," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote. "He's young but blends seasoned skill, size and speed. Playing with confidence too taking and making complex shots. Scores from all over. Helps the Nuggets now and if he blossoms he'll raise Denver's ceiling for years to come."

The Nuggets were already a deep team without MPJ. Jokic is a top-10 talent. Jamal Murray has that killer instinct you need in a playoff game. Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton all contribute on both ends of the floor (yes, Barton has been a plus defender this season).

Porter is the wild card.

Denver has a good offensive track record when playing Jokic with a stretch 4, and Porter is showing he can be that and more. Over his last four games, he's averaging 15.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 19.7 minutes per night. He's 26-of-35 (74.3 percent) from the field.

He won't play at this level for the rest of the season, but now we know it's there.

And while the Nuggets may still fall short of the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets when stacking up top duos, their complete roster, elevated by the rising Porter, is one that can win a title.

While his 2018 draft classmates were getting their feet wet last season, MPJ was patiently biding his time. Now he's very much a part of two races: Denver's chase for the title and his own personal comeback against his peers.

Basketball Hall of Famer and New York Times columnist, Harvey Araton, joins "The Full 48 with Howard Beck" to discuss the life, career and legacy of former NBA Commissioner David Stern.