The Denver Nuggets are led by Nikola Jokic, whose all-around game has him near the front of the pack of MVP candidates. His basketball accomplice most nights is Jamal Murray, a high-scoring guard who can get buckets in waves off the dribble, in catch-and-shoot situations or at the rim.
But when it comes to what will move the Nuggets from contenders to potential champions, one name comes to mind for rival executives: Michael Porter Jr.
"It's Jokic and Jamal's team, obviously," a Western Conference executive said. "But the Porter kid ... he's really confident. We all know he's a really good player, a good scorer. But lately, he's backing up that confidence with some really strong play that's gonna pay off for both him and the Nuggets."
That strong play continued Tuesday night with 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting (3-of-4 from three) and seven rebounds in a 134-119 win over the Detroit Pistons. Porter Jr.'s play has been a major factor in Denver's recent run of late and has catapulted the Nuggets into the top tier of the Western Conference with the Jazz, Suns, Clippers and defending champion Lakers.
Porter Jr., a 6'10" forward, is delivering the kind of production that made him one of the top high school prospects a few years ago, who as a teenager had gained the admiration of already established NBA stars such as Stephen Curry.
However, a back injury sidelined him for all but three games in his lone season at Missouri followed by the entire 2018-19 NBA season after Denver selected him with the 14th overall pick.
He also raised some eyebrows during Denver's run toward the Western Conference Finals last season when he voiced concerns about the Nuggets being too predictable offensively in relying so heavily on Jokic and Murray.
"That was not one of his best moments," an Eastern Conference scout texted.
Porter Jr. has kept the focus on basketball these days, displaying the kind of all-around game offensively that gives credence to scouts who believed, if healthy, Porter Jr. would have been a serious contender to be selected with the top overall pick in 2018.
In 40 games this season, Porter Jr. is averaging 16.9 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 45.4 percent from deep. He's upped his court time to 30 minutes per night, nearly doubling the 16.4 minutes he logged per game a year ago.
"With that kind of size, length and shooting touch, he's perfectly built for today's NBA," the Eastern Conference scout added.
The timing of Porter Jr.'s ascension could not be any better, with the 22-year-old eligible this offseason for his first contract extension.
Dallas' Luka Doncic and Atlanta's Trae Young are no-brainers when it comes to being offered rookie-scale max extensions this offseason. The only question is whether they will get a max offer worth $163 million over five years or whether they'll qualify for the supermax extension that would tack on an additional $32 million over the same five-year period.
Rival executives anticipate Porter Jr.'s next deal will fall somewhere between a regular max extension and the four-year, $115 million deal Jaylen Brown signed with the Celtics in 2019.
The addition of Aaron Gordon (and his team-friendly contract, which descends in value to $16.4 million next season) at the trade deadline certainly provided a wrinkle of sorts to Porter Jr.'s future with the Nuggets.
It's not surprising that the arrival of Gordon, whose size, length and versatility mirrors that of Porter Jr., has had an impact on his play.
But it hasn't been what many anticipated.
Porter Jr. hasn't just embraced the change—he's thrived.
In his first four games played with Gordon (all wins), Porter Jr. averaged 20.5 points on 32-of-53 shooting to go with 9.5 rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot per game—all better than his numbers in those respective categories prior to the trade.
"We love him out there; just defensively we're just so long and versatile," Porter Jr. said shortly after Gordon's arrival. "And then we can just run the floor. [We have] so many different weapons. It feels like I'm just looking at my twin out there, so it's just cool to have another dude like that out there on the wing with me. We're just so interchangeable at the 3 and the 4—it's fun."
That interchangeability, especially on offense, has allowed Porter Jr. to thrive in doing what he does best: score the basketball.
This season, Porter Jr. has connected on 47.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities, according to NBA.com. In the first four games following the trade for Gordon, that number rose to 62.5 percent.
And because Gordon has taken on the challenge of guarding the opposing team's better scorer at the small forward or power forward position, that too has allowed the Nuggets to be better when Porter Jr. is on the floor.
Entering Tuesday's game vs. Detroit, Denver was a plus-5.5 when Porter Jr. is on the floor, a noticeable jump from last season (plus-0.4). In the first four games following the trade, his plus-minus jumped to plus-11.3.
Porter Jr. is also shooting 45.4 percent on three-pointers this season, unheard of for a player so young. In fact, according to Sportradar, no one has ever made 45 percent of his three (with at least one made attempt per game) in his age-22 season.
Indeed, Porter Jr.'s talent and growth have been key to Denver's rise in the NBA rankings. Just as important, they provide hope that the Nuggets can make a second consecutive trip to the Western Conference Finals—or beyond—this year.