Is Rockets' 20-Year-Old Phenom Kevin Porter Jr. a Future Superstar?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2021

Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. (3) reacts after making a basket during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Houston. (Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)
Troy Taormina/Associated Press

Five days shy of his 21st birthday, Kevin Porter Jr. smashed a record previously held by LeBron James.

In 41 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, KPJ went for 50 points on 16-of-26 shooting (including 9-of-15 on threes) and dished out 11 assists.

According to NBA History, he became the youngest player to notch a 50-10 game by over two years.

NBA History @NBAHistory

Kevin Porter Jr. (50 PTS, 11 AST) is the youngest player in NBA history (20 years, 360 days) with 50+ points and 10+ assists in a game. LeBron James (50 PTS, 10 AST on March 5, 2008) was the youngest previously, at 23 years, 66 days. https://t.co/HT3lWmxA6r

Milwaukee lost reigning Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo to an injury in the opening minutes, but that shouldn't diminish what Porter was able to do.

The bulk of his damage came against Jrue Holiday, who ranks in the top 10 among guards in defensive estimated plus-minus and likely would've defended Porter either way.

The 20-year-old guard was 7-of-11 against Holiday, 4-of-5 against P.J. Tucker, 3-of-6 against Brook Lopez and 1-of-2 when defended by Khris Middleton.

Whether it was guards, forwards or bigs, it didn't matter who the primary defender was. Porter was dropping jumpers on everyone the Bucks put in front of him (11 of his makes came from outside the paint).

One could watch that highlight reel and wonder about sustainability. Was this just an absurdly hot shooting night? Will the memory of this performance fade with time, like the random 50-point outbursts of Tony Delk, Andre Miller or Corey Brewer? Or are there some distinguishing factors?

The obvious one is age. The list of players who dropped 50 before turning 21 is LeBron (who has a very real GOAT argument), Devin Booker (a two-time All-Star) and Brandon Jennings (the example that might temper expectations).

Pouring in this many points at Porter's age is exceptionally rare, regardless of how they're scored.

His career shooting numbers—43.5 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from three and 74.3 percent from the line—suggest this might've been an outlier, but there's plenty of time to work on consistency. And Rockets coach Stephen Silas says it's a priority.

Salman Ali @SalmanAliNBA

Stephen Silas credits John Lucas for working with Kevin Porter Jr. on his 3-PT shot up to three times a week. "To see the hard work that he puts in pay off was great." https://t.co/QU8dLyFXV2

The more significant distinguisher for Porter might be his playmaking. He had 11 assists in his 50-point explosion. None were spectacular, but a handful showed his feel off ball screens. And this number seems to have much lower outlier potential.

This was Porter's fourth game of double-digit assists this season. He's averaging 6.4, another mark that puts him in good company.

Luka Doncic, LeBron, Magic Johnson, Stephon Marbury, Ja Morant, Isiah Thomas and Trae Young are the only players in league history who matched or exceeded Porter's 2020-21 marks for points and assists per game in an age-20 (or younger) season.

At 6'4", Porter isn't as big as Doncic, James or Johnson, but he has solid size for a 1, and it helps him see the floor in a way smaller guards can't.

Many of his assists are of the "survey and hit the right target" variety, rather than "drive, draw and dish." That doesn't mean he can't do the latter, but the quarterbacking style takes most some time to develop. That Porter is showing it in his second season may be as intriguing as his 50-point night.

Going forward, lineups piloted by Porter and anchored by Christian Wood could be difficult to stop. The guard's ability to read coverages will continue to improve, especially with a big who can do damage as either a pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll threat.

With both under contract through 2022-23 (when Houston has a team option on Porter), there is ample time to develop chemistry. Finding good fits alongside those two, as Jae'Sean Tate appears to be, should be the next priority.

The elephant in this room is the off-court questions that have followed Porter.

Criticism over his recent $50,000 fine for violating the league's health and safety protocols shouldn't be made without the proper context. According to The Athletic's Shams Charania and Kelly Iko, Porter defended teammate Sterling Brown from an assault by unnamed assailants.

It's not hard to imagine the resulting fine outlasts the rest of the story, though. For athletes, especially those with past off-court issues, the negative spin is hard to avoid.

When he was at USC, Porter was suspended for "personal conduct issues." Last offseason, he was arrested on a gun charge and accused of punching a woman in the face. A month into this season, he directed a locker room outburst at Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman when recently acquired Taurean Prince was given his locker.

All told, he became more than Cleveland was willing to deal with, and it traded him to Houston for a 2024 second-round pick, essentially giving him away.

If Porter can succeed with the Rockets, he'll be far from the first NBA redemption story. Time and a change of scenery did wonders for Zach Randolph, and a similar path isn't out of the question for Porter.

He has star-level talent, which was evident as early as his freshman year in college. In November 2018, Bleacher Report draft expert Jonathan Wasserman pegged Porter as a possible top-five talent.

Plenty has happened between then and now, but Thursday was a strong reminder of Porter's ceiling.

He can be one of the game's most productive playmakers. He can be an explosive jump-shooter. He can lead the post-James Harden Rockets to successful basketball.

With his level of talent, it's up to him whether he will.