Opinion: Nuggets relying on Michael Porter Jr., but rookie’s journey has share of growing pains

In early January, the Denver Nuggets arrived in Washington, D.C., with rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. showing why he was such a regarded prospect in 2018.

He had scored 25 points in 23 minutes on 11-of-12 shooting against Indiana on Jan. 2. But two nights later he had just seven points in 12 minutes against the Wizards in a game in which Denver needed defense that Porter couldn’t provide.

The reverse scenario played out in Denver’s first two restart games. Nuggets coach Mike Malone needed more from Porter defensively in the team’s 125-105 loss to Miami and received a much better two-way effort in Denver’s 121-113 overtime victory against Oklahoma City. He scored a career-high 37 points, collected 12 rebounds and Denver outscored the Thunder by 25 points while he was on the court.

He became the first rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to record at least 35 points and 10 rebounds while shooting at 75 percent or better from the field. It underscores what has been building for this moment all season: the Nuggets need Porter, just 22, at his best if they want to make a deep playoff run.

“He was outstanding, obviously,” Malone said. “… my biggest disappointment with Michael in the Miami game was the rebounding. He had one rebound in that game. We’ve all grown accustomed to see Michael rebounding at an elite level, and tonight he did that. That’s who he is. He’s got tremendous size, length, he can score the ball, he’s got soft touch, he does so in a very efficient manner, but he can also rebound at a very high level, and tonight we saw all those things put together.”

There was a scene in that Miami game during a timeout where Malone clearly was not happy with Porter. The Nuggets are shorthanded, playing without starters Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton, and they are in danger of losing control of the third seed in the Western Conference. Porter's importance is even more significant.

Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. during a January game. (Photo: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports)

Following the Heat game, Porter sent Malone three texts, imploring the demanding coach to stick with him.

“I just told him that I knew I could bring a lot more,” Porter said. “I didn’t bring the energy and I didn’t bring the effort and enthusiasm the last game. And that can never be the case. I just told him that I know that. And especially with Jamal and Gary and Will out, I got to be a guy that steps up and kind of takes on more of a role. I told him that I understand that and that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Said Malone: “I said, ‘Michael, I’m not going anywhere, I’m going (to) stay with you. You’re a hell of a young player, and you’re going to continue to grow.’ ”

That growth hasn’t been without problems. Porter’s minutes fluctuated, especially in the first few months of the season.

“The greatest challenge with Michael Porter is, for me, as a rookie, the game is moving way too fast for him,” Malone said in January. “How do you remedy that? He’s got to play. When you have the expectations that we have as a team to develop (a) young player but to win at a high level is always a challenge.

“It’s a catch-22. These minutes that he’s getting, the start the other night, 25 in Indianapolis, those are all going to allow him, come April and the playoffs, for the game to be slowing down, see things, be comfortable out there and really just start playing instead of reacting and thinking everywhere. That’s what I saw the other night against the Pacers. He was just out there hoopin’ and when he’s out there hoopin’ good things happen.”

Malone doesn’t have time to manage that challenge now. He has to be all-in on Porter, who hasn’t had the easiest time in the NBA.

He entered the league with a back injury from college that required surgery. The Nuggets drafted him 14th, a great find at that spot considering he had top-five talent. But few teams in those draft slots were willing to take a chance on a player who was a medical red-flag and unlikely to play in 2018-19.

But the Nuggets were in that position, given their veteran team, and Porter had to rehab, sit, watch and learn.

“It didn’t exactly go the way I wanted it to but nothing does. If you have faith, I think everything you go through is for good,” Porter told USA TODAY Sports in an interview earlier this season. “I learned how to become a stronger person. Basketball wasn’t there. I needed that time off from basketball to prepare me for my career in the NBA.”

There’s been mild frustration with Porter off the court, too, as recently as last week when on Instagram Live he espoused an anti-vaccination stance and intimated COVID-19 was about population control. The Nuggets talked with him while saying publicly Porter is entitled to his opinion.

The Nuggets would prefer to talk about his performance on the court, as long as it’s like the game he had Monday.

Follow USA TODAY Sports NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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