DENVER (AP) — All those smooth-looking, long-range jumpers Michael Porter Jr. hits have definitely been a reward for Denver.
Easy to forget just how much of a risk he was early on for the Nuggets.
They rolled the dice at No. 14 in the 2018 draft on a 6-foot-10 forward with a balky back to go with a tremendous set of skills. He’s gone through three back procedures since college and missed basically two of his five NBA seasons, but still showed enough flashes of talent to earn a max extension.
Without taking that gamble on Porter, the Nuggets might not be here, starting their first NBA Finals on Thursday night with a 104-93 win over Miami. He’s become their X factor — the third part of a hard-to-contain trio that also includes Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Porter had 14 points and 12 rebounds against the Heat.
“It’s just cool looking back on the journey,” said Porter, who turns 25 on June 29. “You try not to spend too much time looking back right now, just stay focused on getting this ring. But you’ve got to take moments to just look back.”
Rewind a few years: Porter was a senior at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle and learning from a coach who wasn’t just a coach. This was former NBA All-Star guard Brandon Roy — someone who had been in the league and done the things Porter was hoping to do.
“He really helped me take my game to the next level,” Porter said.
A top recruit, he chose Missouri. It was home, with Porter growing up in Columbia. His brother, Jontay, joined him at Missouri. His dad was added to the staff after coaching at the University of Washington.
But his time with the Tigers was cut short by his ailing back. Two minutes into his inaugural college game, he went out. He later underwent microdiscectomy surgery to fix herniated discs but made it back for the SEC Tournament — a loss to Georgia — and then the NCAA Tournament, where the Tigers fell to Florida State.
Despite his back issues, the Nuggets selected him in a draft that included Deandre Ayton (No. 1), Luka Doncic (No. 3) and Trae Young (No. 5).
Porter missed his first season in Denver after undergoing another back procedure. The following year, he showed what he could do in the 2020 NBA bubble when the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2020-21, he averaged 19 points in the regular season over 61 games.
Last season, though, brought another road block for Porter and his back. After nine games, he was shut down for a third surgery.
On the sideline with him was Murray, who was coming back from a torn ACL. Watching Porter work in rehab made Murray appreciate the accomplishments of Porter in these playoffs all the more.
Porter is averaging 14.6 points and 8.3 rebounds through the playoffs, while also holding his own on the defensive end of the floor. He had two blocked shots against Miami.
“He’s done amazing,” Murray said. “Just playing a more complete game throughout the game.”
Porter also has been dealing with serious family matters.
Earlier this year, younger brother Coban, a basketball player at the University of Denver, was charged with felony counts of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault stemming from a suspected drunken-driving crash that killed a 42-year-old woman. Coban Porter has a status conference and a preliminary hearing scheduled for Tuesday in Denver. Game 3 is Wednesday in Miami.
Anytime Porter needs advice or feedback on his game, he rings up his mentor Roy.
“He definitely means the world to me,” said Porter, who signed a five-year deal in 2021 worth up to $207 million. “He was my coach in high school, so he sees kind of how my game has evolved since my injuries and things.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has seen Porter’s unabashed confidence steadily returning.
“When you’re not healthy and you can’t move and do the things that you’re accustomed to doing, that really makes it hard to go out there and be confident in your game and what you’re able to do,” Malone said. “He’s in a very good place right now.”
And now, Porter loathes being taken out of games. He’s known to shoot assistant coach Ryan Saunders a mean stare when a sub replaces him.
“Like, ‘I can’t believe you’re taking me out,’” Malone recounted. “He’s closed a lot of games for us lately because he’s 6-10, he’s defending well and he’s rebounding at a high level. He’s confident, he’s aggressive and he’s had a huge impact on this team.”
Porter keeps a gratefulness journal. Just little reminders he’s taken to heart: Stay hungry. Keep working. Never let up. Reflect.
“To get back here and be competitive in a playoff series, man, it’s a great feeling,” Porter said. “Especially considering everything I’ve been through.”