Denver Nuggets X-Factor: Michael Porter Jr.

As the NBA season approaches and the preseason comes to an end, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their full potential.

For the Denver Nuggets, the goal is to breakthrough in the loaded Western Conference after one conference finals and two conference semifinal trips in the last three seasons. They have the reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic and, at some point, hope to have Jamal Murray back at full strength later in the season. Murray’s health coming back from an ACL tear and when he can return is a considerable question mark, but assuming he is back for the playoffs and back to his usual self, then so much of the Nuggets hopes of rising above the rest of the West’s elite falls on the shoulders of Michael Porter Jr.

Last season saw MPJ breakout to the tune of 19 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on 54.2/44.5/79.1 shooting splits, as he put his considerable scoring talent on display from all areas of the floor. The next step for Porter Jr. to take is being able to more consistently impact games in a positive way, whether he’s scoring a lot or not. Part of that is being more steady as a scorer. He can be a bit streaky, and when Murray returns and takes away a few more touches per game, it will be even more important for him to be able to stay engaged and be able to be a consistent contributor in big games, not just serving as a microwave who can heat up and go on a personal 10-0 run. Porter Jr. is certainly capable of making that leap, but it’s the step in his development at the NBA level that will determine if this year he can be that third star to elevate Denver above the rest of the West’s elite.

On top of continuing to harness his considerable offensive talent, there is still work to do defensively to avoid the lapses that have at times driven coach Michael Malone mad. MPJ can get caught ball-watching and isn’t always as crisp with his rotations as he needs to be, and the attention to detail as a team defender — because the flashes are there as an on-ball defender given his length — is the type of thing that separates real contenders. He’s not alone in that regard in Denver, but given his stature as a hopeful superstar, taking that step into being even a neutral team defender, much less anything of a positive, would be a significant gain for the Nuggets.

The talent is there for the Nuggets, it’s about how it all fits together and whether they have enough balance on both ends of the floor to overtake teams like the Lakers and Suns, but if Porter Jr. continues his ascension into the superstar level, there is a real chance for them to cause anyone problems.