(Ed. note: All stats in this post are as of Friday, April 9, 2021)
Scoring efficiency is most commonly associated with true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, or whatever metric one prefers. All require nuance and context, to be sure, though none are the sole way to analyze such a term. Efficiency can arrive in varying forms of impact and value.
For Michael Porter Jr., playing alongside MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic means producing in a timely and succinct manner when he does have the ball is as paramount as providing actual scoring efficiency. Jokic leads the NBA in touches per game at 101.2, the first instance of someone eclipsing 100 since the NBA began tracking the stat 2013-14. He works from the post and elbows, surveying defenders and deciphering the optimal means of attack. The four teammates must maneuver around him, recognizing how to benefit themselves and the Nuggets from his basketball genius.
Although Jokic simplifies the offense for his cohorts, that does not necessarily make the game simple. Understanding how to thrive in a setting where one guy deservedly dominates time of possession can be challenging. Jamal Murray, for instance, has learned to do so quite well during his Denver tenure. In year two, Porter is following suit, all while commandeering on-ball reps far less frequently than Murray.
Solidifying himself as one of the league’s preeminent off-ball scorers, Porter rarely needs the ball in his hands to foster a footprint. Quickly emerging as the third scorer this team needs, he snugly fits into his role as a high-level cutter, long-range gunner, transition finisher (threes and at the rim), and put-back connoisseur, averaging 17 points on 65.7 percent true shooting (.541/.452/.759 split). Over the past 16 games, he’s been even better, averaging 21.2 points on 70.5 percent true shooting (.596/.531/.750 split). As a reminder, this is a 22-year-old with fewer than 100 games under his belt adapting to an off-ball gig after typically dominating the offense at lower levels.
Nearly 79 percent of his makes are assisted, 72.5 percent of his baskets come from touches lasting fewer than two seconds, and he’s ninth in the NBA in points per touch (.452). A glance at his Synergy profiles underscores his off-ball nature, with 80 percent of his play-type data being primarily quick-hitting actions.
With Jokic regularly drawing the rim protector away from the hoop by operating on the perimeter or at the elbows, Porter’s keen awareness empowers him to identify creases in the defenses. For Denver, the dunker spot is rarely clogged by a center’s presence, so he occupies it and offers the team an interior finishing threat on feeds from Jokic or slashes from wings/guards. A bouncy, 6’10 leaper, he excels around the rim because of his size, tools, and the space Jokic’s ethos affords him.
The former two traits reduce a defense’s margin for error in rotating to help and deter or alter shots when the second-year wing bolts inside. He’s large and quick off the ground, which is difficult to cover if you’re not priming for him. Between the cutting and offensive rebounding prowess (seven percent offensive rebounding rate, putting him in the 80th percentile, according to DunksAndThrees.com) Porter’s 71 percent clip at the rim (93rd percentile) is easily explainable.
Porter stretches his elite off-ball scoring beyond the arc, having drilled 44 percent of his 368 career triples. He spaces the floor from deep in a litany of ways, applying his size and elevated release point to launch over defenders as he pleases. This season, he’s hit 45.2 percent of his threes, including 49.7 percent(!) of his catch-and-shoot looks, which ranks third among 175 players with 100-plus attempts.
As a stationary sniper, his 6’10 frame and release point render him unbothered by closeouts. Smaller defenders do not stand a chance, while taller defenders even struggle to discourage or affect him. Pay attention to the penultimate clip here, in which Giannis Antetokounmpo is in range for a contest, albeit slightly hung up by a screen, and cannot dissuade Porter from firing and subsequently scoring because the ball is hoisted in a stratosphere unknown for the majority of big-time shooters.
The 6’10 forward isn’t confined to spot-up jumpers, either, and it’s part of what allows his shooting package to be so enticing and useful. He’ll relocate to openings around the arc — further evidence of his off-ball savvy — sprint into hand-offs with Jokic, or flow through screens for off-movement tries. Success isn’t contingent on maintaining balance; the tough shot-making gene he developed as a youngster extends to the NBA and helps amplify his shooting equity. Being a jumbo-sized spot-up guy certainly holsters utility, but there are many more avenues to deployment when someone of Porter’s stature is capable of diverse volume.
Jokic or Murray don’t always have to enact an advantage for a vacant passing outlet to Porter. He can shake free of his defender, while they simply dribble or direct the offense, and drill long balls like these.
It bears repeating that’s a 6’10 22-year-old engineering those shots. It’s assuredly a tantalizing compilation for what his future holds, but simultaneously mystifying in the present as the ball repeatedly rips through the net for 53 seconds. He’s weaving through screens, snaring hand-offs, and knocking down off-balance jumpers at a size that suggests he should be on the block and an age when many players are still just trying to stay afloat in the NBA.
Jokic and Murray are each talented tough shot-makers, too, but Porter merges some of their scoring artillery. He touts the graceful jumper of Murray and the towering height of Jokic (well, almost) to shoot over guys. His blossoming is a requisite complement to those two and helps facilitate Denver’s rise to the league’s third-ranked offense (117.0), half a point back of No. 1 Brooklyn.
While he isn’t a reliable self-creator (yet), there exists supreme worth in owning various ways to be set up by others in the Jokic-led ecosystem. If necessary, Porter can yield scoring opportunities during otherwise stagnant possessions or fulfill duties within the flow of an action via cutting, offensive rebounding, spot-ups, and hand-offs, capitalizing on each at a highly effective level. Jokic is the Nuggets’ nucleus and Porter has become a critical, versatile cog for them, ushering in stylistic variance to pose grand threats for opponents.
Defensively, he’s enjoyed significant strides this season, more frequently spending time at the 4 rather than the 3. This enhances his strengths — notably help-side rim protection — and mitigates his weaknesses. Because of stiff hips and a bit of general rigidity about him, he struggles in on-ball perimeter defense situations and navigating screens. Toggling between man and ball away from the actions is a weak point. By spending more time as a power forward, he is shouldered with fewer mental and physical responsibilities, particularly those that involve him in screens or outside the paint.
Help-side rim protection and rebounding, inarguably his greatest assets defensively, are within his domain more often at the 4. Per DunksAndThrees, he ranks in the 84th percentile in defensive rebounding rate (21 percent) and 80th percentile in block rate (2.9 percent). Although both hover around last year’s marks (24 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively), those tasks do not come at the expense of other defensive requirements to the lengths they might’ve in 2019-20.
This shift in defensive emphases is illuminated by his Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus rising from minus-1.6 last season to minus-0.7 this season. He has a role catering to his talents that aims to mask his deficiencies and emboldens plays such as these.
Forging a path toward defensive neutrality remains on the to-do list, and you can pinpoint areas where he can grow pretty easily: The aforementioned shortcomings still rear their head more than is ideal, watching him try to wiggle around screens is a frustrating endeavor, and mental multitasking can overwhelm him. But he’s in a context that reduces those scenarios and shines a light on his merits. To his credit, the defensive motor has revved up this season as well. Given the offensive juice and malleability he’s showcasing, this progress from year one to two is optimistic and acceptable.
The Nuggets have rattled off seven consecutive wins following the acquisition of Aaron Gordon. They’re fourth in the West, a game back of second, and fifth overall in net rating (plus-5.5). Their starting five harmonizes in a manner possibly unmatched around the Association. That concordance begins with Jokic, but is perhaps best exemplified by Porter, cast as an ideal third banana offensively and discovering life is easier defensively when your virtues are maximized.
The future is sterling for him, but the Nuggets certainly won’t be caught up in that because they’re well aware of just how bright the present is for everyone in the Mile High City.