DENVER – Michael Porter Jr. often reminded himself to remain patient as the Denver Nuggets gradually eased him back onto the court.
Being patient, though, hasn’t always been his forte. He’s a 21-year-old, highly touted player eager to show how he can contribute in the NBA. He is feeling good these days, too, after sitting out last season as a result of back problems.
Porter led Nathan Hale High School of Seattle to the Class 3A state championship in 2017. He went to Missouri to play college ball but had back surgery in November 2017 that limited him to 53 minutes over three games for the Tigers.
Because of the health issue, Porter — once considered a potential No. 1 pick — slipped to No. 14 in the first round of the 2018 draft and had another surgery in July 2018.
Recently, more and more playing time has arrived for the player dubbed “MPJ” — a trend that figures to go up and up. Porter said he completely understands why coach Michael Malone is carefully fitting him into an already deep lineup. A healthy Porter might be the piece the Nuggets need in a loaded Western Conference.
“Coach is doing the right thing bringing me along slowly,” the 6-foot-10 forward with the smooth outside shot and explosive first step said. “But, yeah, it’s hard to stay patient.”
Porter is a self-described perfectionist. He’s trying to curb that trait a bit — for his own well-being. He tries not to let missed shots travel home with him at night.
“That perfectionist and those expectations, you have to throw those out the window,” said Porter, whose team is 30-13 and trails only the Los Angeles Lakers in the West. “You can still work really, really hard and want to be the best. But you’ve got to learn to be even-keeled.”
Porter watched from the bench as Denver finished second in the West last season. He impressed teammates, though, in workout sessions during his recovery.
“You can see he has a gift,” center Nikola Jokic said last spring.
Porter was scheduled to suit up during the Summer League in Las Vegas. But those plans were halted after he injured his knee.
More patience required.
To start the regular season, Porter was a “DNP” — did not play — in four games before making his pro debut Oct. 31 at New Orleans.
He had 15 points in slightly less than 21 minutes, a glimpse of what might be in store.
On Monday, Porter had 20 points and 14 rebounds in Denver’s 107-100 victory at Minnesota.
There were previous flashes: A 25-point performance on 11-for-12 shooting at Indiana on Jan. 2. Or erupting for 11 of his 19 points in the second quarter against Charlotte on Wednesday. Or following that up Thursday at Golden State by scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
“He’s only going to get better and better,” Malone said. “The challenge is to do it every night.”
Porter’s minutes have fluctuated throughout the season. In his last five games, he averaged 16 points on 55.8% shooting and 8.8 rebounds.
He tries to have a fun-loving attitude.
“When I’m trying to be all serious and stuff, I don’t play good,” said Porter, who is making a reported $3.39 million this season. “When I go out there and my mindset is to have fun and can play free and play my game, then I’m feeling way more comfortable.”
The Nuggets might require Porter to step up more, with Paul Millsap (bruised knee), Gary Harris (groin) and Jamal Murray (sprained left ankle) all banged up.
“I’ve been really impressed with him,” teammate Will Barton said of Porter. “There are going to be ups and downs for him. He’s still learning how to play the NBA game. But his future is very bright.”
Porter recently earned high praise from analyst Charles Barkley on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”
“I think Michael Porter is the second-best player on that team,” Barkley said on the broadcast.
“What, today?” TNT colleague Kenny Smith responded.
“No, by the end of the season he’s going to be the second-best player,” Barkley said, placing Porter behind only Jokic.
Smith pointed out Porter needed to build his way up to playing, say, 35 minutes a game after his injury.
“I’m just saying,” Barkley responded. “He’s going to have to become more. … He’s a game-changer.”
That’s the hope of the Nuggets, too.
Ditto for Porter, who feels he is in a good place for the second half of the season.
Above all, he’s having fun, which he reminded himself to do when he wasn’t playing much.
“You can never let basketball or anything else steal your joy,” Porter said. “Even when I’m not playing now, or I’m on the bench, you’ve still got to find a way to be happy.”