Dribble right? Swish. Dribble left? Swish. Step back? Swish. Pull up? Swish. Fake your man in the air like you just don’t care? Swish.
For the past 17 days, it’s like MPJ never left. Good MPJ. Franchise MPJ. Max contract MPJ. Functional, pain-free MPJ. Swish, swish, swish, swish.
“He looks good,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray offered Tuesday, just before boarding Denver’s charter for a season-opening trip to Utah, when asked about teammate Michael Porter Jr. “He’s making shots, he’s getting there on defense, being in the spots (where) he needs to do more, especially as (the) low man. Once we get out there together, trading up shots with each other, we’ll look fine.”
For most of the past three weeks, MPJ has looked better than fine. He’s looked as if somebody hopped into a time machine and portaled April 2021 Michael Porter straight into October 2022.
Over five preseason appearances, the Nuggets’ 6-foot-10 wing averaged 14 points and 2.6 3-point makes over 19.3 minutes per game.
More importantly, the former Mizzou standout flashed a quicker release and no apparent ill effects from the back surgery — his second such procedure since being drafted by Denver in 2018 — that he underwent late last fall. And he did it while nearly putting up an All-Star-level shooting clip of 50% on field goals, 48.1% on treys, and 83.3% on free throws.
Picture an offense that has two guys on the perimeter who can make it rain at 50% (field goals)/+40% (3-pointers)/+90% (on free throws), taking feeds from two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, the straw that stirs the drink, and it’s easy to figure out why the Nuggets are a sleeper pick — if they stay healthy — to crash the NBA’s Western Conference finals.
And it’s even easier to see why Porter is on most sports books’ shortlists for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award in 2023.
You down with that, Jamal?
“(I’ve) been down with that,” the Nuggets point guard chuckled. “(I’ve) been down with that.”
And he’s not the only one. The Action Network’s Brandon Anderson early Tuesday posted a breakdown of the past 10 NBA Most Improved Player Award winners, and found a few near-universal truths, namely:
• Of those 10, seven were playing in their third or fourth NBA season. (Porter is entering his fourth.)
• Eight were 25 years old or younger. (Porter turns 25 next June.)
• Nine played on teams that reached the postseason. (Barring aliens landing a spaceship on top of Ball Arena and using a tractor beam to kidnap Jokic, that feels like a fairly safe assumption.)
• Put up an average season line of 21 points per game, six boards per game and 4.5 assists per game, and improved in all three major counting stats over the season prior.
Basketball-Reference.com’s projection for MPJ’s regular season? A line of 19.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 1.8 apg — with the first two numbers a considerable improvement over last year’s 9.9 ppg and 6.6 rpg, respectively.
“(For) Michael, I mean, obviously, (it’s about) being available,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth said recently. “And in Michael’s case, if he is healthy, is he running the way he should run? Is he rebounding the way he should rebound? Is he giving (effort) on 1-on-1 defense? He’s a tough-shot taker, a tough-shot maker, but every now and then, how do you move without the ball?
“We want Michael to be himself. But there’s some definite areas (where) you have to prove it.”
In this league, ain’t no ability like availability.
“You definitely want to be smart,” MPJ said recently. “But I think that that time comes from the recovery, doing the stuff you do on the court. I don’t think skipping games is the way to save your body. I mean, you’ve got to respect the game. You should play when you can play and help your team win as many games as possible.”
Five preseason games down, most signs are pointing in the right direction. But the real test, the real grind, starts Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
#MPJ4MIP? Et tu, Joker?
“We will see,” Jokic replied Tuesday. “He played good in the preseason, so hopefully, (he’s) going to continue to play like that.”
Cue another Joker grin. And another Joker dig.
“I don’t expect him to be as bad as Jamal.”
It’s not just a hashtag. It’s a mission.