Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr.’s health, and what to expect when he makes his Summer League debut

If there was a silver-lining to Michael Porter Jr.’s redshirt rookie season, it’s that he got a graduate course in NBA lifestyle without having to take the exams.

Denver’s prized first-round pick of 2018 was exposed to the demanding travel and reaped the benefits of NBA coaching and trainers. But unlike the other rookies in his class, Porter Jr. soaked in the experience from the bench, watching in dress clothes as his teammates flourished into a Western Conference contender. After months of anticipation and viral glimpses of his talent, Porter Jr. is expected to make his professional debut at Las Vegas Summer League in July.

The biggest question surrounding Porter Jr. is his health. Weeks after the Nuggets pounced on Porter Jr. with the No. 14 pick, he underwent a second back surgery in eight months. The first was a microdiscectomy while at Missouri; the second was on his lumbar spine last July.

The Nuggets never planned on him playing this past season but his return to competitive basketball was further hampered after he developed drop foot, according to league sources, which was a symptom of his back surgeries. With drop foot, it’s difficult to lift the front part of one’s foot, causing it to drag. It’s sometimes a result of a herniated disk – and thus a pinched nerve – in one’s lower back.

When Porter Jr. debuts in Summer League, he’ll wear a brace on his leg to help stabilize it, sources said. He’s worn the brace for months.

The Nuggets wouldn’t confirm another injury but see it as a residual effect of his lower back surgery. They also remain highly encouraged by Porter Jr.’s progression.

“To be honest, going into the season, I didn’t really expect myself to be able to play at 100 percent if I was to come play,” Porter Jr. said last week. “But like, the way I feel now, it’s leaps and bounds beyond where I thought I’d be at this point. I feel so good. … I feel like I’m a better player than I’ve ever been.”

It won’t be until Summer League that the Nuggets can gauge how beneficial this past season was and what kind of talent they’ve been harboring. The Nuggets will rejoice if it’s the same route Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons pioneered. Due to a foot injury that kept him sidelined, Simmons won Rookie of the Year two years after he was drafted.

“It’s a huge advantage,” said Porter Jr. of his indoctrination to the league. “Just being on the bench, watching them play, seeing where I’m going to get my shots in the offense, and just learning the NBA game. It’s a lot different than college, spacing, and everything.”

While the rest of the Nuggets quickly went their separate ways in the wake of their stinging Game 7 loss to Portland, Porter Jr. said he wouldn’t allow himself much time to rest leading into Summer League. There will be more rehabbing – strengthening his core, improving his balance – and more uninhibited workouts.

“This is a new season for me,” he said. “I’m getting ready to play.”

How the fluid 6-foot-10 Porter Jr. will look in Las Vegas may be the most significant storyline of the summer for the Nuggets. When the Nuggets were on the road, it wasn’t uncommon to see Porter Jr. competing in 3-on-3 games several hours before tip-off. In those settings, his smooth jumper and savvy ball handling for a player of his size were impressive. The question, now that he’s begun playing 5-on-5 again, is whether he still has the same athleticism, post surgeries, that once made him the No. 1 high school recruit in the country.

“What I’ve seen from Michael this year in flashes, is a guy with tremendous size and length, that’s got deep range, that can shoot the ball, that can put the ball on the floor and has great athleticism to finish at the rim,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “This will be a really big summer for Michael.”

During exit interviews, no less than three of his teammates remarked on Porter Jr.’s confidence – which apparently was impossible to miss.

“Mike’s been talking all year long,” veteran Paul Millsap said. “I’m definitely going to be at the Summer League games. … He’s got a lot of swag and a lot of sauce to himself.”

Backup point guard Monte Morris tried to conceal a grin when asked about him.

“He’s special, for sure,” Morris said. “And the best thing about Mike, he feels like he’s the best player on the court at all times.”

Even All-Star Nikola Jokic took a friendly jab at the celebrated rookie.

“To be honest, I am (very excited to see him play) because he is talking a lot,” Jokic quipped. “Just how he’s working out and playing with guys, you can see he has a gift.”

Now that he’s built himself up, the challenge for Porter Jr. is to simmer those expectations. He hasn’t played competitive basketball since March of 2018 with Missouri, and there’s likely the temptation to prove he’s all the way back with one thunderous dunk in Vegas. That wouldn’t be prudent for a Nuggets team that’s taken the long-view to this point and is counting on him as a contributor next season.

“Just trying to temper everybody’s expectations,” said Malone, who is well aware of the excitement brewing ahead of his debut. “When you miss a whole year, it doesn’t happen right away.”

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