DENVER • He’s the tall, skinny dude, over there on the bench. Sharp dresser, quite pretty, probably rocking a designer T-shirt under a blazer, inevitably close to Isaiah Thomas.
You know, Michael Porter Jr. Remember him?
“If he gets his back right and he gets healthy, he’s going to be a really special player,” Thomas said Monday.
That’s been the question for Porter: Can he get healthy? It’s never been a question about whether he can ball or not. Back injuries are no joke, and Porter’s forced him to miss all but three games during his lone season at Missouri. Roughly a year later and he’s looking pretty good and turning heads — specifically that of Thomas, a two-time All-Star and a mentor of sorts to the 20-year-old Porter.
If Porter becomes the star the Nuggets dreamt about — a 6-foot-10 scorer who can go inside and out and make stacks of cash playing alongside All-World passer Nikola Jokic — someone should consider Thomas as a scout.
I.T. called it.
“I said it before the Nuggets drafted him: if he wasn’t hurt he was going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Thomas told me on Monday. “He was the best player in the draft.”
The hype machine at Pepsi Center is fueling up. Now that he’s at or near full health for the first time since the Nuggets drafted Porter with the No. 14 pick last June, the rookie forward is starting to look like the player they envisioned.
But don’t take my word for it. Porter’s workouts apparently are held in a top-secret cave somewhere, maybe over in NORAD, and he’s been ruled off-limits to media interviews. So we’ll ask Thomas, a bona-fide talent evaluator given all the basketball he watches. The former Washington star got his first look when Porter had Scout and Rivals.com recruitniks thinking “Kevin Durant” at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High.
“Everything. He does everything well. He works hard. He’s special. You can’t teach what he has. He’s 6-10, 6-11, he can shoot, he’s athletic. He understands what he has and what he doesn’t have,” Thomas said. “He loves the game. That’s half the battle. If you really love the game, the work is not really work. You want to get better, and you want to be really good. It’s all about the situation for him right now. He needs to get healthy and needs to keep getting better. It’s not easy. It’s never easy.”
The Nuggets host the Timberwolves on Tuesday needing to step free from a funk. They’ve lost four of five, and coach Michael Malone sat down the roster for a film session heavy on honesty.
“If anyone in here is sensitive,” Malone said he told the players, “get up and leave right now.”
Malone was particularly ticked at the lack of cohesion shown by the starting five of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Jokic.
“We thought we’d just show up” in another blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday, Malone said.
Regardless, the Nuggets are doing the right thing with Porter by taking it slow. If the stretch run of a playoff chase is proving to be tough for a bunch of veterans, it wouldn’t get any easier for a rookie.
For much of this season Thomas, Porter and rookie Jarred Vanderbilt were the three best friends that anybody could have.
As each rehabbed injuries, they worked out together or hung out together on the road, Thomas sometimes picking up the dinner tab for the rookies learning their way. And while it remains unlikely Porter plays this season as he continues a redshirt year of sorts, I.T. sees a rookie with the physical makeup to grow into an All-Star.
“It’s hard to say Kevin Durant. But he’s in the mold of that — 6-10, 6-11, can handle the ball. He can really shoot it. Super athletic. That’s what Kevin Durant is. I believe that’s someone he wants to be like and pattern his game after,” Thomas said. “I saw (Porter) when he first moved out to Seattle and that’s the guy I thought he would be like, too.”
Who knows if Porter has the drive and mental makeup to carry him into a star’s role with the Nuggets? Still a long way to go with this one.
But Thomas is paying it forward, an admirable gesture for a vet who’s probably not long for Colorado. Seattle studs Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry did the same for Thomas back in the day.
“I’ve seen something special in him for a long time. He’s a kid that wants to be great. Now he’s been injured, so it’s been tough for him,” Thomas said. “But he’s got the right mindset. He asks a lot of questions and I’m always going to be there for him to answer. I’m willing to help anyone as long as they want to be great. That’s the biggest thing for me.”