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 rookie eager to show how he can contribute. He's feeling good these days, too, after sitting out all of last season following back surgery.
Recently, more and more playing time has arrived for the player dubbed "MPJ" – a trend that figures only to go up and up. Porter completely understands why coach Michael Malone is carefully integrating him into an already deep lineup. A healthy Porter just 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's 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 29-12 at the midway point and second in the West behind the Los Angeles Lakers. "You can still work really, really hard and want to be the best. But you've got to learn to be even-keeled."
The sky's the limit on potential for Porter, who was considered a top prospect before his balky back. Limited to just three games at the University of Missouri, Porter slid to Denver at No. 14 in the 2018 NBA draft.
Porter underwent a back procedure in July 2018 that sidelined him for his first season with the Nuggets. He watched from the bench as Denver finished second in the West. He impressed teammates, though, with his 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 the opening four games before making his NBA debut on Oct. 31 at New Orleans.
He had 15 points in nearly 21 minutes, a glimpse of what might be in store.
There's been plenty more flashes: A 25-point performance 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. He's seen games where he didn't take the court to barely playing. Over the last three games, he's gone from 19 minutes, 3 seconds to 27:38 to a career-best 29:18.
Regardless, he tries to bring the same fun-loving attitude.
"When I'm trying to be all serious and stuff, I don't play good," said Porter, who's averaging 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds. "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 may require Porter to step up even 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. "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 earned high praise from 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?" his 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's in a good place at the midway point of the season.
Above all, he's having fun, which he reminded himself to do early in the season when he wasn't playing all that 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."