To Free or Not to Free: Otto Porter’s Playing Time
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone;
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.
She went to the baker’s
To buy him some bread;
When she came back
The dog was dead!
Otto Porter? Otto Porter. Below, TAI’s Chris Thompson and I discuss his predicament: a former third overall pick with a bare cupboard of a rookie season due to injury, poor play, and coaching decisions that now, as a sophomore, is showing signs of life in a crowded rotation.
Conor Dirks (@ConorDDirks):
Success takes many forms, as does failure. When you get your cup of coffee in the morning from the Keurig machine, you’ve both won and lost. On one hand, it’s fast, easy, and possibly acquired without the expenditure of any currency (other than the brief amount of your life you spent getting it). On the other hand, it’s awful. Put another way: when you go to sleep at night, even after a productive day, couldn’t you have done just a little more?
Otto Porter is the third wooden body of a nesting doll that may or may not house a delicate scroll one can only read with a magnifying glass. His successes and failures don’t look all that different from one another, at least not from afar. His do-it-all-awareness could just as easily be interpreted as a lack of killer instinct, his facilitation as a form of passivity. But “Yung Limbs” can defend, especially on the perimeter. And he can score. He just needs some help. Perhaps more playing time with the Santa Claus of career years, John Wall? When Porter joins Wall in the starting lineup (small sample size alert!), he shoots 52.2 percent overall and 60 percent on 3-pointers.
Porter has shown just enough of most things to let his audience know that he could, if everything breaks right, be part of Washington’s plan, if not its core, going forward. He’s shooting 45.3 percent on 10-19 foot jumpers, and around league average on 3-pointers (35.7%), most comfortable above the break rather than in the corners like swingman predecessor Trevor Ariza. In other words: capable. And more importantly for a young player, capable of improvement. It’s concerning that the opportunity for such improvement has to come piecemeal, cobbled together in 18 minutes per game (Porter dropped from 24.5 minutes per game in November to 14.1 in December, and now back up to 17.4 in January) with a second unit that is far less able to make it easy on him.
But what’s the alternative? The Wizards are a playoff team that rolls a Hall of Famer out at Porter’s position in the starting lineup. For now, Porter has to accumulate shine in the cracks and crevices of the season. Against the Suns on Wednesday night, with Paul Pierce hobbled, Wittman split the playing time between the two forwards down the middle. And Otto delivered: he scored 14 points on only 27 touches, made three out of his four 3-point attempts, and almost brought the Wizards back from what had previously seemed like an insurmountable deficit. His shots came in the flow of the offense, and all but one of his attempts were uncontested.
It was a continuation of the work he put in after starting for Pierce against the Lakers, and it bodes well for the present, as well as the future. This isn’t a player who should be scoring the occasional DNP-CD. He’s still not aggressive enough to be a starter, though, and not strong or physical enough to defend the other team’s best player. Porter doesn’t yet have the instincts of Ariza, or the automated scouting report defensive awareness of Pierce, but he tries on that end of the floor, and that’s the first step of an eventually good defender.
Ultimately, Porter arrived in the middle of a long-term rebuild that suddenly ended, even before he played his first game for Washington. Months before Porter took the floor, the Wizards had traded their 2014 first-rounder for Gortat, and were transitioning away from an environment that could have potentially accelerated Porter’s development through brute force playing time. But not many (see Jordan Crawford, JaVale McGee, Chris Singleton, Jan Vesely) young Washington players became NBA starters with that kind of gifted latitude. Maybe these two years of nabbing crumbs off of Washington’s Round Table rather than eating his minutes with a silver spoon has shown the former third overall pick how much it takes for a “well-rounded” player without world class athleticism to stay fed in this league.
Chris Thompson (@MadBastardsAll):
I’m having a hard time articulating my thoughts on this without writing a manifesto. Here goes.
What I don’t want to do is come at it from a sort of Zach Lowe-ian “organizational efficiency” standpoint, although there’s certainly a compelling case to be made there. Because, look, getting too invested in the business dealings of sports teams has the yucky side-effect of reducing players to wholly fungible assets and not, you know, humans. And these particular humans have achieved something wonderful with all their effort and talent and perseverance: they’ve come achingly close to realizing their potential and their dreams, all at the same time. I want to root for them, not their uniforms.
So, yes, it would be good for the Wizards organization to develop a young player into a genuine asset.
Otto Porter, right now, is a skinny and relatively un-athletic guy with a developing skill set, the last part being a nice way of saying “please, God, give this guy a reliable perimeter jumper.” He strikes me as someone who already has a fairly acute understanding of the sport and relatively sharp basketball instincts. He gets pushed around and jumped over and driven by, but right now, today, Otto Porter is a real-thing NBA player in a way that, say, Jan Vesely never was.
What the Wizards should have learned from the non-development of Vesely and Chris Singleton in particular (versus the development of John Wall and Bradley Beal) is that talented young players are not effectively developed from the end of the bench. Or, anyway, their ceilings are driven downward by assigning them to the sort of hidden-in-plain-sight grunt work that tends to define Otto’s minutes on the floor. He’s investing himself in setting screens under the basket and running out to the edge as a secondary option, galloping earnestly through the offense’s actions even while that offense has no real purpose for him but as a not-very-convincing decoy.
And here’s the thing: The only way Otto is ever going to learn to be the kind of player you hope to get with the third overall pick in the draft is if he’s given some significant part of those responsibilities now with both the opportunity and mandate to grow into them. Otherwise, any ascension he eventually makes to such a role will be arbitrary and based upon grunt work he’s done as a dumpy role player. It will be the Peter Principle. And that’s not fair to Otto. He was the centerpiece of a damn good D1 college basketball team and he has a real chance to earn for himself a very good career as a valuable NBA player.
Right now he has a set of skills that is broadly useful in expanded minutes as long as those minutes come alongside the team’s starters (especially John Wall): he’s a credible wing defender, a respectable jump-shooter, a solid passer and rebounder, and he’s good in transition. There’s a way to use him where his weaknesses will be relatively non-catastrophic while he continues to develop his strengths and add new ones, but it requires consistent minutes that overlap considerably with the team’s other foundational pieces. That might be some sort of step back for a team suddenly granted fringe-contender status, but so be it. This is how an organization avoids screwing a guy out of his best chance at living his dream, dammit. An organization that does right by its players is one I’m happy to root for. One that does the opposite doesn’t deserve a championship.
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