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Porter filling the gaps on Raptors’ frontcourt, taking advantage of NBA opportunity

Jontay Porter Toronto Raptors Jontay Porter - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The Raptors had just gotten back from a tough six-game, 10-day West Coast road trip and, like many of his new teammates, Jontay Porter was feeling a bit burnt out.

It would have been nice to sleep in and have the day to recalibrate, but that’s not the way it works when you’re a young player on a two-way contract looking to prove your worth in the NBA. There’s no such thing as a morning off.

Fortunately, with everything the 24-year-old big man has endured to get this chance, keeping things in perspective isn’t a problem.

“I’m like, no, you’re lucky to be in this position,” Porter told himself. “You’ve been dreaming about this for the past three years, to get this opportunity again – wake up and attack the day. A million people would die to be in my position.”

Call it right place at the right time, and for players on the cusp of cracking an NBA roster, that’s often what it comes down to. First, Ron Harper Jr. underwent season-ending shoulder injury last month, freeing up one of Toronto’s three two-way spots. Since then, backup big Precious Achiuwa was traded to New York and starting centre Jakob Poeltl sprained his ankle.

Suddenly, the team has a need in the frontcourt and Porter’s helped fill it. After a brief stint with the team’s G League affiliate, he joined the Raptors ahead of their recent road swing and debuted for the club in Memphis. He played rotation minutes in all six games out west, including a career-high 31 minutes in Utah to close out the trip. He made his first career start in Monday’s home loss to Boston.

It’s the opportunity he’s been waiting for, and Porter is somebody who understands the value in taking advantage of his opportunities.

Porter was a highly touted prospect coming off a promising freshman season at the University of Missouri – where he played alongside his older brother Michael Jr., now of the Denver Nuggets – when injuries threatened to derail his career. He tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee during a workout ahead of his sophomore campaign, and then tore the same ACL again five months later.

He’s spent much of the past five years trying to get and stay healthy. After going undrafted in 2019, Porter played 11 games for the Grizzlies during the 2020-21 season, though knee injuries persisted. Over the past couple years, he’s had Summer League and training camp tryouts with Denver, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, with multiple G League stops in between.

Through it all, he realized how fickle basketball can be. It gave him a newfound appreciation for the sport he was raised to play at the highest level and helped shape him as a player.

“I learned not to take it for granted and to find that one per cent edge in the little things,” Porter said. “Because that’s the difference between being in the NBA and not being in the NBA.”

Porter was born into a basketball family. He has two older sisters, Bri and Cierra, who also played collegiately at Missouri. His father, Michael Sr., played professionally for Athletes In Action – a Christian sports organization – before becoming a coach.

Jontay and his seven siblings were all home schooled. Their father would wake them up early and take them to play ball, then it would be a race to finish their schoolwork so that they could get back out on the court. During his playing days, Michael Sr.’s game was built on the fundamentals of the sport, and so that’s how he trained his children. He made sure they had proper shooting form. He made sure they could pass, defend and handle the ball.

“My dad had us dribbling [through] cones since I was in diapers,” Porter told TSN. “So, all that stuff just came with learning at a young age.”

Two decades later, one of the first things that stands out about Porter’s game – and one of the reasons the Raptors have been eyeing him for a while – is his basketball IQ. With fewer on-court reps than most 24 year olds at his level, he’s got an advanced and natural feel for the game.

He credits that to his upbringing, and specifically, years of playing with his brother. For most of their childhood, all the way through their one season together at Mizzou, Michael Jr. was one of the best prospects in the country. Jontay was a five-star recruit in his own right, but he understood that for him to be the best player he could be he needed to make sure that his older brother was the best player he could be. That meant learning to thrive at some of the less celebrated facets of the game.

“With every basketball player, where you have one weakness you’ve gotta have a strength to counteract that,” said Porter, who’s uncommonly humble and self-aware for a professional athlete. “For me, I’ve had a lot of weaknesses, and not just with the injuries but in general – not being necessarily the most athletic or 40-inch vertical or fastest 40-yard dash time. So, I’ve had to make it up in other ways and excel in ways that I’m able to, and I think my mind is pretty sharp.”

“I like to think that that’s where I can fill a void, being a superstar role player in a sense that I can help complement the superstar’s game.”

The Raptors don’t have a superstar on the roster, but they do have an all-star in Pascal Siakam, a rising star in Scottie Barnes and a pair of newly acquired starters in RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley. Porter’s role, at least for now and perhaps for as long as Poeltl remains sidelined, is to fill the gaps and make life easier on those other four guys. Even in limited minutes due to foul trouble, and despite shooting 1-for-5 himself, he showed why he’s well suited for that job on Monday.

Early in the first quarter, Porter set a screen for Barrett at the top of the arc. With his man, Kristaps Porzingis, dropping back to protect against the drive and Jayson Tatum getting caught up on the screen, Barrett had a wide-open jumper from the free throw line. A few minutes later, Porter got the ball in the post and threaded a pass between Porzingis and Jrue Holiday to the cutting Barrett for a layup. It was one of his three assists in just 15 minutes after recording 10 over the previous two games.

If anything, Darko Rajakovic thinks Porter might be playing a bit too passively. While he’s hit just four of his 18 three-point attempts with the Raptors, he profiles as a solid pick-and-pop big and his new head coach wants to see him be more aggressive with his jumper.

“I want him to be comfortable when he has open shots to take those shots,” Rajakovic said over the weekend. “And for him, obviously, it’s hard to do that because he’s trying to connect with teammates and make the right play, and there is a fine balance between being aggressive and shooting open shots and then connecting and playing inside the system. I think that there’s going to be a learning curve for him and for the team to understand how good of a shooter he is and for everybody to trust him.”

“His IQ is very high and I think the more he knows his teammates, their spots on the floor and how they play, that’s going to be showcased even more. Unfortunately, he had a couple of injuries that kept him off the floor [early in his career], but I do believe he’s a rotational big in the NBA and I think that there’s a lot of talent to work with.”

Finally, Porter is healthy enough to show it, and he should have the chance to continue proving that he belongs – not just on an NBA roster, but in an NBA rotation. Poeltl is another week away from being re-evaluated. Once he’s cleared to resume basketball activities – he’s been limited to light, set shooting after practice – it will almost certainly take him some time to ramp up before he’s able to return. And even when he does, there are backup minutes up for grabs with Achiuwa gone.

Porter still has 41 games of NBA eligibility remaining, which will take him to mid-April – just prior to the end of the regular season – before the team has to decide whether to convert his two-way contract. If he’s still healthy and contributing by then, it’ll be a good problem to have.

The Raptors used to be renowned for their ability to find and develop overlooked talent. Few teams did it better or had more luck turning fringe NBA prospects into impact players, or even stars. However, it’s been a while – probably not since Chris Boucher – and that’s showed in their lack of organizational depth.

Could Porter be their next feel-good success story? They could sure use a developmental win, and clearly he’s a player who’s not hard to root for.

“So far in my career this has been the [biggest] opportunity I’ve gotten and I don’t take it for granted one bit,” Porter said. “Who knows what the future looks like, but I know for today and the rest of the season, God willing, I’m going to give it my all and hopefully impact wins and losses with this team so I can stick around because I’m loving it out here."