Even the most highly touted freshman basketball recruit can be a bit of a project.
But once in a rare while, a gem arrives — maybe not fully burnished, but a player boasting a foundation so solid that a college coach’s challenge isn’t so much to replace bad habits with good as it is to preserve the good that’s already there.
That’s what Georgetown Coach John Thompson III appears to have in Otto Porter Jr., a do-it-all forward who dazzled off the bench as a freshman and returns for his sophomore year amid far greater fanfare and expectations.
It’s easy to assume that Georgetown will take a step backward this season given the loss of seniors Jason Clark and Henry Sims and junior Hollis Thompson, who supplied the bulk of the team’s scoring and leadership en route to a 24-9 record (12-6 in the Big East) and an appearance in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The promise of Porter, now a more muscular 6-foot-8, 205-pound forward and preseason all-Big East first-team selection, argues the other way.
“He’s was so good last year, but he has improved in every area of his game,” said forward Nate Lubick, one of two starting juniors on a squad without seniors. “That’s pretty important for us as a team, because he’s going to be somebody who’s going to put the basketball in the hoop a lot.”
Moreover, the soft-spoken Porter, who was reared in a small, close-knit town of roughly 720 in southeastern Missouri, is asserting himself more as a leader on court, which can only help a team that adds five freshmen this season.
Said Thompson: “He works as hard as anyone. He cares more than most. He’s a terrific teammate. . . . As a coach, you like it when you can say: ‘See that guy right there? Go about your business like him. Work and care as much as him.’ And everything else will fall in place.”
Work ethic and “want-to” run deep in Porter, who, like his father, mother and uncles, was a standout basketball player at Scott County Central High in Sikeston, Mo., a school he led to three consecutive state championships. With roughly 120 students, the Eagles compete in the smallest classification in Missouri. That didn’t exactly pit Porter against the most formidable players, but he got all the big-man basketball schooling he needed on Sunday afternoons in his grandmother’s yard, where he measured himself against his 6-5 father and 6-3 and 6-2 uncles as a youngster on a court the family built.
“Most of the competition came from my family,” said Porter, who skipped the AAU circuit to hone his skills and feel for the game under his father’s tutelage. “Whenever I played my senior year against a nationally ranked team, it was nothing. I was used to playing that way because I always played against my father and uncles. They had quite a few pounds on me. It was kind of tough.”
Porter’s grandmother officiated. “She tried to keep it under control: No fighting or anything like that,” Porter recalls. “They were very competitive games!”
He never saw footage of his father in his prime. None was filmed, although Otto Porter Sr. held the school record for rebounds that his son later broke, grabbing 35 boards in a state championship game. But he says he inherited his approach to the game.
“I play like my dad, kind of old-school,” Porter said. “He was a ‘just relax and let the game-come-to-him’ kind of player.”
But there’s nothing relaxed about the way Porter rebounds. Nor, for that matter, his quest to become more well rounded. As much as he misses his home town of Morley, where he graduated with the same friends he has had since childhood, he visited sparingly last summer, devoting his time to the weight room, the gym and camps hosted by LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
“Anything that was a weakness, I tried working on it,” said Porter, who focused on developing a high-post game, setting up his shot better and honing his long-range shooting.
Though Kansas and Missouri, which he also considered, are closer to home, Porter chose Georgetown after visiting campus with his parents. He said he was struck by the kindness of the people he met, the beauty of the surroundings and how the Hoyas’ basketball tradition had been handed down from father to son, like in his own family.
Otto Porter Sr. recalled how pleasantly surprised he was about the small-town feel of the Hilltop. Even more, he liked the fact that Thompson stressed the importance of academics and didn’t make his son any promises about playing time.
“It was: ‘You’ve got to earn whatever you get,’ ” the elder Porter recalled. “I’ve been telling [Otto] ever since he’s been big enough to carry the ball: ‘Whatever you put in is what you’re going to get out of it.’ And he has always remembered that. He knows if he works, he’s going to succeed.”
Still, the younger Porter concedes that the tempo of the college game floored him at first. After just two minutes of action in his first game for the Hoyas, he found himself out of breath. But he adapted quickly and finished his freshman year as the Hoyas’ leading rebounder (6.8 per game) and fourth-leading scorer (9.7 points per game), hitting 52.5 percent of his attempts.
And each time Thompson takes him aside and reminds him that the work involved with becoming a great player never ends, Porter hears the voice of his own father, too.
“Coach doesn’t want me to change from what I’ve been doing,” he says.