Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Otto Porter leads Georgetown basketball by putting team first

John McDonnell/The Washington Post - Georgetown Hoyas forward Otto Porter (22), center, hits the tie breaking free throw in the final seconds of the game as Georgetown defeats Rutgers, 52 - 50.

It figured well-grounded Georgetown freshman forward Otto Porter would deflect questions about his individual success.

Porter quickly attempted to shift the focus to the Hoyas’ strong performance. He’s just not one to self-praise. “It’s never about one person,” Porter said during an interview Wednesday, “when you’re all in it together.”

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Increasingly, though, Porter, 18, is becoming a bigger part of Georgetown’s story. Things began trending this way the moment he arrived on campus. The well-prepared newcomer has impressed faster than Georgetown Coach John Thompson III expected — and Thompson initially envisioned getting a lot from Porter.

Porter’s steadiness has helped Georgetown emerge as one of the nation’s most surprising teams. The leader of the Hoyas’ talented freshman class, Porter is a rebounding force and, it seems, the future face of the program.

Ninth-ranked Georgetown travels to face Pittsburgh in Big East play Saturday, and Thompson expects Porter to continue rising.

“He’s really good now,” Thompson said. “As he settles in, he’s going to have an outstanding career here.”

Agile and strong, Porter, listed at 6 feet 8, is averaging a team-leading 6.9 rebounds and ranks fifth in scoring at 8.2 points. Numbers, though, reveal little about Porter’s impact on everything Georgetown does well.

Like many standout freshmen at major programs, Porter possesses the physical tools to someday succeed in the NBA. Basketball smarts and maturity set him apart.

He’s an oddity at any level of hoops today: a young player who actually understands how to play winning basketball.

While developing into a top recruit at a small high school in Sikeston, Mo., Porter was a throwback to a time when players cared more about honing skills and developing their all-around games than starring on the AAU circuit.

He appreciates aspects of the game rarely celebrated in television highlight packages. Fundamentals are actually important to him. Porter would rather communicate well with his teammates on defense in victories than produce mostly meaningless statistics in losses. In a look-at-me basketball generation, Porter is a team-first guy.

Thompson needs little prodding to discuss anything about Porter, especially “the work ethic that he has coupled with an appreciation for every part of the game. A lot of people, they look at the guys who score all the points and see they’re the guys who get all the attention, so they just focus on that. But Otto has grown up learning that every part of the game is important. He understands that rebounding is important.

“He understands that every deflection he gets on defense helps us. He understands that what some people would call the little things, like communication on defense — he’s one of the guys who is always talking when we’re on defense — really are all very big things. All the nuances of the game, above and beyond scoring, are things that he not only understands, but he embraces. He’s just a basketball player.”

Earlier this season, Thompson told me Porter was the most prepared freshman he has coached. At the time, I thought Thompson said too much. I figured he was putting unnecessary pressure on the kid.

Since watching Porter closely in conference games, I’m beginning to believe Thompson might be on to something.

Porter had 14 points and 14 rebounds as Georgetown opened its Big East schedule with an impressive road victory at Louisville. More recently, he had another double-double (13 points and 10 rebounds) in a road win over St. John’s and a career-high 15 rebounds as Georgetown defeated DePaul on its home court.

Apparently, the kid doesn’t get flustered at Verizon Center, either. Porter scored the Hoyas’ final six points — including two free throws with 8.5 seconds remaining — as they overcame a shaky outing in their last game to rally against Rutgers, 52-50.

After just 19 games, Thompson relies on Porter.

“He wanted me to be more than just a freshman,” Porter said of his conversations with Thompson before the season. “He didn’t want me to just carry that name around.”

Thompson’s belief in Porter stemmed, in part, from his deep hoops roots. Porter grew up in a basketball family that helped Sikeston’s Scott County Central High win a Missouri-record 15 Class 1A state championships. Otto Sr., a big-time scorer in college, led the school to its first championship in 1976. Otto Jr.’s mother, Elnora Timmons, also won a state title while at Central High.

Instead of spending summers touring with AAU teams, Otto Jr. worked on his game while battling his father and uncles. Although Porter faced relatively weak competition in high school, the talent at home pushed him.

“He was extremely fortunate growing up in the house that he did,” Thompson said. “Above and beyond his play in school, he had his parents, his uncles, his cousins. They played together, beat each other up and really competed.

“He learned how to compete at a very young age. And a lot of times, even the most skilled players, the most talented players, don’t really learn how to compete until they get to college. It wasn’t that way for him.”

These days, Porter’s way is different. It’s also great for Georgetown.

 
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