ORLANDO – Otto Porter’s improved confidence and comfort as he adjusts to a rapid-moving NBA game started to become evident long before he made two huge three pointers last month against Memphis, scored nine points in just six minutes last week against Boston, or provided the game-altering alley-oop dunk and game-saving tip-in on Friday in the Wizards’ 96-86 victory over the Orlando Magic.
Veteran Al Harrington said he noticed a difference in Porter shortly after the all-star break in February. Some heated trash talk from fellow rookie Glen Rice Jr. during a three-on-three game got Porter so fired up that the third overall pick from Georgetown hasn’t been the same.
“He was challenging Otto a lot. And Otto was stepping up to the challenge and it seems like he brought something out of Otto, to me,” Harrington said. “One thing I can say Glen definitely brought positive to our team is he kind of brought Otto out of his shell and he’s starting to build confidence. That’s when I saw the change. Every time, he was attacking, trying to score the ball. Before, he was way more passive.”
After playing the best game of his young career, with nine points and nine rebounds off the bench, Porter admitted that he probably wouldn’t have been able to make that kind of contribution to the team a few months ago. He was trying to read the game but the pages were moving like an animated flip-book and he was also struggling to find a niche on a team where minutes were sparsely dispersed to players with limited experience.
“Definitely the more I play, the more I’ve learned and the more the season has gone on, the more I get comfortable,” he said. “It would be tough when I first came back, to have a game like this, because I didn’t know as much as I do now.”
Beal added: “He’s not the same Otto he was the first day he started training camp or the first day he got in a game.”
The most important lesson Porter has learned over the past few weeks is that the quickest way to earn an extended spot on the bench is to enter a game not looking to leave an imprint.
With Trevor Ariza still dogged by a flu bug and various problems with his back and ankle contributing to shooting woes for Martell Webster, Porter couldn’t simply run up and down and be a spectator on the court after Coach Randy Wittman called upon him late in the first quarter.
“The thing about it, playoffs are coming up. Guys need rest. Martell and Trevor need rest,” Porter said. “It gives guys like me an opportunity to step in and give those guys rest and still produce good minutes, and that’s my goal — to come in, continue to learn and continue to get better.”
Porter benefits from sharing the floor with veterans Andre Miller, Nene and Harrington, who made sure he was ready, even perhaps before Porter did. Miller got Porter going early in the second quarter when he made the 6-foot-8, long-armed and wiry swingman the target of an alley-oop pass.
John Wall, who was watching from the bench, thought the ball was headed for Webster because he had a direct lane and a history of converting lob dunks. Beal, a fellow Missouri native who has watched Porter play since trying unsuccessfully to recruit him to his AAU team, certainly didn’t think that a no-frills player from Georgetown would be ready to handle the slam-dunking responsibilities.
Porter saw Webster to his left on the fast break and considered slowing down before his instincts to him to go get it. Catching the ball with both hands, Porter slammed into the rim with authority and marveled afterward about Miller’s court vision.
“Andre is a guy that pass it to you when you don’t even know you’re open,” said Porter, who later caught another pass from Miller while under the basket and got fouled while making a reverse layup.
The most unexpected alley-oop of the season ignited a 20-4 second-quarter run that saw Porter score seven points and earn more minutes in the second half. Webster didn’t play in the final two quarters.
“I needed to do something,” Wittman said of giving Porter the rare chance. “I thought he went in there in the first half and gave us a big spark, so I went with him in the second. His activity level, whether it’s getting shots or not, it’s good. To give us nine and nine is good.”
Wittman has been saying for the past few months that he believes that Porter will become a player in this league and simply was a victim of circumstances — an early hip injury and established veterans in front of him. Ariza has hoarded most of the minutes at small forward but said he wasn’t surprised by how well Porter played against the Magic.
“We see that at practice all the time,” Ariza said. “People don’t like to guard him, because he always keeps your head on a swivel, because he’s always moving. That’s a big part of his game and something that we need. Happy to see him play well.”
Porter’s activity, tap-back rebounds and aggressive pursuit of the ball kept several possessions alive. He had a team-best three offensive rebounds in the second half, including a tip shot after Marcin Gortat missed a hook with about three minutes remaining.
“It’s kind of funny, because he’s skinny but he knows how to offensive rebound and he always finds his way into the mix of it,” Wall said. “Throughout practice, you could see there were certain things he could do. I think it’s just him getting confidence, keep playing and getting stronger and believing in himself a lot more.”
Gortat can relate to not playing much as a rookie since he seldom saw the floor in his first season with the Magic. But Gortat believes that Porter will get better because he has a burning desire to improve.
“He’s a bright guy, he’s a smart guy, he’s a humble guy. He works hard every day,” Gortat said. “Like I said, he is lifting and doing extra work on the court. If guy is working his tail off, it’s obvious that sooner or later, he’s going to get his opportunity and use it. I think he did perfect job. This is how it is in the league. He’s got to stay ready. He just got to wait for his opportunity. You have to stay focused. I know it’s not easy, but at the end of the day that is how you can recognize if the guy is smart or the guy is a true professional player.”
Harrington also recalls how hard it was for him to sit as a rookie in Indiana but he expects Porter to return a much better player next season. “These little lessons he’s learning this year is definitely going to help him in his summer preparations,” Harrington said, before explaining the challenges of getting little action early in your career. “Your first emotion, you start questioning, Are you good enough? I think once you work over that, that’s when things start going for the better and I think that’s what he had to deal with, being injured, questioning himself, was he supposed to be here and I think now, he’s got used to this lifestyle and what it takes.”
Ariza and Harrington recently started calling Porter, “Ottoman,” and it has quickly caught on with the rest of the team. If Porter continues to work on his game, linking that nickname to the empire would be a stretch but based on his play of late, at least it isn’t a reference to the couch.
When asked his thoughts on the name, Porter said, “It’s cool. It’s better than rookie.”
But as he headed out of the locker room at Amway Center, carrying his pink backpack, Wall gave Porter a reminder that still is, indeed, a rookie no matter what he just did on the court.
“Hey, Otto,” Wall said and Porter looked up, smiling, perhaps waiting for some acknowledgment. “Get me a couple of Gatorades.”