The situation seemed like a perfect fit for Otto Porter, D.C.’s adopted son trading in his gray Georgetown threads to be the missing piece for a Washington Wizards‘ franchise on the brink of a turnaround.
But as the Wizards’ puzzle of players clicked together to become an upstart playoff team for the first time in six years, Porter remained at the outside, buried near the end of the bench for a rookie season marred by injuries and a backlog at his small forward spot.
Third overall draft picks like Porter aren’t supposed to play just 37 regular-season games for 8.6-minute spells that moreso amounted to appearances rather than action on the court. And with his average of 2.1 points ranking second fewest among last year’s top-10 draft picks, the Missouri native has heard the word “bust” from some of the same fans who supported him during his All-America days at Georgetown.
Still, neither Porter nor his teammates and coaches are willing to label this past season as a lost one.
“I view this as a learning year,” said Porter, who turned 21 on Tuesday. “I experienced a lot this year. I probably experienced more than people have their whole career in one year. But at the same time, I learned so much. … It kind of hit me that this is a business. Everything that the GMs do is for a reason and it’s for the growth of the organization.”
Less than 24 hours before the Wizards selected Porter with the third pick last June, swingman Trevor Ariza exercised his player option to return to the team. Just a few days later, the team signed last year’s starting small forward, Martell Webster, to a new contract. Still, with question marks surrounding Ariza following a mercurial season and Webster’s past struggles with injury, the thought was that Porter would earn valuable minutes in reserve duty.
But when Porter went down, first with an ankle injury during summer league and then a hip flexor that sidelined him through training camp and the season’s first 18 games, the plan to bring along the future was put on hold by a coach and general manager with a mandate from its owner to make the playoffs now.
The defensive-minded, sharpshooting Ariza went on to have a career year as the starter and frequent beneficiary along the perimeter of John Wall’s penetrate-and-pass style. And while Webster battled through injuries and struggled at times, he remained one of the first players off the bench to spell Ariza or Bradley Beal off the bench.
Porter’s first action came in a Dec. 6 loss to Milwaukee and his first points came two games later against Atlanta. Inconsistent minutes would follow until February, when Wizards Coach Randy Wittman shrunk his rotation to eight players, resulting in zero minutes of action during 11 of the month’s 13 games.
“He had no chance to be in the competition to get those minutes and then Trevor (Ariza) had a really good year and we didn’t have an injury there for any extended period of time that created that opportunity that he might get,” Wittman said of Porter. “But I think he just never had an opportunity at the start to get his foot in there just because of his injuries.”
It wasn’t until the Wizards had clinched a playoff that those opportunities arose, leading to a nine-point, nine-rebound explosion in 26 minutes during an April 11 win against Orlando. The performance impressed outsiders while confirming the potential that his teammates had seen from him every day in practice.
“I saw a player get better and one that I would never have any hesitation of playing in the playoffs or where we were at the end of the year,” Wittman said. “As I’ve told you guys all along, he’s going to be a player in this league. I fully have a lot of confidence in what I saw him go through but how handled it too and then how he continued to work. He was better at the end of the year, even though the minutes weren’t there and the time on the floor wasn’t there, he was a better player by far then he was at the start.”
While that may be true, now that the 2013-14 season is a thing of the past, so too is the Wizards’ ability to use the rookie card in explaining Porter’s limited opportunities. Yes, in some ways, Porter will endure another rookie experience, going through his first summer league and then his first training camp, but both will come with the expectations that the Wizards will begin to bring him along in the same way that they’ve done with fellow top-three draft picks Bradley Beal and John Wall.
In the meantime, Porter said he plans to stay mostly in the D.C. area and train, with a focus on strengthening his core, improving his outside shot, polishing his defensive skills and building on the lessons gleaned from his rookie season.
“I improved on learning the system, learning the NBA style and the fast pace of the game,” Porter said. “That came with this year. The more and more I got comfortable, the more everything slowed down, so hopefully this summer will be a big boost for me as far as working and getting better with my teammates.”
To aid this process, the belief is that, should Ariza return, Porter will be used as the backup small forward while Webster will become the backup to Beal at shooting guard, which would better spread the minutes between the two swingmen. Should Ariza sign elsewhere, Webster would likely return to the starting lineup and Porter would be in line for even more minutes.
Regardless, with Wittman’s future now secure following the signing of his new contract this week and the Wizards entrenched in the discussion of playoff contenders, if the plan is for Porter to become an intricate part in the team’s budding success, his development must be accelerated next season.
“He was drafted as the third pick and usually teams make draft picks for the potential players and his potential for the upside is big,” Webster said. “We know why they brought him here. I told the young fella to keep working, continue to be a professional, get here early the way you’ve been doing, get your work done. His opportunity is going to come and when it does, I think he’ll make the most of it.”