Last Saturday night, during the first half of the Washington Wizards’ victory over the New York Knicks, Otto Porter Jr. circled around three screens, leaving Carmelo Anthony in his rearview mirror, and caught the basketball with space to shoot. But Porter didn’t shoot. So point guard John Wall yelled at him.
“I was like, ‘Yo, you need to shoot the ball,’ ” Wall said. “ ‘I don’t give a [crap] if he’s going through all of [the screens].’”
Porter shot 2 of 10 in the half of that game, but the message from Coach Randy Wittman and his teammates at halftime remained the same: Keep taking good shots because they’ll eventually go in. It’s a message Porter has heard constantly this season, his third in the NBA and his first as a full-time starter, especially early this month when he saw his minutes dwindle late in games.
He heard it again in Monday’s win over the Hawks when he began the game shooting 3-for-10 in first half (though he nearly had a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds). In both games he was more efficient and played an important role in the second half. On Saturday, he went 4 of 5 with 11 points, including two pivotal three-pointers in the final two minutes, after halftime. On Monday, he went 3 of 5 with seven points en route to his first double-double since Jan. 1.
Porter has scored in double-figures over the last six games, averaging 15.2 points in 33.5 minutes, after averaging 5.6 points in 25.1 minutes over the previous five contests.
“I’m not going to let missed shots keep me from playing and keep me from doing what I can do on the court so I just try to stick with it,” said Porter, who is playing through a torn labrum in his right hip. “And like he said, you just got to find a way to take good shots. When you’re open, just knock it down.”
The lanky 6-foot-9 Porter is an unconventional offensive player. He thrives when cutting to the basket without the ball and when shooting on the move, characteristics he learned from watching his father and uncles play basketball growing up in Missouri. He can be a nuisance to guard because of his constant activity. But the Georgetown product’s primary role in the Wizards offense is to stand along the perimeter to space the floor for pick-and-rolls and be ready for kick-out passes. That equates to catch-and-shoot or dribble-penetration situations, with the occasional cut to the rim when he notices an avenue.
“It’s more about balance of what I do,” Porter, 22, said. “It’s not doing the same thing over and over again. One time I might spot up in the corner. The next time I might cut to the rim and I got a layup. Then I’ll head out to the three. I just try to keep the defense off balance. If they do a scouting report on me, they know I like to cut or I like to spot up. So you got to pick and choose which one I got to do. Or go onto the offensive glass.”
Porter demonstrated the ability the effectively occupy both spaces in the postseason last spring, when he shot 37.5 percent from three-point range, was a constant threat as a cutter, and averaged 8.0 rebounds per contest while playing staunch defense at the other end.
The performance gave the Wizards the confidence that he could become the team’s starting small forward this season and they constructed the roster accordingly. But Porter was a dismal three-point shooter for the first three-plus months of the season. Through Jan. 31 – a span of 45 Wizards games – Porter shot 31.2 percent from beyond the arc. Since Feb. 1, the efficiency has climbed to 41.7 percent over 25 games.
Porter’s improvement leaves opposing defenses with the choice of respecting his jumper and not helping clog the paint or sagging off him and affording him space to shoot. Either way, the Wizards’ offense becomes more dynamic.
“I told him, ‘I know you don’t get a lot of plays called for you and stuff like that but you’re going to get a lot of shots because I’m looking for you,’ ” Wall said. “So just be aggressive. We want everybody to be aggressive. We know me and Brad [Beal] get most of the shots and most of the offense is for us, but we’re a better team when we’re moving the ball and I’m trying to find guys. And when I make the plays, I want guys to be aggressive to shoot the ball.”
Porter believes he can shoot even better if he fixes one glitch in his mechanics: Looking at his feet before launching. Late last season, he noticed on film that he made more three-pointers when he went straight into his shot than when he peered down at his feet. He’s worked with coaches on erasing the bug, which he said ruins his rhythm, but hasn’t completely overcome it yet.
“It’s something that I need to break out of, especially when I’m shooting a three,” Porter said. “I try not to look where I’m at, especially when I’m shooting threes but I just think it’s a bad habit for me. I have to do a better job of when I shoot not to look down or anything. It’s different when you’re catching a low pass down low or something like that. But it’s just a bad habit.”