Otto Porter Jr. is hugging himself and thinking about good times. His reversible Washington Wizards jersey is damp with sweat, but while Porter sits on the baseline, mumbling about being cold, he remembers it all so clearly. The Southeast Missouri high school gymnasium. Trophies. All the lessons imparted by those responsible for his basketball education.
“One thing about me that my family installed in me was: ‘You’re a ballplayer. You’re not a wing player. You’re not a post player. You’re not a point guard. You’re a ballplayer,' ” says Porter, who, at 25, is entering his sixth season in Washington. “You need to be able to do it all, you know? And that’s what I was growing up.”
The boy raised to be a ballplayer was awfully skinny and not at all flashy. But he was special, and he had a chance to be better than any Porter before him, including the best of them — Otto Porter Sr.
His uncles pushed him around in pickup games. His father always found something to fuss about. When Uncle Larry threatened that boy with running suicides if he didn’t pass the ball, he obeyed.
“The ball couldn’t even hit the floor,” Porter says. “One game we made four passes like boomp boomp boomp boomp — layup!”
The boy who grew up to be the Wizards' most expensive ballplayer relaxes into his toothy smile. The game was simple then.
“It’s beautiful basketball and that’s how it is,” he says. “That’s just the way it’s supposed to be played, you know."
That’s not, however, how someone with an NBA maximum contract is supposed to play. When you’re making more than $26 million this season and that salary pushes your team into the luxury tax, you’re expected to do more.
“We’ve been trying to [shoot more threes] for two years, and we’ve got one of our best shooters passing up shots. It’s frustrating.”
Scott Brooks, Wizards coach
As Washington begins its season Thursday night, Porter enters another year under the microscope — the Wizards’ highest-paid player again yet their clear third option. He’s the guy with the best three-point field goal percentage on a team desperate for more long-range production who is criticized for not shooting enough.
“We want to shoot more threes this year. We’ve been trying to do that for two years, and we’ve got one of our best shooters passing up shots,” Coach Scott Brooks says. “It’s frustrating.”
Critics Porter ignores on social media dangle him as trade bait, most recently for disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves all-star Jimmy Butler.
His massive contract — four years, $106 million — may be why. Although many NBA insiders view Porter as indispensable for his all-around game — “Guys like that are underrated and underappreciated . . . To me, he’s a keeper,” a longtime Eastern Conference scout says — his career 10.5 points on 8.4 shots per game are not numbers the masses interpret as star material.
The Wizards value Porter, without a doubt. Though the organization did not extend a deal to him when he was a restricted free agent last summer and decided to keep Porter by matching the Brooklyn Nets' player-friendly offer sheet, whenever other teams call to inquire about the lanky swingman, the Wizards quickly end those conversations, according to several league sources.
But the team shares a concern common among fans: They want — need — Porter to be more aggressive.
Can the boy from a lineage of small-town basketball royalty who learned to play the game the right way start to assert himself?
“I don’t think that being aggressive is against Otto’s nature,” says his former Georgetown coach, John Thompson III. “I think that sometimes the way that the world will want him to be aggressive is against his nature.”
All in the families
There’s no peace during postgame drives. When Porter swings a right out of the Capital One Arena underground garage, he knows who’s about to call.
“After every game, I’ve got two people that’s critiquing my game already,” Porter says. “Who you think it is?”
Otto Sr. and his wife, Elnora, will never stop coaching their son. They love him too much and know his game too well. Their mothers attended church together but truly, the religion of basketball in the Bootheel of Missouri brought them together.
Elnora, then known by her maiden name Timmons but called “Skinny” by everyone, played with the Scott County Central High Bravettes. Skinny’s jumper was so pure that, as legend has it, she made the buzzer-beating shot over two defenders to win the 1984 state championship.
Otto Sr., one of 13 children, most of whom played basketball, starred on the 1976 Scott County Central championship team, a group that began the school’s run to 25 combined state titles between the boys' and girls' teams.
The two families were located in rural Haywood City (population: 206), where a riverbank overwhelmed the land and grass couldn’t grow, leading locals to call the area “The Sands.” There wasn’t much do for fun besides play ball and the sand courts unintentionally formed their style of play.
“There was not a lot of dribbling going on,” recalls Otto Sr.
Though it’s hard to name a Scott County Central championship without a Porter or Timmons on the roster, no one may have made more of an impact on that basketball community than a man who married into the family.
When Larry Joe Mosley and Otto Sr.'s older sister, Dasie, were dating, he’d come over to the house to play sandlot basketball with her brothers, piling the boys in the back of his truck and driving them to neighboring towns in search of pickup games. When he wasn’t pitting them against grown men, Larry was giving his to-be brothers-in-law the business.
“Everything that I know about basketball,” Otto Sr. says, “we got it from Larry. His mannerisms. His — oh, I want to say — arrogance. All of that . . . We took that in. It was not acceptable to get beat because you had to hear about it.”
When Otto and Elnora had their first born, he wanted to raise a ballplayer like that.
At 2 years old, Otto Jr. was bouncing a basketball. By 4, he was ready to be coached by Uncle Larry, who had started a youth team. Before middle school, the family moved from Cape Girardeau then returned to live near The Sands, in the town of Morley, so that Junior could continue his lessons. Several Porter men actually moved back just so their sons could grow up playing together and learning from the best.
“Sometimes I used to hate going to practice with our uncles,” recalls Bobby Hatchett, a cousin who’s a year older than Porter. “If we weren’t practicing, we had to be at the gym on Sundays and playing with our uncles.”
During one middle-school game, Porter, Hatchett and their teammates were messing around against a weaker opponent. By halftime, Otto Sr. had seen enough.
“He came into the locker room,” Otto Jr. says. “Let everybody have it.”
Otto Sr. admits to being tough on his son. Though he was reared on the court by Larry and had a legendary high school coach in Ronnie Cookson, the elder Porter believes he settled when excellence was waiting to be achieved. He played two years at junior college then Division-II before taking a good job at an oil company after graduation. He’s worked there for nearly the last 40 years and calls it his second family. Still, this is his truth: He should have been greater.
"Maybe I could’ve made it to the league if I’d been in the right situation and in one where I pushed myself,” says Otto Sr., who surpassed 1,000 points during two years at Southeast Missouri State. “The thing that didn’t sink in, yeah, I was doing that but the ambition, the drive … or somebody challenging me, wasn’t there. I didn’t have that challenge.
“Once I had Otto, I figured out,” Porter continues. “I’m not going to let him take that off.”
So he taught his son how to play and how to win, instilling a work ethic that produced three more state titles and a scholarship to Georgetown. Everything that made Otto Porter Jr. the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NBA draft was cultivated back home. Those lessons, however, may be preventing him from taking his own shot now.
Learning to be aggressive
The smile that breaks out when remembering 50-point quarters after the coach’s challenge to not let the ball touch the floor, the blades of grass stuck in Uncle Larry’s Afro after his work days of operating a mowing company and the Roman candles launched as grenades in firecracker wars with his tribe of cousins in Haywood City, that smile has faded.
Otto Porter Jr. is talking about the criticism of his lack of aggression. He’s growing defensive.
He keeps his arms crossed and though he still blames the chill of the practice facility, his body language suggests he may be agitated. His voice deepens and Porter finally fires back his strategy for this season.
“When I get the ball, if it’s deep — Klay Thompson. Shoot that sh --," Porter says. “I mean, why everybody going into detail about it? It’s simple. That’s all it is. And if you don’t have basketball sense, why are you talking about it? That’s all it is."
“He’s just not one of those players that just is going to take over. He’s not going to be that type of player because he grew up playing the game the right way.”
Otto Porter Sr.
Privately, Porter’s advocates — even those around the league — question how he’s supposed to put up more shots when Washington’s half-court sets sometimes force him to simply stand in the corner and wait for a pass.
“The bottom line is he’s got two all-stars he’s playing with in the backcourt that dominate the ball, and they should, and [John] Wall in particular,” one NBA general manager says. “He’s the third option on that team. He’s just a third option with a max contract.”
Still, there are times when Porter, who had the third-highest three-point percentage in the league last season at .441, gets the ball and passes so a teammate can have an even better look.
“I love what he does. He’s about team, so he’s doing the right thing, always looking for the best play,” Brooks said at the team’s media day. “But sometimes, the right thing is your best shooter making sure he shoots shots.”
This season, Brooks has tasked Porter and all-star guard Bradley Beal with bringing up the ball every now and then. With greater creative control comes more scoring chances.
“Every year [Porter] gets more and more — excuse me, but ‘f--- it!' ” Hatchett says, " 'I’m going to shoot this one!’ ”
Porter is laughing again. Hearing his cousin’s colorful expression breaks the tension. Though he may get tired of the criticism of his game, Porter won’t say so. He admits he has work to do.
That’s what his Uncle Larry, who died in 2012, would tell him. And that’s what Porter hears from the only two voices that matter. When he doesn’t run the floor or come off a screen hard enough, they’ll get on him. That’s how the Porters define aggressiveness back in Haywood City.
“It’s just one of those things where you just got to try to do what you can, when you can and he’s just not one of those players that just is going to take over,” Otto Sr. says. “He’s not going to be that type of player because he grew up playing the game the right way.”