Everybody would like to get better at something. Some of us would like to get better at several things. But the Washington Wizards' Otto Porter Jr. wants to get better at everything every year. What sets Porter apart is that he's done it for five straight seasons, going from the bust of the 2013 draft to the brink of understated stardom.
After his latest improvements, it's becoming a challenge to evaluate him. Although he depends on the brilliance of John Wall and Bradley Beal more than they depend on his diligent fundamentals-first game, Porter may now approach, or even equal, them in total value to the Wizards.
There are even several advanced stat metrics that say Porter is inching into the top 20 players in the NBA because so many areas of his game are among the league's most efficient, including his defense, and almost none are weak. But there's no reason to push the Porter case too hard. We'll get to that.
Right now, he's just a pleasure to watch — that is, if you can find him. He blends and complements others so well, hustling, diving for a ball or defending that he's the rare player who fills up a box score without ever needing the ball — except in the instant he catches and shoots it, rebounds it or steals it from you.
"You can't put a price on his value to our team just because of that," Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said of a player who averages 15.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals while focusing on teammates and seldom having a play run for him.
"Otto is the glue man. Like 'Elmer's Glue,' he holds things together," said Brooks, not known for being effusive. "Otto always thinks the purity of the game. He's everybody's favorite player. If you don't love Otto, you are the problem."
Not long ago, everyone hated Otto. When you're picked third overall after being an all-American at Georgetown, then average 2.1 points while getting your 190-pound frame pushed around or injured, you get tagged as a flop.
But it's amazing what taking 1,000 shots a day, year-round will do for your accuracy, or how adding 28 hard pounds to a lean 6-foot-8 frame will help you become a fine rebounding small forward and the team's best-rated defender, too.
In the Wizards' 99-88 victory over Milwaukee on Monday, Porter had 12 points and 11 rebounds and, in much of the second half, also adequately guarded 6-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo, who averages 29.7 points a game. With Porter on the floor, the Wizards outscored the Bucks by 22 points. No other starter was more than plus-5. The Glue Man.
Usually, a line of numbers is boring. But to any hoops lover, these season sequences should be thrilling. Porter's shooting percentage in his five seasons on two-pointers: .414, .491, .536, .576 and .592. His shooting percentage on three-pointers: .190, .337, .367, .434 (fourth in the NBA) and now up to .470. Combine those two and you get Effective Field Goal Percentage, the current NBA grail since the value of threes has been fully appreciated. There, he's .385, .495, .541, .608 to .632. Ninth in the NBA.
By last year his game grew so much that multiple teams gave him nine-figure offer sheets. To keep him, the Wizards matched: a four-year, $106.5 million deal.
Would he become complacent or feel pressure? No, he's just kept improving. "It's been a journey," Porter said since that rookie year he still calls "motivation."
Back then, Kobe Bryant asked Porter how many shots he took a day. Otto said 500.
"No. It's got to be 1,000,'" Bryant said. "That stuck with me ever since: Oh, there it is, " Porter said. "If you want to be better at every aspect of the game, you've got to put in the time."
That applies 365. Weight work, too.
Brooks believes many players only have such a work ethic in response to a shooting slump.
"They get bored with making [thousands of] shots . . . I'm a believer to the day I'm dead that you need diligent consistency every day," Brooks said. "Success breeds complacency. But the great ones don't get bored. With Otto I don't see [complacency]. He's as consistent as anyone you will ever be around."
Porter has great strengths, such as ranking No. 1 in the NBA in steal-to-turnover ratio, meaning he makes a fool out of you more than twice as often as you dupe him. And with his accurate shooting and low turnovers, he's among the top 10 in Offensive Rating. In theory, a team of Porters would score 126.6 points a game.
But Porter has limits, too. He's not a prolific scorer and probably never could be. He seldom creates his own shot, but spots up for three-pointers on passes from Wall or benefits from the room created by the threat of Beal (24.2 ppg). He trails the fast break for put-backs. His low-post game has grown, but it's incidental damage.
"A big part of the low turnovers is that [Wall and Beal] make a lot of plays for us, and we need them to. They're elite guys. As they go, we go," Porter said. "They make my job a lot, lot easier."
But Porter makes their lives easier, too. Wall and Beal need the ball — a ton — to be their best; Porter barely needs it at all (eighth on the Wizards in "usage percentage"). Hence, synergy.
"He's a true professional," Beal said. "You can plug him anywhere and he gels. And he guards some of the best on defense."
One game, treat yourself. Just watch Porter, the invisible glue of the Wizards. On defense, he's usually the Wizard closest to his man, pressuring, disrupting, or else the one measuring how he can sneak over to help a teammate. He runs the floor ceaselessly; his long lope lets him cruise past others. When he gets in the action, he finds an extra last-instant gear to change a shot, react first to a loose ball.
"When I came up, it was never about me. It was about winning and the team," said Porter, who played for Scott County Central High School in Missouri which, despite an enrollment of only 180, has won 18 boys and six girls state basketball titles. "That's the values that I had growing up."
Those are also the values — long-range shooting efficiency, eliminating mistakes, creating synergy, defense, hustle plays with no stat attached — that modern NBA front offices such as San Antonio and Golden State prize and also try to find ways to measure with advanced metrics.
I'm still leery of NBA stats like Wins Shares, Box Score Plus-Minus and Value-Over-Replacement-Player that try to combine every skill into one number. But it's only fair to Porter to note that he's ranked 14th, 10th and 10th in the NBA in those categories, often ahead of far more famous players, helped in all cases by his defense.
How long, and how much can Porter keep improving? Ask Otto, whose main coaches growing up were his late uncle Larry Mosley and father Otto Sr., and he just gives a list of his imperfections: pick-and-rolls, pin downs, scoring off the dribble, when to spot a mismatch at the three-point line and take his man to the low post. And then there's his left hand. He chuckles and says, "A work in progress."
The Wizards, however, don't need, or even want Porter to change too much.
"He's just a great person," Brooks said, "who happens to be a really, really . . ." The coach stopped. He was going to say, "good player," but as all those stat progressions show, Porter just keeps outgrowing old perceptions.
"He's a great person," Brooks amended, "who happens to be a great basketball player."
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.