Correction: In a previous version, Otto Porter Jr.’s brother Jeffrey was referred to as Jeremy.
Otto Porter Jr. went home to tiny Sikeston, Mo., right after the Washington Wizards’ season ended in May and immediately hopped in the car with his parents, Otto Sr. and Elnora, and little brother, Jeffrey, for a weekend trip to Memphis. Taking in some dry-rub barbecue, strolling along Beale Street and hanging out at B.B. King’s music club, Porter put behind any blues from a forgettable rookie campaign.
Back with those who love him the most, Porter didn’t have to worry about the hip injury that kept him out of training camp and the first month of the regular season, or pine for playing time that rarely came on a team making a rare postseason run. For a few weeks, the only time he concerned himself with basketball was when he and his father offered tips to Jeffrey as he worked out with his high school team.
“It was like hitting the reset button. Block everything else out and be with your family a little bit,” Porter said. “And when it’s time to go back to work, you go.”
When he returned to Washington last month, shortly after his 21st birthday, Porter turned his attention strictly to getting better at basketball. He worked out at Georgetown’s McDonough Gym with fellow alums Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert and Greg Monroe and spoke often with his college coach, John Thompson III. They all conveyed the same message to Porter as he prepared for the most critical offseason of his young career.
“They tell me, ‘Summer league, you got to show ’em. Got to show them that, hey, you belong out there and that you should be playing,” said Porter, who will be looked upon as one of the leaders of the Wizards’ summer league outfit, which opened up Saturday vs. the Atlanta Hawks in Las Vegas.
Porter didn’t disappoint, scoring a game-high 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting with seven rebounds and three assists in the Wizards’ 90-74 win over the Hawks. The 6-foot-9 Porter moved around the court confidently, was more vocal with players unfamiliar with the Wizards’ system and had a knack for being in the right spots.
“It shows what hard work does. It pays off,” said Wizards assistant Sam Cassell, who is handling summer league head coaching duties in Las Vegas. “That’s him. He can shoot the three-ball, he can shoot the midrange game. He can play the game of basketball.”
The Wizards will be watching Porter closely — he is the only healthy small forward currently on their roster. Trevor Ariza agreed to a deal with the Houston Rockets on Saturday, and Martell Webster, the Wizards’ primary backup at the position last season, will be out for three to five months after undergoing back surgery last month. When asked if he could start next year, Porter said, “Yeah.”
“I mean, hey, the door opens up. Guys are now moving out and stuff. Now it’s time for people to step up and fill those shoes,” Porter said. “I was kind of hoping [Ariza] would [stay]. But at the same time, hey, this is a business.”
Playing well against inexperienced players and NBA long shots in summer league would seem like a basic requirement for a player drafted third overall. But Porter struggled in three games in Las Vegas last season, overwhelmed by the speed of the game and an offense that went against everything he did in college. Then a hamstring injury knocked him out of the final two games and robbed him of some crucial developmental time. Later that summer, Porter strained his right hip flexor in a pickup game, further putting him behind when he already landed into a unique position in Washington.
With veterans Ariza and Webster already entrenched, Porter’s presence was viewed as a luxury instead of a necessity. And the organization’s determination to make a playoff push and unwillingness to wait for Porter to find his way on the court meant he had to accept that his dreams of being an NBA success would have to be delayed.
“It wasn’t the best. I’ll say that right now,” Porter said of a season in which he finished with the fewest games played (37) and lowest scoring average (2.1 points) of any player drafted that high since 1980. “Not playing emotionally took a toll on me. Definitely was a roller coaster. At the same time, I feel like it was perfect. I feel like it was the perfect rookie season.”
To Porter, there is nowhere to go but up. “You have your downs. You get injured from the beginning. You’re back; you fall behind. Take the whole season; catch back up. It’s over now, and you’re like, ‘I needed that,’ ” he said. “You’ve been through everything, the injuries. You’re healthy now and know what to take to keep your body healthy, so you’ve been through it. Now you know what you need to do to be on the court.”
Coach Randy Wittman was impressed by how Porter remained positive through a difficult season. “It’s tough coming into a situation as a high draft pick and then not see a lot of opportunities,” Wittman said. “A lot of times . . . these higher draft picks are playing for bad teams that are going to play guys because of that. And we were in a situation that we didn’t have to do that. I thought he was very mature in how he handled it. He was frustrated. He should be, as any player would be. That means you’re going to be in the gym working to try and change that. I saw a big change in Otto from where he was at the start of the year from where he finished.”
Said Porter: “Right now, I feel like I’m relaxed. This is a game that I love. I’m healthy. I’m playing. Right now, I’m not thinking about a lot. Last year, my mind was like — whooph, whooph, whooph — all over the place. Absorbing so much. Now, everything is slowing down.”
With Ariza’s departure, an opportunity has opened up for Porter. “You use it as motivation because minutes are there and it’s up for grabs. Who’s going to step up and take them? Nothing is going to be handed to us, so I have to take it,” Porter said. “Right now, it’s just playing as much as I can. The more and more I play the more comfortable and confident I get, so when the season do come, I’ve played enough to know where everything is.”
Given his minimal playing time and production as a rookie, Porter could view his current situation as a second chance to have a first season. But he vehemently shot down that notion, waving his hands across one another, shaking his head and laughing hysterically. “My rookie year is over. I’m through with that. I don’t want to have anything to do with that no more,” Porter said. “This is my second year.”
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