The play, like so many others this season, began with Otto Porter Jr. out of sight and out of mind.
Martell Webster had just gathered a steal and tossed the ball ahead to Andre Miller in transition early in the second quarter of the Wizards’ game against Orlando on April 11. No one seemed to pay any attention to Porter, the lanky small forward streaking down the right sideline. Twelve steps later, he took flight, grabbing a lob from Miller and throwing down a two-handed dunk to ignite a comeback victory.
When the Wizards selected Porter with the third overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, few would have thought it would take 79 games for him to produce his first significant highlight. But with injuries derailing his early-season availability and the Wizards’ logjam at the small forward spot, Porter spent most of his time on the bench. Yet even as the first two games of Washington’s opening-round playoff series against Chicago have rolled on without him, both Porter and the Wizards remain confident in his future with the team.
“This whole year brought things I had never had to deal with,” Porter, 20, said following a recent practice. “That was the first time I had a really big injury in my career, of course the first time being at the pro level, and my first time not playing that much. But it definitely helped me in ways I never thought it would.”
One of the few adjustments Porter didn’t have to make was to a new city. The 6-foot-8 swingman spent the previous two years starring for Georgetown on the same Verizon Center floor, suiting up for games about 50 feet away from the Wizards locker room.
Having his former teammates and Georgetown Coach John Thompson III nearby to serve as familiar sounding boards proved especially helpful when Porter injured his hip flexor in September after slipping on a wet spot during a pickup game. Porter had been forced to work his way up the ladder before, first as an under-the-radar prospect out of Scott County Central High in Sikeston, Mo., and then as an unknown-turned-all-American at Georgetown. But this was different. For a month, Porter couldn’t even run, forcing him out of critical teaching moments during training camp and through the season’s first 18 games.
“It’s like the whole world was coming to an end,” Porter said. “I was so upset.”
Porter remained positive, though, even as pressure swelled from fans familiar with his skills from his Georgetown days and eager to see him follow the same trajectory as fellow Wizards lottery picks John Wall and Bradley Beal.
“He’s pretty even-keeled and a competitor, so there weren’t any conversations of Otto down in the dumps or depressed,” Thompson said. “He’s confident, as am I, in his ability. So it was just a matter of getting back to full strength and working hard so he can help this organization in any way he can.”
Finding where — or if — Porter fit in with the Wizards has often proved daunting. Starting swingman Trevor Ariza, who just hours before Porter was drafted on June 27 had exercised his player option to remain with the team, has had a career year. He is averaging 14.4 points per game with 180 three-pointers. Meanwhile, Webster is one of the first players off the bench after signing a new contract last summer.
With Porter’s parents in the stands for home games against Oklahoma City and Portland and then with more than 20 family and friends on tap for a Feb. 11 game in Memphis, Porter never took off his warm-up suit.
“It was disappointing and of course, everybody is asking ‘Why won’t they let Otto play?’ ” Otto Porter Sr. said. “There are a lot of variables involved but like I tell him, I just say he’s got to stay ready and keep working hard because his opportunity is coming.
“If I had a crystal ball and knew they would have two guys playing his position, maybe you’d say that’s not the best place for him to go, because if you look at the other high picks, they are all playing. But they also didn’t have to deal with injuries like he did, either. Missing all of training camp and the preseason really put him behind as a rookie. But we always tell him, it’s your mindset and outlook that gets you through. We all know he can play; it’s just a matter of getting the opportunity.”
Of the first 10 rookies selected in the draft, Porter played in the fewest number of games (37) and averaged the second-fewest points (2.1) behind former Maryland center Alex Len, who averaged 2.0 points in 42 appearances with Phoenix. (Number six overall pick Nerlens Noel missed the entire season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in February 2013.) Porter, however, is just one of three top-10 selections on a playoff roster, joining Charlotte’s Cody Zeller and Portland’s C.J. McCollum.
Those numbers notwithstanding, Porter’s potential isn’t lost on his Wizards teammates. Despite his wiry frame, Porter is known as one of the team’s best rebounders thanks to his long arms, crafty play and hustle. These intangibles, along with his versatility on both offense and defense, are why those within the Wizards organization envision Porter as a sound complement to the prized back court of Wall and Beal.
“Who he reminds me of is [Dallas Mavericks swingman] Shawn Marion with a jump shot,” said Wizards reserve Al Harrington, whom Porter drives to the airport as one of his rookie duties. “He’s incredible rebounding the basketball, and I think he’ll end up being a great defender with the frame he’s got. I expect him to play major minutes on this team next year no matter who’s here.”
In some ways, next season will bring another series of firsts for Porter — his first full summer league, his first training camp and, as one of just seven Wizards signed beyond this year, perhaps his first start. Until then, Porter remains upbeat as he soaks up the playoff atmosphere and remains prepared should his number be called to help launch the Wizards toward new postseason heights.
“I’ve always had to work my way up, even in high school,” Porter said. “I’m still young. I’m only 20. This whole experience gives you a different perspective and it’s been a roller coaster of sorts. But I’m going to continue to work and always stay ready because I know I belong in this league.”