With fans rising from their seats and teammates punching the air in exaltation all around him, Otto Porter Jr. lowered his head as he approached center court and applauded to himself. Porter had just made his second three-pointer of the night — and of an otherwise lost season — and the realization that he was on the court in the final minutes for a team fighting for playoff position was starting to sink in.
Though the Washington Wizards wound up losing to the Memphis Grizzlies, 110-104, on Monday night at Verizon Center, Porter, the third overall pick from Georgetown, turned a rare 10-minute stint into a productive one.
“Always stay ready,” Porter said, repeating the mantra that has been expressed to him throughout his rocky first NBA season. “My teammates and my coaches, they keep it installed in my head that: ‘Hey, your time will come. Just continue to work hard. When your opportunity comes, just take full advantage.’ ”
Even for a player whom Georgetown Coach John Thompson III described as “no-maintenance,” those comments had to come across as hollow when game after game passed and Porter was mostly allowed to build a sweat only in pregame warmups.
Before he scored six points — the most since posting a career-high seven on Dec. 30 against the Detroit Pistons — against the Grizzlies, Porter received more than eight minutes in a game one time since Jan. 7 and hadn’t played because of a coaching decision in 15 of the previous 27 games.
“I was happy for him,” Bradley Beal said. “Hopefully, moving on forward, he can continue to play and get the time that he deserves. He just has to continue to work hard and his chances will definitely keep coming.”
Wittman has relied on veterans and three-point marksmen Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster at the small forward position and they have helped the Wizards (31-29) claim the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
With the team under a playoffs-or-else edict and having success, it is hard to justify taking minutes away from those players, especially for a first-year player who suffered a right hip injury in September and missed three months of action — including training camp and the preseason — while recovering.
Porter has also struggled to adjust to an offense that is predicated on perimeter players spreading the floor and hitting three-pointers; he missed his first 10 attempts, taken over nine games, before going 2 for 3 from long distance against Memphis.
“It’s been tough, for him, for anybody in that position,” Wittman said. “I’m not worried about who Otto is. He’s got to stay ready. Just like that, who knew Martell was going to walk in here and have a bad back on Monday night? That’s all it takes sometimes. And all of a sudden, your name and number are being called for significant minutes. So he’s got to keep that mental focus and we’ve got to keep working with him. It’s going to be a situation that Otto is going to be here a long time; I have a feeling.”
Webster was unable to participate in full-contact practice Tuesday but took shots afterward and Wittman said that he might be available on Wednesday when the Wizards host the Utah Jazz. If Webster returns, Porter could find himself out of the rotation again – the last time he played at least 10 minutes, Webster sat out on Jan. 24 in Phoenix with the flu.
“Coming to the team and not playing much, that’s one thing that kind of hurt. At the same time, it’s kind of a learning process. It’s making me stronger and better,” Porter said. “That’s one thing for me, whether I get in the game or not, my confidence is still going to be there. Things can change in the blink of an eye. People can go down. The game can change all of a sudden and you just have to be prepared for it.”
Wittman stated recently that the NBA Development League was an option for Porter but the team wasn’t ready to make a commitment to protect itself in case of an unfortunate injury. The Wizards sent fellow rookie Glen Rice Jr. to the Iowa Energy for his second D-League assignment last week but Porter said he hadn’t given any consideration to going down for more experience.
“They sent Glen down, they could send me down, too,” Porter said with a shrug. “I just have to continue to work, continue to learn. I missed valuable time. Important time, at that. I feel like I would’ve been better along than what I am now. It’s definitely coming, the more I play.”
Porter believes that staying with the team has been beneficial because of the knowledge that has been passed along from Ariza, Webster and the other veterans. When he showed up for practice on Tuesday, Porter said Ariza approached him to make sure that he maintained a level head: “Trevor told me: ‘Days like this, you can’t take off. You have to put in more work.’ ”