• Fenrich

Kevin Porter Jr: Playing or Winning

Kevin Porter Jr

6’5.5”, 212-pounds, 6’9” wingspan, 34” max vertical, turned 19 in May ranked 10th by Fenrich:

For total transparency, I lived in Seattle for 13 years and maintain an affinity for hoopers who came up while I was there. It’s not just possible, but likely that my bias towards these players has skewed my ranking and assessments.

If my weak memory is of any use, I first saw Kevin Porter Jr as a freshman at Rainier Beach back in 2015 when the Washington State 3a title game was televised. That 2014-15 team featured Dejounte Murray and their opponent, Garfield, featured a young Jaylen Nowell. The kid I saw back, while an impactful freshman on a three-time defending state champion, then didn’t resemble the electric kid I saw this past season at USC. Early Porter Jr was more slim big, hitting the glass and staying out of Dejounte’s way but still with enough confidence and game to standout on the brightest of high school stages.

When I tuned into my first USC game this past season, it was an early November game against Vanderbilt and this was one of the first things I saw from young KPJ:

That move, read, and finish, regardless of the poor quality of defense or the weak double, is abnormal by college standards, let alone true freshmen. That was the start of an avalanche of highlight plays Porter Jr delivered with regularity. While highlights are boiled down to sleek, consumable packages, the underlying skills and abilities that lead to their realization are decipherable and Porter Jr’s are extensive. Physically, he looks like a grown man with broad shoulders and a powerful upper body. At 212 pounds and nearly 6-6, he has ideal off-guard size. But scan combine measurements or Basketball Reference and you’ll see a league filled with players who share Porter Jr’s dimensions, but lacked the skill he has as a 19-year-old. And even more than his build, it’s this skillset that exploded after his early seasons at Rainier Beach.

We’ll start with Porter Jr’s handle and wiggle. His handle is low and clean, smoothed of any rough edges, practiced and fine-tuned. It’s an infinitely functional skill that he uses to set up step-backs and drives alike. Watching him operate with the handle is like seeing a shadow apprentice of James Harden’s.

The handle is just part of a more choreographed sequence that, in part, is predicated by his explosiveness. At the combine, his athletic testing painted him as a relatively pedestrian athlete by NBA standards with above average agility and speed. (It’s reasonable to wonder if Porter Jr even took the vertical testing seriously as anyone who’s seen him snatch rebounds or dunk on the heads of 7-footers is aware of his jumping ability. While obviously speculation, potentially mailing in a part of the combine testing aligns with some concerns around maturity that I’ll touch on later.) On court, KPJ couldn’t be further from pedestrian. Off the catch, like any player, he can dribble, shoot, or pass, but this unfolding is more complex. His first step, besides being underutilized, is long, powered by pistons that can propel him past opponent hips and shoulders. As a defender, you have to give a small cushion to avoid him just bursting by you, but to the benefit of NCAA defenders, Porter Jr hasn’t yet committed to fully taking advantage of this part of his game and prefers to dance and shoot step-backs. So maybe the defender gives him a little less room because he knows Porter Jr, a 41% 3-point shooter with a 43% 3-point attempt rate, ultimately wants to chuck it from deep. This is where some basic game theory comes into play because when he puts the ball on the floor, defenders are ultimately at his mercy. I watched a good chunk of Porter Jr’s possessions this season and it was only against Arizona in January that I saw him struggling with the handle and that was the right hand (he’s a lefty).

At this point in the choreography, I want to pause because part of Porter Jr’s development and ability to reach his potential hinge on his willingness to decisively attack. At present, he’s far too happy to give defenders a break by dancing with dribble moves, looking for seams where he can make high degree of difficulty passes or create just that window of space that allows him to fire up a step-back – that’s always available. By not attacking more off the bounce (he’s a 61% finisher around the rim, but attempted just 2.2 free throws/game), he’s letting opponents off the hook and missing opportunities for himself and teammates. Per stats.nba.com, 75% of his shot attempts in the half court came from the perimeter and this is largely self-imposed.

When he does put the ball on the floor, Porter Jr can create enough space to get the step-back whenever he wants. His range, even on the step-back, extends to NBA distances.

Hell, his entire season at USC looked like NBA-level skill (effort and decision making are another story) transported to college. Again, per stats.nba.com, Porter Jr’s efficiency on the catch-and-shoot (1 point/possession) is just slightly better than his off-the-dribble shooting (0.98 points/possession). These are both above average efficiency and force defenders respect his jumper.

On dribble drives is when Porter Jr’s near his best. Despite averaging just 2.6 assists/40 and having a negative assist-to-turnover ratio (30 assists to 39 turnovers), he has excellent vision and feel and can find open teammates when engaged. When he commits to rim drives, the strength, explosiveness, flexibility, and touch are all on display. That first clip where he goes under the hoop and finishes the reverse with his offhand? It’s not an abnormal play for Porter Jr. If he gets just the slightest runway, he’ll attempt to posterize opponents. With his strength and body control, he can play and finish through contact and should absolutely be getting to the line more than 2.2 times/game. That fearlessness in attack is lethal, but, like many of his skills, underutilized.

He’s at his most impressive pushing in the open court. He’s a strong rebounder when he wants to be, capable of using his strength to keep opponents off the glass and his hops to go up above most guys. In grab-and-go scenarios, he can terrorize opponents. The full-on speed, handle, vision, and power give him an advantage over most any transition defense.

Defensively, KPJ has some bad habits that he can, at times, mask with his athleticism. His focus and engagement levels come and go. Like a lot of young defenders, he can lock in when guarding the ball, but is prone to lapses and ball watching when off ball. The most frustrating thing with him this past season was his habit of committing silly, unnecessary fouls. Reaches and swipes low-success scenarios were the norm. Either not knowing or not adjusting his play to how many fouls he had was another pain point. He’s athletic enough that he can get beat backdoor and still recover to block a shot. He can bite a fake and still affect the shot on a second jump like he did with Jarrett Culver, but these are largely bailouts, not sound defense.

As mentioned above, I do believe it’s worth questioning Porter Jr’s maturity at this point. He was suspended for undisclosed reasons during USC’s season and there were times where his frustration showed in his body language. In one sequence, he made a great read to cut backdoor against an overplaying denial defender. The lob was wide open, but the pass was errant, and he expressed his frustration with some kind of mini exasperated gesticulation directed to the teammate. This is a small, isolated incident, but the exasperation showed at other times and when stacked up with the suspension, inconsistent defensive effort, and repeated settling for less-than-efficient shots on offense, adds up to what are fair questions about Porter Jr’s commitment to winning basketball versus just playing basketball.

And I think that last notion of winning versus just playing is the crux of Kevin Porter Jr’s game. In terms of skill and ability, he can be special. In terms of actual output, he leaves you wanting more.

I’ve acknowledged my bias, but I genuinely believe USC coach Andy Enfield didn’t do him many favors in terms of play style, but Porter Jr is ultimately accountable. We’ve seen a couple of other recent Seattleites land in the league overflowing with ability and flame out, their basketball potentials squandered into an endless sky of what ifs. I don’t think Kevin Porter Jr follows the paths of Tony Wroten or Terrence Williams, but I’m not so blind in my love for Seattle that I ignore the possibility. But I also recognize his package exceeds that of his forebears. Where he lands is for a GM to decide. There’s risk, but I’m of the mind that the reward is so high, you draft him in the lottery, insert him into a stable situation, and hope or pray or whatever it is you do when you’ve done everything else already.