Photo by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol
otto porter remains underappreciated -- and it's time he forces change
BY BEN STANDIG | JULY 13, 2018
Standing behind a podium while wearing a charcoal suit, Otto Porter vividly recalled the first time he flew on a plane. The big speech from the small town kid took place in the nation’s capital, but tonally felt every bit of his previous slower pace life. Porter spoke while crashing a party during his final days as a member of the Georgetown men’s basketball team.
This party was not some wild kegger celebrating another school year ending. The team’s season-ending banquet occurred inside a ballroom at the formal Leavey Center on the upper part of campus adjacent to the University hospital. Moreover, Porter didn’t show up uninvited. He was among the guests of honor. The Big East Player of the Year previously announced he would forgo his final two years of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft. Therefore, the event generally reserved for senior send-offs included a soft-spoken sophomore. It also meant giving a speech to the crowd of teammates, alumni, donors, school and team officials.
Players and team managers took turns in front of a group of 100 people. Alumni, school officials and family members sat at numerous circular tables munching on the university’s version of fine dining. They were there to celebrate Hoyas’ 2012-13 season. This edition won 25 games and a share of the Big East regular-season title under coach John Thompson III. Everyone did their part to pretend that Florida Gulf Coast game in the NCAA Tournament didn’t happen.
Some of the other departing members used the spotlight to toss out rehearsed one-liners or deliver poised introspection on lessons learned over four years.
The native of Sikeston, Missouri, a town of approximately 16,500 located in the southeast portion of the state, explained that first flight in 2011 was to visit the Georgetown campus. Porter’s innocence showed in which part of the journey he focused. He said the flight took off under sunny skies and landed in the rain. This detail wasn’t about setting the scene, but noting the weather was one way back home and another way in the city that’s been his address for nearly eight years. The difference was the point for the small town kid who went by “Bubba” and didn’t participate in the hustling AAU basketball circuit before heading to the big city.
“That speaks a lot for itself,” the 2018 version of Porter told The Sports Capitol when the topic of his first flight speech came up. “I was basically going to a whole new life. Leaving home, leaving my comfort zone and pursuing a dream that I had.”
Now, if diatribes from some about the ills of the Washington Wizards turned into actions, Porter’s final days in The District would surely be coming. These voices aren’t inside the organization, though any player could go for the right package. They are often from those who perhaps unintentionally value style over substance or wouldn’t recognize winning basketball if hit them with a textbook chest pass to the face.
They will claim it’s Porter’s massive contract that is the real enemy. That argument falls flat when they explain the replacement plan. Porter’s real sin is that in a profession of outsized personalities, sporting a humble, team-first vibe earns zero cool points. Whether he pays attention to the doubters or not, entering his sixth NBA season, now is the time for the lean forward to add some mean.
The Wizards selected Porter third overall in the 2013 NBA Draft following his two seasons at Georgetown. The differences between that 20-year-old and the Wizards’ starting small forward heading toward a sixth NBA season primarily come in experiences and cash.
Porter participated in the playoffs for the fourth time this April after signing a four-year, $106 million extension one year prior. He raised his regular season scoring average for the fifth consecutive year and finished top five in 3-point shooting for the second year in a row. Several advanced stats love Porter’s game the way the flowers adore the sun.
Despite the changes, his small-town humility remains. Coaches and basketball insider’s cherish his team-player approach. Put Porter in a standard 9-5 job setting and he wins Employee of the Month on the regular. Hard worker. Unselfish. Team player. Efficient. Low key. Follows instructions. Proficient in several areas while capable in others. The steak without the sizzle.
From the size of the participants, their personas and their paychecks, the NBA universe is anything but standard. The 6-foot-8 Porter brings the requisite height, though he’d be called slender on any playground. That paycheck, conjured up after signing a restricted free agent offer sheet with Brooklyn that Washington matched, puts him among the paid elite. It also is the thorn in the paw for those who focus on standard stats and project expectations based on salary.
None of those factors were in play when a series of events landed Porter a new home.
In his role as a longtime college basketball assistant coach, Robert Kirby sifts through countless calls and tips about possible recruits. One received more attention than most.
Kirby played at Three Rivers Community College in the Missouri town of Poplar Bluff under legendary coach Gene Bess, who remains in his job with over 1,200 wins on his resume.
Porter’s father, Otto Sr., also honed his basketball game under Bess. That’s why Otto Porter Jr. popped into Bess’ summer basketball camp as a counselor ahead of his final season at Scott Central County High School. The big and talented kid in the small pond also scrimmaged against Bess’s players. The coach recognized the goods immediately. He called Kirby, then Thompson’s assistant. There’s a kid he should see.
“For Coach Bess to say that, you know he must be pretty good,” Kirby told The Sports Capitol. “I dropped everything and went straight there.”
Kirby soon convinced his boss to visit. The two attended one of Porter’s practices. The kid couldn’t make a shot. That’s when John Thompson III fell for him.
“[Otto] didn’t make a jump shot outside of the paint all day, but he was making plays on defense, rebounding, passing, setting up other teammates,” said Kirby, who left Georgetown in 2012 but returned last season as one of Patrick Ewing’s assistants. “Another [person] was sitting between me and J3, so he sends me a text. ‘I believe I’m going to offer this kid [a scholarship].’ I responded, ‘I think that would be a great idea.’ J3 usually needed to see somebody a couple of times to be sold on a player. It was a no-brainer from the first time he saw [Otto].”
That’s not the case for many. The subtleties and off-ball work in Porter than had JTIII swoon aren’t noticed by casuals focused solely on the ball going through the basket.
However, there are honest criticisms of Porter’s game. Among them, the knockdown shooter doesn’t hunt for his looks at times even with the ball.
“Otto’s the player that he is,” Wizards point guard John Wall said the day after the season-ending Game 6 playoff loss to the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. “Otto is a slasher, knocks down threes for us, great defender, (a) guy that does the little things that you see goes unnoticed. I mean at the same time, when you get the ball, you have to be aggressive for yourself and look for your shots at times.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks, an advocate for his starting small forward, stated Porter could increase his low number of free throw attempts (1.7) by running the court with more force.
Both are right takes. Here’s another: Porter, who finished third on the team with 14.7 points last season, also doesn’t receive enough touches in scoring position. The Wizards rarely run plays for him despite shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 43 percent on 3-pointers in each of the last two seasons.
“I want Otto Porter taking more shots for this team,” TNT analyst and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee David Aldridge told The Sports Capitol. “I think he could be a 17-18 point a night game guy if they just commit to him and make him shoot the ball more.”
If money were the argument, there would be little wiggle room for a Porter defense. He will average $27.2 million over the final three years of his deal, assuming he opts into the last year.
It’s not his fault the market spoke, and the Wizards said yes. Washington is over the salary cap for the 2019-20 season just based on contracts for Wall, Porter, Bradley Beal and Ian Mahinmi.
Unload that salary, many say, with the belief of Kelly Oubre Jr. as the clear succession plan. That faction fell hard for the lengthy 6-foot-8 forward’s blend of individuality, movie star looks and desired basketball athleticism. While Porter’s basketball instincts are metronome sound, Oubre’s loudly clank with a mix of ill-timed shots and defensive miscues. Put the reserve forward in that same 9-to-5 office setting and reading his performance reviews would require Dramamine.
The Oubre backers see future All-Star appearances while ignoring the giant leaps it would require for such praise. After the All-Star break, Porter shot 52.0 percent on 4.2 attempts from beyond the arc while Oubre misfired often (29.3 percent) on more attempts (5.1).
The complaints of Porter, whose lingering hip issues are worrisome without having a look at the medical records, and the praise of Oubre speak to that style-over-substance angle. The grousing speaks of not grasping winning basketball.
That’s the brand Porter played his entire life. He led his high school team to three state titles and Georgetown to its last Big East regular-season crown. He played vital roles on Washington’s four playoff teams. Maybe he wasn’t always the driving force on those teams. Just don’t think it’s a coincidence those teams improved with Otto Porter, whose life changed forever with a phone call and a plane ride.
“No. I had no idea,” Porter said of where his journey would go the day a community college coach called one of his former players. “I was just there to play pick-up ball, get in some run and stay in shape. Get ready for the Jordan Brand Classic game. That’s it. It’s crazy how things work out.”
It’s not crazy stating the Wizards need more from Porter for true contender status. It would be wild if they once again don’t call his number often. It’s also time for the small-town guy with a big salary to hunt for his shots, to get a little mean.
Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.