In the middle of the Cavs’ loss to the Pelicans on Tuesday night in Cleveland, Kevin Porter Jr. did something that a 19-year-old wing shouldn’t be able to do.
Late in the shot clock, Porter found himself guarded in the corner by Jrue Holiday, an elite defender inside and out; he locked up Kevin Love in the post multiple times on Tuesday after all. It wouldn’t have been shocking to have Porter turn the ball over or force up a bad shot in this spot. He’s 19, so that also would have been a reasonable outcome.
Instead, Porter made a calm, collected play to save a Cavs possession. He didn’t drop Holliday with a crossover, but he created enough to get off a step-back three in the corner — aka the tightest spot on the floor.
It was also part of a night where Porter scored 21 points on 8-16 shooting, including a 5-8 night on three-pointers. The previous night in Detroit — his first game back after missing 10 games with a knee sprain — he scored 9 points in 16 minutes.
“It felt good out there,” Porter said on Tuesday. “They put me in a lot of positions to playmake for the team. I feel like I could’ve done better, but I did that well tonight and it was fun.”
Before his absence, it felt like Porter Jr. was starting to figure things out. On both ends, there are still times where he tries to do too much and wastes a possession or gets lost on defense. But it now happens far less than it did at the beginning of the season. Pre-injury, he had scored double-digits in six of his previous 10 games. Quietly, he’s also become a good passer with an assist-to-usage ratio and assist percentage above league average for his position. His assists are often the obvious pass to make, but also feature moments where he waits until the right spot to hit a rolling pick or a popping Kevin Love on the perimeter.
He’s also become aware of what’s going on around him and is calling out where the ball needs to go if he can’t get it there. This wasn’t in his bag when he at USC, or at least it didn’t show up much. It’s also been needed in Cavs line-ups — particularly since Matthew Dellavedova was dropped from the rotation — that don’t feature much passing.
If Tuesday is any indication, he’s already back up to speed — or close to it — and several members of the organization rave about his coachability and willingness to take constructive criticism. That matters especially when, as a franchise, the Cavs are trying to usher in what they have called a “renaissance” of team and culture building.
“When he got injured, probably there’s some rust there from that,” Beilein said. “However, knowing Kevin, he sat there and watched these games and learned a lot from them. When you’re not thinking about playing or not worrying about any mistakes you made when you’re off the court and you’re just watching the game, I think he saw some things.”
There are clear areas where Porter needs to get better. For one, he commits a lot of turnovers — a mere .2 less than his assists per 100 possessions. Despite taking a large amount of mid-range shots — and being able to get those shots off against most defenders — he’s not making those at an efficient clip yet. His three-point shot has improved - 32% overall and 41.2% on catch-and-shoot attempts for the year versus a blistering (and unsustainable) 55.6% overall and 75% on catch-and-shoot attempts in his last 10 games, per nba.com/stats. Only more games will say which reality is more indicative of his three-point shooting ability.
And although he isn’t a total disaster on defense, he commits fouls at one of the highest rates for his position in the entire league. For the rest of the year, his season will be about improving in those areas.
But if his other improvements are any indication, he’s up for the task. All Porter has done so far is get better.
“He’s a talented young man,” Beilein said on Tuesday. “Still 19 years old and extremely talented. He’s still going to pick his spots and he’s still going to make mistakes of commission, and that’s OK for right now, as long as he continues to learn from it.”