A key emphasis for the Cleveland Cavaliers this past offseason was to improve their bench depth. Before the season, on paper, they certainly accomplished that with the signings of Georges Niang, Damien Jones, Tristan Thompson, Ty Jerome and re-signing Caris LeVert. While not all of them have panned out so far this season due to injury or ineffectiveness, there is one under-the-radar move that is paying immediate dividends for the Cavs as they weather a hole at backup point guard.
Craig Porter Jr. has been thrust into a bigger role as a backup lead guard while Ricky Rubio remains away from the team and Jerome nurses a bad ankle injury. The undrafted 23-year-old had an even bigger role Sunday night against the Denver Nuggets with LeVert sidelined, and he delivered in a big way. Porter finished with 21 points on 7-10 shooting, chipped in four rebounds and four assists, and added two steals and a block. He has a knack for making big plays when needed — like this steal to set up a nice dunk.
Maybe the biggest thing going for Porter is that he is a very controlled player with a strong understanding of what his strengths and weaknesses are. He isn’t a strong outside shooter but is adept at worming his way into the paint or getting to his spots on the floor. His defensive intensity is relentless, always looking to make a play or catch the opponent off guard. He isn’t the flashiest passer, but he makes smart passes. His game is predicated on pace, confidence, and a firm handle, all things he has demonstrated so far this season in various ways
In those clips, Porter runs the pick-and-roll effectively by pinning the defender to his back and then forcing the paint defender to make a decision: stick with the roller or step up and take him on. And in all three instances, he takes it himself with confidence.
Options existed elsewhere, too. Max Strus was streaking to the corner in the first clip, Evan Mobley was available for a dump-off in the second, and Jarrett Allen had a lob open in the third, but Porter elected to use his body to finish in traffic instead to great effectiveness. The evolution is that he can make those reads in the future.
Porter certainly has his spots on the floor that he likes to get to as well: just outside the paint and at the elbows. He hit several of these against the Nuggets and the Detroit Pistons, looking calm and collected with fallaway jumpers and good body control throughout.
He isn’t the strongest passer, but he makes smart passes. Several times against the Nuggets he hit shooters coming off of screens after seeing the pick-and-roll get swallowed up by a defender. Out of the pick-and-roll, instead of forcing something down low, Porter made smart passes where the bigs could only get them. He made a nice pass to Thompson against the Nuggets that led to an easy layup and another sort of half-lob to Allen against the Pistons seeing a smaller guard trying to defend him. That is certainly encouraging for a team that has dealt with some turnover frustrations.
But it is the other, smaller things that Porter does that impact the Cavs just as equal as the offense. He defends hard, navigates screens well, and plays with an extra gear in the same way that Lamar Stevens did last season. Porter defends well, evidenced by his absurdly high steal and block rates in college of 2.7% and 5% respectively. He enjoys playing on that side of the ball in a way that Marcus Smart does, being able to defend up a position or two and bodying up his man.
Still not convinced he has that junkyard dawg in him? Porter has one of two triple-doubles in Wichita State history (the other being Fred Van Vleet), he blocked 81 shots in college (most for a Wichita State guard ever), and he is the only player in school history to lead the team in rebounding, blocks, steals and assists in the same season. Porter is older than any of the Pistons’ starters he played against last week. He isn’t a normal rookie, he has a little more grit and college miles in him that likely impact his ability to step on the court and produce right away.
Given that the Cavs have an immediate hole at backup point guard, and that both Mitchell and Garland have missed time this season, Porter’s ability to be a plug-and-play option could not be more timely. With Jerome likely sidelined for quite a bit longer, it seems like the backup point guard role is Porter’s to lose. If he keeps playing like this, it will be difficult to keep him off the court even with Jerome and Rubio healthy and available.