The Houston Rockets acquiring guard Kevin Porter Jr. from the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second round pick that was unlikely to convert is the textbook definition of a low-risk acquisition. The Cavaliers ran out of patience with Porter Jr. and the Rockets were happy to take on his tantalizing talent for free. Even now, Houston can rid themselves of Porter Jr. and correctly say that the gamble cost the franchise nothing. For Porter Jr., however, the Rockets presented him with a second chance to make a new first impression.
NBA scouts and executives are much smarter than the general public gives them credit for. In 2019, none of them were naive to the kind of on-court talent Porter Jr. was. It was always about the off-court issues with him. “Could Porter Jr. stay on the straight and narrow?” was the quintessential question you had to ask yourself when drafting him. 29 teams decided it wasn’t worth using a first round pick to figure it out. The Rockets, however, have never been shy about betting on the upside of someone’s talent.
Porter Jr. finished the year for Houston, averaging an impressive 16.6 points, 6.3 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. He wasn’t exactly the model of efficient shot-making (52.8% true shooting), but it’s important to remember that this was just Porter Jr.’s sophomore season.
What really put Kevin Porter Jr. on the league’s radar was his late-season performance against the Milwaukee Bucks where he posted 50 points, 11 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1 block on 16-of-26 shooting from the field, 9-of-15 shooting from three-point range, and 9-of-11 from the free throw line. The only other players to have a 50-point game before the age of 21 are LeBron James, Devin Booker, and Brandon Jennings.
What’s interesting is that although he’s only played 76 NBA games (only 26 of which have been with Houston), Porter Jr. is now entering that critical third season that makes or breaks a lot of NBA stars. It’s also the season where the Rockets have to decide whether or not to start negotiating a rookie extension. Rookie extensions are typically only handed out to the best of the best of any given draft class as teams can retain players quite easily through restricted free agency. If Kevin Porter Jr. shows star-caliber talent in the 2021-22 season though, the Rockets may want to secure his talents to a long-term deal.
The ideal version of Porter Jr. actually fits quite well offensively with Houston’s young nucleus, particularly shooting guard Jalen Green. Green is an awesome NBA prospect, displaying three-level scoring ability in the G-League. However, the one area of his offensive game that’s not as well developed as other elite guard prospects is the playmaking. For Porter Jr., passing is just an instinctual ability as he always seems to be surveying the floor.
— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) August 31, 2021
This really comes to form in his ability as a pick and roll ball handler where Kevin Porter Jr. was able to find big men for lobs as well as open teammates on the perimeter.
— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) August 31, 2021
It’s tempting to slot Kevin Porter Jr. in as a shooting guard in the NBA, but this natural playmaking ability leads me to believe he’s better suited to play point guard in the long run. In his first season with the Rockets, he will almost assuredly have to play both, as John Wall will likely be the starter on day one and Jalen Green will spend most of his time at shooting guard. I suspect Porter Jr. will start games at shooting guard then transition to point guard when Jalen Green comes off the bench (assuming the Rockets use a two-guard lineup next season). He’s also so young you don’t really have to box him in at this point.
There are some areas where he’ll need to show meaningful growth to demand the contract that his camp is likely going to ask for. For starters, Porter Jr. is dreadful defensive player. Teams scored 7 points per 100 possessions better on the Rockets when Porter Jr. was on the floor and by ESPN’s Defensive RPM stat, he was the worst defender in the NBA last season.
As mentioned before, his scoring efficiency also isn’t the best at the moment. He’s clearly a very shifty player with good dribble moves, body control, and touch. However, he’s just not hitting three-pointers (31.1%) and free throws (73.4%) at a high enough clip. A lot of players improve in these areas over time (particularly the three-point shooting), but it’s clearly not where it need to be yet. The Rockets have had success turning seeming non-shooters (P.J. Tucker, K.J. Martin, etc…) into capable threats before, so it’ll be interesting to see if assistant coach John Lucas and the rest of Houston’s player development staff can get Porter Jr. to hitting threes at a consistently average clip next season. As a whole, a good goal for him would be 55% true shooting.
This is a big proving ground year for Kevin Porter Jr. He’ll likely be given a starting opportunity again on day one and if he can run with it to new heights, there’s a big pay day waiting for him in the 2022 offseason. However, if flatlines or doesn’t improve enough, the Rockets never invested anything to begin with so they can afford to play the restricted free agency game in 2023. Houston is going to be exciting to watch for a lot of reasons next season, but among the top of those is getting to see if Porter Jr. is moving in the right direction.