Kevin Porter Jr. should be the favorite for Most Improved Player
It came as a bit of a surprise when veteran guard John Wall and the Houston Rockets agreed to part ways. It’s not that many envisioned a long future for Wall on the Rockets, but the resolution came faster than anyone could have expected. Wall still has two years remaining on his contract and it was assumed he would be stuck playing in Houston until at least next year. Wall’s absence completely changes how we should view the Rockets next season, particularly with Kevin Porter Jr.
The Rockets are making a pretty clear bet here: Kevin Porter Jr. is a starting caliber point guard in the NBA. It’s a bold proposition on many fronts. First, Porter Jr. was never viewed as anything more than an intriguing shooting guard prospect until last season. In fact, he played small forward in the NBA before ever playing point guard. His passing ability indicates that it was a mistake for Cleveland to place him in a box like this.
— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) August 31, 2021
Kevin Porter Jr. seems to know where the rest of his teammates are on the floor at all times. It may not always manifest itself in the right basketball play, but it’s clear that he possesses it. Per 36 minutes last season, Porter Jr. averaged 7.1 assists and it’s almost like Houston unlocked a dormant part of his game. There are still some rough areas he has to clean up, particularly the turnovers (3.9 per 36 minutes). But it’s not hard to envision the point guard that the Rockets see.
— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) August 31, 2021
The fit next to rookie Jalen Green will be interesting to watch because both players have a similar style of scoring the basketball. However, Green doesn’t possess the same instinctual passing abilities as Porter Jr. so, they may actually compliment each other long-term. It’s a matter of if Porter Jr. can commit to this floor general role and be comfortable with allowing isolation possessions to favor Jalen Green over the course of a game. Stephen Silas may benefit from staggering the two’s minutes so Porter Jr. can be the lead scorer when Green isn’t in the game and Green can develop his playmaking while Porter Jr. isn’t in the game.
Either way, with Wall’s exodus, Kevin Porter Jr. will be playing a ton of minutes next season with a giant role. There isn’t another point guard type figure on the team outside of perhaps D.J. Augustin. This means he’ll also have a high usage rate next season. If he really has a stellar year, the opportunity to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award is sitting right there for him. He’ll obviously have to do improve in a few areas.
In addition to the turnovers, Porter Jr. is far from a polished offensive product. For one, his ball handling isn’t as tight as it needs to be for a lead guard in the NBA. It seems like every game there is a possession where he loses or almost loses the basketball simply because he dribbled too high or miscalculated where the ball was going to go off of a bounce. Fortunately, ball handling is one of the easier basketball traits for a guard to improve on. DeMar DeRozan is the prime example of this.
Secondly, the shooting efficiency is probably the biggest area where Porter Jr. needs to take a step forward. Though he scored 16.6 points per game, he only shot the ball at a true shooting percentage of 52.8%. This has to become at least league average (around 55%) for him to become a reliable scoring option in the NBA. The easiest ways Porter Jr. can do that is by shooting better from the free throw line (career 72.8%) and from three-point range (career 32.3%). Becoming a better shooter is often one of the harder things a player can do in the league so it will be interesting to see his percentages next season.
Defensively, Porter Jr. is just horrendous. Per ESPN’s Defensive RPM metric, he was the worst defensive player in the NBA last season. The Rockets were 7 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Porter Jr. was off the floor. League average may be too ambitious of a goal, but it doesn’t have to be if he gives better effort off the ball where the bulk of his issues seem to come from.
These are a lot of areas here to clean up, but the Rockets are entrusting a significant chunk of the offense to Porter Jr. next season. If he performs well, Kevin Porter Jr. will have minutes, opportunity, and narrative on his side for the Most Improved Player debate. This was a player that was drafted way later then he should have been and traded for absolutely nothing. Voters love a story like that working out. Looking at the rest of the field, there are few players that check as many boxes going into next season.