It’s been less than a week into college basketball season, he’s nowhere close to a household name yet and hasn’t even made his first start. Don’t worry about it: Kevin Porter Jr. has begun punching his ticket to this year’s draft in earnest. The USC freshman opened the season at No. 17 on our Big Board, and it’s been evident after his first couple games with the Trojans that his ranking was somewhat underselling his talent. It doesn’t feel too early to say that.
Porter stood out with 14 points in Sunday’s four-point loss to Vanderbilt and 15 in a win over Robert Morris earlier in the week. While it hasn’t been a surprise that he’s doing it (as far back as last spring, NBA executives were privately singing his praises), it’s the manner in which he’s doing it that’s left such a significant impression. He’s going to make freshman mistakes (he actually fouled out with less than six minutes left against Vandy and may have cost USC a win), but the 6’6” guard is gifted with the sort of offensive creativity that can’t be taught. The nature of the draft prioritizes prospects with the long view in mind, and there simply aren’t many college players who can do some of the things Porter does.
Though his night was shorter than anyone but Vanderbilt had hoped (23 minutes, 15 points, 5-of-9 shooting, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal), Porter’s highlights legitimately tell a good portion of the story here. He’s explosive, agile and strong, and more importantly, he’s an athlete who can still be all of those things with the ball in his hands. There’s an intrinsic rhythm to his dribble that can be mesmerizing, then jarring as he changes direction. His lefthanded jumper has a low-ish release, but his transfer and gather are quick and he’s a threat to pull up from outside. Had he not fouled out, and had his teammates kept looking for him in the second half, the Trojans probably would have pulled things out.
Porter’s ascent into the obvious one-and-done picture has been somewhat unusual, though not out of nowhere. He was widely rated as a top-40 prospect, but was not named to either the McDonald’s or Jordan Brand teams in 2018. His coming-out party was the Nike Hoop Summit, which he was only invited to participate in as part of a team assembling players from the Pacific Northwest that came in to scrimmage the U.S. All-Star team during the week. There, he turned the heads of NBA scouts, many of whom insisted he was the best player in the entire event that week. Porter, a Seattle native, displayed much of the expressive, breathtaking talent he’s shown at USC through his first two games. NBA teams have been eager to evaluate him in earnest ever since, and he rated as a top-20 prospect on The Crossover’s summer draft board beginning in June.
The Robert Morris tape from earlier in the week is telling in that this wasn’t just a high-major player beating up on inferior competition. Porter’s ability to make plays in motion, make quick pass-shoot decisions and inflict damage in a variety of ways, coupled with the twitch factor in his movements, indicates immense upside as a scorer. He’s doing damage with skills that are somewhere close to pro quality, not just playing the bully. Porter will go through the aches and pains of all young players, and his defense and scoring efficiency will probably be the factors that nag his draft case as we go forward, but the NBA remains driven by teams that can create quality shots, and you can never roster too many of them.
Porter’s game is something in the vein of past Seattle products—there’s some Jamal Crawford to his style, and he’s spent time under Crawford’s wing already. Based on the current landscape of the 2019 draft, it’s not a stretch to think that his sheer talent, unique off-the-dribble ability and shot-creation potential will elevate him into the top-10 conversation. He does some things playing on the move that nobody else in this draft can do right now. That alone is enough to warrant close attention as the young season unfolds and the picture clarifies. Keep the possibilities in mind.