Watch Kevin Porter Jr. initiate the offense in Houston, and it’s not hard to see the similarities between him and his playmaking predecessor.
The 21-year-old guard sports a silky step-back jumper. He can sling cross-court skip passes with ease. His feel in the pick-and-roll is advanced for his age, and in a pinch, Porter can manipulate his body to draw contact near the rim. Making a direct comparison between Porter and James Harden is a bit of an insult to the former MVP. But the outline of a dynamic leading man is clear with Houston’s new young guard.
“[Porter] reminds me a lot of James in a basketball sense,” Rockets director of player development John Lucas says. “You give him a framework and let him paint the picture.”
Assessing Porter Jr.’s first year in Houston is a tricky exercise. The Rockets enter Friday night 4–22 on the year in games featuring Porter. They sport a jarring 119.9 defensive rating with him on the floor, and he ranks No. 9 in total turnovers since the All-Star break. But it’s foolish not to take those numbers with a heavy grain of salt. Houston’s roster has been decimated by injuries and COVID-19 absences. The return for Harden netted largely draft capital, and the Victor Oladipo experiment was a relative disaster. Basing Porter’s season on the ugly metrics is missing the broader context.
So what exactly can we expect from Porter given a more stable situation in 2021–22? The answer could swing Houston’s future.
Catch Porter on the right night, and you see a true star in the making. The Cavaliers’ 2019 first-round pick made his presence felt in Houston in his opening week with the Rockets, tallying 19.6 points and eight assists per game in his first five contests. April 29 marked the greatest display of his immense potential. Porter diced up the Bucks’ defense en route to 51 points and 11 assists, pulling off a pretty impressive Harden impersonation in the process. Porter drained nine threes on the night, four of the step-back variety. He euro-stepped his way to a stream of layups, and perhaps his most impressive play of the night came on a drop-off dime to Jae’Sean Tate in the final minute. Porter sports the ceiling of a future All-Star. Making that a reality is perhaps the organization’s top directive for 2021–22.
“You have to give [Porter] freedom; he’s a little bit of a maestro on the court,” Lucas says. “[Harden], I consider him a complete maestro in the way he controls the game. Kevin is not at that point, but he has all the tools and potential to be a maestro.”
Porter’s path to becoming Houston’s leading man was a bit of a rocky one. He missed the start of the 2020–21 season following a weapons charge (which was later dropped), and he was subsequently jettisoned from Cleveland after an incident relating to his spot in the team’s locker room. Porter’s talent was clear from his first weeks in the NBA. Pairing that talent with the requisite maturity has been a different challenge. Lucas in particular has helped Porter in that respect, and by all accounts, the young guard has been a valued teammate in Houston.
Moving organizations didn’t just help Porter’s maturity off the floor. It unlocked a whole new aspect of his game. Cleveland primarily used Porter as a wing piece, deploying him as a swingman alongside lottery picks Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Porter was too often deployed as a spot-up shooter, unable to unleash his impressive creativity off the bounce. The move to Houston allowed Porter to return to his strengths. He became a full-time point guard in the G League bubble for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and upon joining the Rockets, Porter quickly seized a major playmaking load. Not every possession is perfect, and the growing pains are quite evident on nights when Porter is struggling with his jumper. But unlike during his Cleveland tenure, Porter is now in a position to succeed under coach Stephen Silas.
There’s been material growth from Porter as a leading man in recent weeks. He enters Friday averaging a solid 0.97 points per isolation possession, a better-than-average mark after sitting second-to-last among qualified players prior to the start of May. His true shooting percentage has climbed over five percent in his last 10 games. Porter has found true chemistry with Kelly Olynyk, and lineups featuring Porter and Tate are averaging a healthy (albeit unspectacular) 112.3 points per 100 possessions. The significant reps are paying dividends, even if it’s not reflected in Houston’s record.
“It’s about getting comfortable in that spot with players spreading the floor,” Silas says. “It’s a feeling out process right now with who is there, how you can attack the defense the best. It can be a step-back, it can be driving and taking a step back. ...He’s making some strides there.”
Porter’s improvement over the course of 2020–21 is encouraging for Houston, though having him to operate as a one-man-band isn't exactly a panacea to the franchise's long-term concerns. For the Rockets to make a leap back toward respectability next season, Porter will have to become an effective cog within a machine. He won’t be handed the keys to the car à la Harden nearly a decade ago.
Silas’s system is one predicated on using multiple playmakers, with the offense working best when the ball continues to swing from side-to-side throughout each possession. And Houston should have plenty of options to attack an opposing defense. John Wall will look to log a full healthy season in 2021–22. Christian Wood commands his own share of defensive attention. There will likely be a highly-touted lottery pick entering the fold, potentially former Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham. Houston is optimistic it can utilize multiple playmakers in unison, citing the relative effectiveness between Porter and Wall thus far in 2020–21.
“Both [Porter and Wall] can play on either side of the floor,” Silas says. “John has actually excelled this year spotting up and catching and shooting. … To have two dynamic guys who can play off each other, who can play together, that’s something we think can work.”
It’s hard to set expectations for the Rockets in 2021–22 considering just how disjointed their season has been. Eric Gordon hasn't played since mid-March. Wall and Wood both missed significant time. Silas's squad spent much of March and April lucky to deploy a nine-man rotation, and we haven’t even discussed the early-season upheaval caused by Harden’s departure. Assessing the results of this season is anything but easy. Finding Houston's place in next year's league hierarchy is additionally difficult.
The Western Conference will only improve next season, but this isn’t a Rockets roster completely devoid of talent. Wall has flashed his Washington form in spurts. Porter, Wood and Tate represent an intriguing young core. Add the right lottery pick and good health, and perhaps this is a frisky play-in contender in the spring of 2022. Houston made a furious push into Finals contention as it added pieces around Harden over the last half decade. Growing the roster with Porter at the helm will be an exercise in patience.
“Will we be great next year? No,” Lucas says. “But we have the guys to be a lot better.”