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Michael Porter Jr. grateful in his Denver Nuggets return: ‘My confidence in my game doesn’t leave me’

Riddled by injury so far in his NBA career, Porter Jr. has gained perspective through his faith and working on his mental health

While it was just a preseason game against the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder on Oct. 3, Michael Porter Jr. couldn’t help but smile as if it was one of the biggest games of his life. In essence, it was that big. Returning to action after three back surgeries put it all in perspective for the injury-riddled Denver Nuggets forward, who is now trying to “appreciate all the moments.”

“I was like, ‘Man, it feels good to be back out here.’ We’re all superexcited to get this thing going. We have a really good team,” Porter Jr. reflected to Andscape following a Nuggets practice at the University of California San Francisco.

Porter Jr., played in only nine games for Denver last season after undergoing lumbar spine surgery on Dec. 1 to address a lower back injury. The 6-foot-10 Porter Jr., played only three games during his lone college season as a freshman at the University of Missouri in 2017-2018. His initial back problem caused him to drop from a potential No. 1 pick candidate to the 14th selection in the 2018 NBA draft. Porter Jr. also missed his entire rookie season with the Nuggets after back surgery and has had three back procedures total.

When healthy, however, Porter Jr., has been a big scorer for the Nuggets. The 24-year-old averaged 19 points in 31 minutes during the 2020-21 season and once scored 28 in a playoff game. While the Nuggets have a two-time NBA MVP on their roster in center Nikola Jokic, to truly have championship aspirations, they need Porter Jr., and guard Jamal Murray healthy.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he has never had a young player in his 23 years in the NBA who has had as many health challenges as Porter Jr. But Malone is optimistic that he will have a healthy Porter Jr. this season.

“The one priority for Michael is to hope that he stays healthy and gets through the season,” Malone said. “If he does that, offensively, we know how gifted he is. The guy can score from all over the place. He is such a threat and weapon on the offensive end of the floor. Just continued buy-in on defense. When your shots are not going in, what are you going to do for this team to help us defensively, rebounding, giving yourself up on offense?

“Michael knows that with the moves that we have made and getting him and Jamal back, this team has a chance to be a special team. And everybody has to check their egos at the door. Everybody. If we do that, we have a chance to do some of the things we’ve set as goals. Michael was working his butt off, is healthy and his head is in a good place. I’m just thankful that he’s back with us, healthy and playing the game that he loves.”

Porter Jr., and the Nuggets open the season Wednesday against the host Utah Jazz. The following is a Q&A with Porter in which he talks about his mental health, spirituality, the Nuggets’ title hopes, Jokic, the Porter hoop lineage and much more.

Michael Porter Jr. is returning to the court after multiple back surgeries.

Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

You will play in your first regular-season game on Wednesday since Dec 1. What are your emotions and perspective heading into the game?

There will be gratefulness. Appreciation. For me, I need to look at the positives and be patient with my progress through everything. If something doesn’t happen, I need to learn how to do it again instead of looking at how far I still I have to go to reach my ultimate goals. So, I’m trying to slow down a little, appreciate all the moments, especially coming back from multiple injuries. I’m trying to have a change in my mindset.

What was the genesis of that mindset?

For me sometimes, I would get down on myself because I wouldn’t have it all back right away. And I think taking the little steps that you make and being appreciative for just the little victories in the road is something I’m having to learn how to do. So, I’m trying to just take it step by step with the ultimate goal and ultimate vision in my mind of getting back and being the best.

Was there anybody in particular that helped you get that mindset or any moment?

I got a lot of people in my corner. [It’s] not complaining, but I feel like I might do some talking to them about how far I still want to go, you know. Not feeling like I’m back where I want to be during the rehab process. And they just keep reminding me of little victories. ‘Remember where you were a month ago. Remember where you were two months ago.’ Shout-out to my parents, some of my mental people. I have different people in my life.

I saw you gave a shout-out to former NBA guard Isaiah Thomas, who overcame his own major injury issues to return to action, on social media. Has he been giving you words of wisdom?

We definitely chat some and I just respect his slow grind. He’s been through a lot. Slow grind is a thing, a motto for him. And he’s just cool. He’s an inspiration. He really is. Wakes up every day with a smile, get in the gym, work. He’s just the definition of controlling what you can control. And I think that’s what a lot of people need to work on, is controlling what you can control, leave rest up to God.

What was the toughest times through that last season for you after only playing in nine games?

Man, not knowing if I’m going to get back to where I want to be. I definitely have the mental strength and the mindset to be the best and to work the hardest. But would my body allow it? This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Having those days where you question it because you’re in so much pain. So those were the hardest days. Not really knowing if you’re going to get back to what you want to be.

Do you remember your thoughts heading into your last back surgery?

Same thing. ‘This is the third go-around. Am I going to get back to where I want to be? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?’ You have those thoughts. And then on top of that, with the big contract thing, all the naysayers [saying] ‘He’s getting hurt. He’s not living up to this and he’s not going to live up to this or that.’ I don’t really pay attention to it, but you still hear it. I want to be able to produce at that high level that I know I’m capable of. Obviously, my body doesn’t work.

The Nuggets re-signed you to a five-year, $207 million contract extension before last season. (Porter will make $30.1 million in the first year of the extension this season.) What did the Nuggets having faith in you despite the injuries mean to you?

This means a lot. They got a lot of trust in me, especially being through some injuries. It just shows their belief in me. They know how hard I work, too. I’m trying to be the best draft pick Denver’s ever had. We got a lot of really good players, and my goal is to be one of those guys who they look back on drafting me and they’re very thankful that they took a chance on me. It took a long way to go to get to where I want to be. But that’s still a goal in my mind.

Where are you at physically now? How is your game?

I feel really good right now. I feel just as good as I have since I’ve been in the league. Still a lot of things I want to improve on, get better on, but I feel like for now it’s going to be steps up. Keep going up, keep going up until I keep reaching those goals, helping my team win, things like that. I kind of figured out the back thing, Lord willing. I think I kind of figured that out. So, now I can just keep growing and growing. I spent a lot of my offseason just getting back on the floor. So now, to be back where I’m on the court, I just feel like I can grow from here.

Is your confidence back?

It doesn’t leave me. My confidence in my game doesn’t leave me. But confidence in movement, I’m still working through all that. But I’m good. I feel really good. My balance is getting there. It’s coming along. That’s the last thing, the last pop, the last bit of explosiveness is kind of what you wait on the most. But it is getting there, for sure. Every week, every month, it’s getting better and better.

Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone believes the Nuggets have “a chance to be a special team” with (from left to right): Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

“I’m learning how to try to get my love from a stable source, which for me is God. So, learning to put that over things that are superchanging and fleeting, like the admiration of fans or what the public says about you, that’s been a big thing that’s brought me peace.”

I know you and your family have strong Christian faith. How much did you lean on that during your recovery process as well as mental health?

The more I lean on those, the more I’m in the word, I’m really letting that be their priority over basketball and being the best, the more basketball and things just come into being. A lot of times I try to force being the best. Get in the gym as much as possible. So, I was always paying attention to the physical side of things, which was the basketball, working out, lifting, whatever it is. I never really was paying a lot of attention to the mental side, the emotional side, the spiritual side, which is where I think I’m going to make the biggest difference this time around.

What are you doing with mental health?

Reading, journaling. It’s the people you have in your life. It’s the priorities, what you’re putting first. I feel like if you put the mental and emotional and spiritual side first over the physical, even though the physical is important, you’ll make it farther in life and be in more peace and happy. Everyone in the NBA is skilled. But who separated themselves mentally and emotionally? Who can handle the ups and downs? Who can handle the failures? Who can handle the pressures? Guys are skilled, guys can make shots, guys are athletic. Who got it up here [mentally]? So that’s the part where I’m trying to get to be the best.”

Do you have a mental health coach?

He’s a borderline psychologist, but more like just a mental coach-type person. I’m also with my parents and I’ve got pastors who I talk to. All type of people.

What is the best advice that’s helped from your psychiatric sessions?

A lot of people have the answers inside themselves on how they need to improve them their lives and grow. So, what we do is we get on Zoom, and we talk through different things. He hears my thoughts on it. It’s not a lot of him giving advice. We record these talks and then before we talk again, I got to go back and watch our previous talk and see myself talk. See if I’m lying to myself. But I have the answers to a lot of things in me.

He’ll show me different pictures, give me different little readings to read to get my thoughts going. He helps me navigate through it on my own because no one’s path to enlightenment or awakening is the same. We all have a different path. So, it’s less advice and it’s more like helping me get in the right mind space and perspective for myself.

What are the best words you received from a pastor?

Just reminding me who I am, reminding me why I do what I do. It’s not for the approval of people, it’s not for the approval of coach. You don’t even have to impress God. The thing that I’m learning is there are so many things that are unstable in life. The admiration of people, the admiration of fans. A lot of stuff is fleeting. You can have a good game and people can be talking amazing about you. The next day you can get in a slump and then they forget all about the good games and they’re talking crazy about you.

So, a lot of people get anxious or mental problems when they’re putting their kind of hope in love that’s unstable. So, I’m learning how to try to get my love from a stable source, which for me is God. So, learning to put that over things that are superchanging and fleeting, like the admiration of fans or what the public says about you, that’s been a big thing that’s brought me peace. Because then you don’t go out in the games and play for the fans or the people or the naysayers. It’s just for your purpose, to make [an] impact, and to be the best you could be. So, I think that’s helped me a lot to bring me some peace.

Have you and Jamal, who missed last season to knee injury, been helping each other a lot?

Being through the injuries together definitely has been good. I’ve been through the rehab process before so I could relate to him and what he’s going through. We definitely grew closer, and I think it’ll translate on the court.

How good is Nikola Jokic?

He’s the back-to-back MVP. He’s obviously very good. He’s going to be excited to have all of us guys back, take some pressure off of him. Man, he’s so fun to play with. He makes the game a lot easier for all of us.

Do the Nuggets talk first-ever NBA championship?

We do. I talk less though; it’s more actions. We’ve got to come in with the championship mindset and the work ethic. One thing also, for me, is a lot of people have these far-out goals and they’ll say that they had success or failure in their life based on if they hit those goals or not. But a lot of people never hit those far-out goals they have. So, for us, it’s more about the everyday goals. And I think if we take care of those small things … that’s what I was saying. Instead of trying to force talk about [winning a] championship all day, OK then, what if we have an amazing season, but something happens? If we don’t win a championship, is it a failure? So having that mindset and that goal of a championship culture every day, and then the other big stuff takes care of itself, is the way I like to look at it.

For the Porter family, basketball is a way of life. Your father played at the University of New Orleans. Your mother starred at the University of Iowa. Your sisters, Bri and Cierra, played for the University of Missouri. Your brother Jontay played for the Memphis Grizzlies and is now with the Milwaukee Bucks’ G League team. Your brother Coban plays at the University of Denver, and your brother Jevon is a freshman at Pepperdine University. There is also some talk about Jevon being the next one to make it to the NBA. What are your thoughts on him?

Jevon is out at Pepperdine, is 6-11 and can shoot and dribble. He is definitely next up. He is like my twin. My mini-me. Our birthdays are two days apart. I don’t really believe in zodiac sign[s], but we got a lot of similarities. I’m excited to see what he does this season at Pepperdine.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.