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Draft Steals in the Mile-High City

Talent can be found in unusual places. Every draft pick is a gamble, whether it be a lottery pick or a late second rounder. This is the reason why scouting is extremely important for NBA franchises, especially after the first few picks have been drafted. There are players in each and every draft that can drastically change a team, and it is up to each organization’s front office to figure out who they are.

Over the past two NBA drafts (2018, 2019), there have been two very high-profile prospects that were overlooked due to injury history. Both Michael Porter Jr. in 2018 and Bol Bol in 2019 entered their respective drafts coming off significant injuries, and the Denver Nuggets decided to take a chance on both of them.

Circumstance allowed for a team like the Nuggets to roll the dice on injury prone players like these. When Porter Jr. was drafted fourteenth overall in 2018, Denver was coming off a fairly mediocre season, where they finished ten games over .500, but they just barely missed the eighth seed in the west. Their roster was very solid at the time with the likes of Nikola Jokić, Will Barton, and Gary Harris leading the group.

Denver already had a very well-rounded team to work with, therefore they were not looking for a savior in the draft, but rather someone who could work with their existing foundation. Porter Jr. is a player who has the capability to reach incredible heights at the NBA level with the proper development. And since the Nuggets decided to not make him the immediate centerpiece of the offense, he can adjust to the professional level at his own pace, while the team stays competitive.

Bol, who was a second-round pick, is in the same boat as Porter Jr., as Denver drafting him may seriously work to his benefit later in his career. Both athletes are categorized as high risk, high reward picks. If either of them are unable to consistently stay healthy, then it means Denver wasted their draft picks. However, if Porter Jr. and Bol are able to stay on the court, the Nuggets will become a Western Conference powerhouse.  

Michael Porter Jr. stays patient as playing time increases - The San Diego  Union-Tribune
Ben Margot/AP Photo

As soon as Porter Jr. stepped onto a high school basketball court, scouts knew he was something special. His high school resume really helped show off his basketball dominance to the world, as his accolades spoke for themselves. Porter Jr. scored upwards of 3,400 points, won two state championships, and was the 2016/17 MaxPreps National Player of the Year.

That 2016/17 season is what really made him stand out, as Porter Jr. would lead his team to a perfect season (29-0); capping it off with a state championship. That year, he averaged a staggering 36.2 points per game, which helped him become a five-star recruit and one of the most highly touted young prospects in the sport.

ESPN ranked Porter Jr. No. 2 overall in their class of 2017 recruit list; only trailing Marvin Bagley III. Though it was not just his incredible accomplishments that helped Porter Jr. rank so high, but his frame. He has the perfect NBA build by standing at 6’10’’ with guard like skills. The natural athletic talent that he possessed to go along with his superior skill made him one of the most desirable prospects for any team.

In March of 2017, Porter Jr. declared for Missouri after decommitting from Washington. Despite this being the time where most players raise their draft stock, college is where Porter Jr.’s took a hit. This is because he injured his lower back in the team’s season opener against Iowa. As a result, the young forward was forced to have back surgery and only returned for two games in the NCAA tournament.

Despite nearly no college exposure, Porter Jr. decided to declare for the NBA draft; mostly riding on his high school reputation and past accolades. Even though he was taken in the first round, it was still much lower than many experts previously expected entering the year. Porter Jr. was projected to be a lottery pick out of high school, which is why Denver got a steal with him at fourteen.

Injuries absolutely sabotaged his draft status, because teams did not want to wait a year for their first-round pick to play. Many organizations were well aware that Porter Jr. had a high probability of sitting out his rookie season due to past and lingering injuries. Denver did not mind this, as they had the patience and as expected, Porter Jr. missed all of the 2018/19 season after undergoing his second back surgery in July of 2018.

When he was ready to go at the beginning of the 2019/20 season, flashes of the amazing talent he possessed started to show. So far in his young career, Porter Jr. has had the tough task of trying to find production in very limited minutes. The Denver Nuggets have a very deep roster and even making it into the rotation can be difficult. However, Porter Jr. has taken full advantage of every opportunity he has been given.

In his first start, he scored 19 points in only 26 minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans, and less than a week later, he scored 25 points in just 23 minutes against the Sacramento Kings. The forward has only played in 48 games, averaging only 14 minutes, yet he has been able to stay in rhythm offensively by shooting 42% from three-point range and nearly 50% from the field.

Even the more advanced statistics support Porter Jr.’s efficiency on the court, as he is averaging 19.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. Considering that he is just getting his feet wet in the NBA, there is no telling how great Porter Jr. can become.

The other sleeper pick that the Nuggets drafted was 7’2’’ Bol Bol. The skilled big man had a slightly different basketball uprising compared to Porter Jr. This is mainly because Bol Bol is the son of the late Manute Bol, a former NBA player. With this being the case, the spotlight was put on Bol as soon as he started playing competitive basketball.

Standing at 6’10’’ at just the age of 14, while also being the son of a well-known NBA player, coaches and scouts across the country were quickly drawn to the freak athlete. The spectacular length that Bol possessed made him a viable player right out the gate. Though his versatility is what really helped him become a legitimate prospect.

During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Bol was much less refined and generally just used his insane size to dominate. However, once he reached his junior year, the pure skill started to become more apparent. Bol was competing with the best players in the nation and played some phenomenal basketball. The center had one game his senior season where he shot 14-of-17 from the field and scored 32 points in a brief 21 minutes.

For top-tier high school prospect standards, Bol was a late bloomer, but once he got going, nothing could stop him except injuries. Bol finished his senior season averaging 20.4 points and 2.4 blocks per game; ultimately leading to him being selected to the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game. Bol was unable to participate in the game due to injury, and unfortunately for him, this would become a trend with him later on.

Report: Miami Heat Hold 'Legitimate Intrigue' in Acquiring Oregon's Bol Bol  - Heat Nation
Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, Bol was still one of the best young players in the country, as he was ranked No. 4 overall on ESPN’s recruiting class for 2018. The five-star recruit decided to take his talents to Oregon for the next step in his basketball journey. Similar to how Porter Jr.’s collegiate career went, Bol’s was cut short due to injury. However, in contrast to his Denver teammate, Bol was able to play some very impressive games for Oregon before going down to a foot injury in mid-December.

The center recorded a double-double in his collegiate debut against Portland State, however, it was his game against Texas Southern where he really displayed his tools when he dropped a season-high 32 points and 11 rebounds. The capabilities that Bol showed for his size had him as a projected top 10 pick before the injury.

With 2019 being one of the strongest draft classes in years, it was expected that Bol would drop, but sinking to the second round was extremely surprising. Denver was thrilled that they were able to acquire Bol so late in the draft. It was actually the Miami Heat who drafted Bol, but Denver traded for him on draft night.

Bol has still yet to play an NBA game and odds are he will have to wait until next season to suit up. He signed a two-way contract with the Nuggets, but has only played eight games in the G-league. The talent is there, but once again the opportunity is key.

Bol will get a chance to prove himself, and he will not disappoint when the time comes. It is Denver’s tough rotation that is nearly impossible to crack, however, despite this, it will push the young players to work even harder to earn minutes. The Nuggets are not an injury prone team, and they are very well-balanced position wise. Even if it seems like these potential talents are being “wasted” on the bench or in the G-league, the payoff will be worth it in the end.

Both Porter Jr. and Bol have seen very limited action so far, but NBA history has shown that players sitting out early in their careers can prove beneficial. Notable players such as Blake Griffin, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons all sat out their first seasons in the league and their careers have transpired as expected. The main difference with those players is that they were on bad teams when they debuted.

Porter Jr. and Bol will be put right into a playoff race once they enter the Nuggets rotation. Easing them in with reduced playing time is the best way to incorporate these young phenoms into the system. NBA players with the perfect build like Michael Porter Jr. or the unbelievable length like Bol Bol are rare commodities. Their blend of athleticism, shooting, ball-handling, and overall raw ability can make the two a deadly tandem one day.

The Nuggets stole these players in the late rounds. Both were five-star recruits out of high school and have only been held back by injuries. Porter Jr. and Bol may be names that are feared in years to come. The league better watch out for the Mile-High City.

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