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How the Nuggets’ unlikely Michael Porter Jr. pick came to be

Credit-Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

Michael Porter Jr.'s slide surprised everybody — including Michael Porter Jr.

“It’s been an unreal night," he said Thursday.

All spring and summer, any mock draft you could find had the sweet-shooting 6-foot-10 forward going somewhere in the top 10. It didn't matter that Porter played a total of 53 minutes in his lone season of college at Missouri because of a bad back. His blend of size and smoothness doesn't come around very often. That was the reason why Porter and the Nuggets didn't even have any real contact until the day of the draft.

"The first time I talked to anybody on the Denver staff was today," Porter said. "I think they were at my pro day. Other than that, it hadn’t really crossed my mind."

The Nuggets contacted Porter through his agent Thursday on the off chance that he was still available when they picked at 14. Both sides still considered it a long shot at that point. Then the Bulls passed on him at seventh, the Cavaliers went another route at eighth, the 76ers resisted at 10th, and the Hornets and Clippers followed suit at 11th, 12th and 13th. All of a sudden, both sides had to consider an option that seemed remote hours earlier: the player with perhaps the highest upside in the draft would be available with the last lottery pick.

"Before the draft, they were saying we don’t really imagine you falling to us," Porter said. "We don’t really know you. We haven’t really gotten a chance to know you. We didn’t think we’d have a chance to get you. So basically, the conversation was them getting to know me. The conversation after the draft, they sounded really, really excited. They just wanted to get me back to 100 percent healthy."

Health, of course, was the reason Porter fell so far. Porter played 2 minutes in Missouri's season opener before opting to have back surgery. When he returned for two games in March, he lacked the explosion that made him Rivals' top-rated player in the Class of 2017 over guys like Marvin Bagley III and DeAndre Ayton.

When Porter woke up Thursday, he was prepared to go as high as No. 2 to the Sacramento Kings. Instead, he was forced to watch and wait while seated alongside his family inside the Barclays Center in New York.

"I'm gonna make sure this pick is the best pick this organization has ever made," Porter said on ESPN's telecast after the No. 14 pick was announced.

Denver was reportedly deciding between Porter and Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith. As Nuggets president of basketball of basketball operations Tim Connelly put it, "I think you have to take a swing at guys like that."

"At some point, it becomes a risk-reward ratio," Connelly said. "He's an elite talent who without back issues we wouldn't have had the good fortune of drafting."

Porter joins a 23-and-under core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. That group helped Denver navigate Paul Millsap's wrist injury and finish 46-36 — one game out of the playoff race. If everything breaks right, Porter could be a scoring machine on a team that's already finished in the top six in offensive efficiency two seasons in a row.

"That’s a really good young team, which is very unselfish," Porter said. "That’s what I like about it: their unselfishness. I like to play with some guys who love basketball. When I watch them, that’s the feel I get. I’m excited."

It will require some luck, but the unlikely marriage has the chance to be something special. The Nuggets needed to fill in the gaps around Jokic, Murray and Harris with help on the wings. If Porter's back heals, and he turns his immense potential into production, the Nuggets could be positioned well in the unforgiving Western Conference.

“We met about it extensively over the last 48 hours — what if, what if, what if," Connelly said. "This morning the what if became a bit more real. And then it became, 'This might happen.' Thankfully, we had ownership in the room, and it was fantastic. We had our doctors and training staff in the room, and coach (Michael) Malone, and we kind of looked around and said, 'This is the kind of risk we have to take to get elite talent.'"

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