Otto Porter seamlessly makes the leap from small town to Georgetown

Sunday, February 12, 2012
Marquette's Todd Mayo (4) and Georgetown's Otto Porter (22) scramble for a loose ball during second half of their NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Richard Lipski)

WASHINGTON -- Otto Porter's desire to get into Georgetown's games is obvious.

Once the contest tips off, Porter intently follows the action and eyes Georgetown coach John Thompson III just about every time the coach saunters past. He leans a little forward in his seat, waiting for the word from Thompson. The coach often quickly obliges with a little head nod or flick of the wrist, and Porter pops up, pulls off his warmup and scurries to the scorer's table to check in.

"Whenever he put me in, he put me in," Porter said. "I'm fine with that. I just go out there and try to help the team. That's my only thing."

Porter rarely sees the bench again after Thompson inserts him into the lineup. He has played at least 20 minutes in 21 of the team's 23 games. He's played 40 minutes twice and averages 28.8 minutes per game, which ranks third on the team.

Coming off the bench is just one of many new experiences for Porter since he moved to the nation's capital over the summer.

He's a world traveler.

He's a student at a premier academic institution.

He's a college basketball player earning national attention.

He's scored against his favorite NBA player in a pickup game.

But with all the new experiences, he's still the soft-spoken kid from Morley, Mo., who thousands watched dominate on the basketball courts of Southeast Missouri. He's still Bubba, the player with the big grin and jump shot that never seems to miss, even if his arms are a little more defined and he speaks more confidently about himself and basketball.

It's taken little time for the former Scott County Central star to turn heads in the Big East, which is regarded as one of toughest men's basketball conferences in the country. He's leading his team in rebounding and ranks fourth in scoring for the Hoyas, who are ranked No. 12 in the country.

Georgetown's Otto Porter passes the ball as American's Daniel Munoz defends during the first half of their game earlier this season in Washington. (LUIS ALVAREZ ~ Associated Press)

"Otto Porter is a terrific young player," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said in an email. "He is long armed, athletic, can shoot it and has a really high skill level. Porter really understands how to play and to compete at a high level, and he was prepared to step in and compete right away. He is the complete package, and with experience and strength added, he can be a special player at Georgetown."

The 6-foot-8 Porter only has started one game, which came Jan. 17 at DePaul. That's not a reflection of his importance to the Hoyas (18-5).

"I think it's just worked for us so far," Thompson said. "I mean, he's playing starter's minutes."

The coach isn't worried about burdening the freshman with heavy expectations by inserting him into the starting lineup.

"I think that Otto can handle anything that's thrown at him," Thompson said. "He's shown that this year."

Coming off the bench is a new experience for Porter, although he wasn't a varsity starter for his entire high school career. SCC coach Ronnie Cookson waited until December of Porter's freshman year to move him into the varsity starting lineup.

"It really hasn't been tough," Porter said about not starting. "I just play my role on the team, and of course I just try to give energy off the bench coming in. I try to play my game."

When Porter does enter the game, he rarely resembles the player who wreaked havoc on the courts in Southeast Missouri. He primarily plays on the wing on the offensive end after patrolling the inside in high school, but his jump shot still rarely touches the rim as it swishes through the net.

"Coach tells me I need to learn all spots," Porter said. "That's what I try to do in practice and play in the game. Just being comfortable on the wing, to use my long arms and things like that."

Thompson beams when he talks about Porter's potential, and the coach doesn't want to pigeonhole Porter so early in his career.

"I think the beauty of Otto is his versatility in that he can be a perimeter player as well as a midrange player, and depending on the matchup, he can be a post player," Thompson said. "So what we've tried not to do is to restrict his game. We've tried not to say, 'Hey, just do this, just do that.' Like, 'Otto, you better be able to do everything. We're going to need you to do everything. You're capable of doing everything.' Literally, it's been working on every part of the game because some people can work on every part, but they're not going to have success at every part of the game. I think he will be able to have success everywhere on the court."

Perhaps Porter's greatest contribution is his rebounding. He's averaging a team-high 6.9 rebounds and has recorded three double-doubles, including Wednesday's 14-point, 13-rebound performance at No. 2 Syracuse.

"He's a really good player, and we knew that going in," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "But he had an outstanding game. He made jump shots, he rebounded the ball. The whole game, he was all over the backboards."

Porter hasn't lost his nose for rebounds. He reads the ball well off the backboard, which allows him to get into good position to grab the rebound. His eyes follow the arc of the ball as it heads toward the rim, and he starts muscling his way into position as the ball approaches the basket.

Georgetown freshman Otto Porter shoots over Alabama forward Nick Jacobs during their game earlier this season in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (ROBERT SUTTON ~ Associated Press)

He needs to be quicker because he no longer towers over the competition, but he still can grab a rebound and quickly go back up with a shot as he seems to hang in the air to avoid the defense. It's a move he showed countless times in high school, especially during his 29-point, 35-rebound performance in the Class 1 state title game his junior year.

Porter still is finding his role in the offense. He passes on a lot of shots that he would have taken in high school, although he's shooting 50 percent from the field through 23 games.

He's averaging 8.7 points per game and has been the team's leading scorer three times.

Porter has been tasked with helping beat the opposition's pressure when the Hoyas bring the ball up the court. If the Hoyas' point guard gets into trouble, Porter is there to help. It's a skill he developed while playing point guard before high school. After all, he was only 5-10 when he reached junior high, and he was 6-2 as a freshman at SCC.

"There's a lot of pressure on our point guards to bring the ball up the court," Porter said. "Our coach say, 'Otto, you go get it.' I might have a bigger guy on me, but I can still handle the ball and bring it up the court."

Few big men can keep up with Porter when he starts to dribble, which means a second defender must help out. That leaves someone open.

The size of the competition he plays at Georgetown has forced him to change the way he defends.

"You can't just stay in one spot and let them bulldoze," he said. "You've got to get in front of them, keep changing position and things like that. I rely on my quickness to get around guys."

Porter is listed at 205 pounds, which means he's giving up considerable size against other big men in the Big East. Porter didn't get pushed around when defending Connecticut's Andre Drummond, who is listed at 6-10 and 270 pounds, but Porter also couldn't move Drummond. The Connecticut big man absorbed Porter's shoves and didn't give ground. The same happened when Porter defended South Florida's Augustus Gilchrist, who is 6-10 and 235 pounds. Porter pushes and prods his defensive assignment in an attempt to gain the upper hand, which is something he's learned practicing against teammate Henry Sims, who is 6-10 and 245 pounds.

"Guard him [is] just making me better, making him better," Porter said about Sims. "So when I go out there and play against Drummond or whatever, it doesn't affect me as much because I played against people his size."

Sims has tried to ease Porter's adjustment to college basketball during practice and games.

"Otto is a good player already," Sims said. "Coming and getting adjusted to college, there's a lot of slides and a lot of reads that he's not used to. In the middle of the game, I try to help him out a little bit, give him little notes and things."

The work in practice is a completely different animal compared to high school. SCC coach Kenyon Wright makes his players run several times during practice so they're prepared to play their pressure defense, but those practices pale in comparison to a Georgetown session.

"High school was maybe an hour and a half," Porter said. "Here, it's like three, and it's a lot harder. Going up against guys your size, so everything's a lot harder. I mean, in high school, man, I wasn't tired really. In college, you're going to be tired. You've got to give it 110 percent in practice."

Porter's efforts to improve have garnered attention from the national media. The website nbadraft.net even lists him as the No. 26 pick in its mock 2013 draft.

"First of all, he's very skilled for a player of his size for a young big man," Sporting News college basketball reporter Mike DeCourcey said. "He can handle the basketball well and make good decisions with it. Obviously he shoots it very well from the perimeter, too.

"Given his skill set, it was smart for Georgetown to find him and realize he would be a good fit, but also for him to realize Georgetown would be a good place for him to do what he does well."

Brent Musburger repeatedly praised Porter during Wednesday's ESPN telecast of the game against Syracuse.

"What a smooth-looking basketball player he is," Musburger said. "It's hard to believe he's only a freshman."

Even legendary coach Bob Knight offered praise for Porter during Wednesday's ESPN telecast.

"When a kid knows the game and knows how to play, that's what makes a kid great," Knight said.

Porter has handled the attention with his usual calmness despite the bigger stage. His home court now sits in the middle of downtown Washington, only blocks from the White House and Capitol. It's also home to the NBA's Washington Wizards and the NHL's Washington Capitals.

When's he's called on for interviews after the game, he trudges down a hallway below the Verizon Center stands to an interview room with chairs for at least 40 reporters. Television cameras adorn the back of the room. It's a long way from the one or two reporters who waited for him to emerge from the locker room at Scott County Central High School, which is surrounded by fields in rural Scott County.

But Porter looks unfazed by his surroundings. When ESPN analyst Dick Vitale walked past before the Feb. 1 game against Connecticut, Porter nonchalantly offered a fist-bump.

"It's weird because I see him all the time for different games," Porter said. "I never thought I'd see him. I remember I was a little kid watching basketball and he'd be talking on TV and stuff. I never thought I would see him."

Porter also looks comfortable with his teammates. A familiar scene unfolded during the Hoyas' game against South Florida last weekend. The Hoyas led by 24 points with less than four minutes left when Thompson pulled Porter for a role player. Porter leaned back in his chair with a towel draped around his shoulders. His long legs extended toward the court and he smiled and laughed with his teammates as the final minutes unfolded, just like he did during the fourth quarter of so many SCC blowouts.

The student section at Georgetown also has taken a liking to the affable Porter. It's been known to chant "Otto-matic" during games, and he's one of the few players that students regularly encourage by name. "Come on, Otto," or "Let's go, Otto," often rings down from the students.

"I don't hear it," he admits. "That is kind of cool. I guess it's a cool name."

The student section also brings large cardboard cutouts of the faces of three or four of the players as well as Thompson. Porter isn't one of the players yet, but he likes the idea.

"I would love it," he said. "I would have one right in my room."

Porter's path to Georgetown did not follow a traditional path because he decided not to participate in AAU basketball. It was a family decision that limited his exposure on a national level, but it's a choice he stands by.

"I don't think it would have helped me," he said.

Thompson says Porter is the most prepared freshman he's coached during his 12 seasons as coach at Princeton then Georgetown. He points to Porter's family as the reason.

"His upbringing -- his mother, his father, his uncles," Thompson said. "He came in and he understands how to compete at this level and understands that every part of the game matters. A lot of kids these days, they come in [and] all they think about is shots and scoring. Otto is someone that takes pride in rebounding, in defense and tips and deflections and talking on defense. I would love to sit here and say I was a part of that, but he walked in the door understanding just how to compete at this level."

But Porter's decision not to play AAU basketball meant he rarely played against athletes his size. He was a regular in pickup games at SCC, where his father, uncles and cousins would play every Wednesday and Sunday. It was a decent workout, but Porter laughs when asked how it compared to the pickup games over the summer at Georgetown.

"You're not playing old guys no more, where they can't really get up and down the court," Porter said.

Porter's immersion into the world of college basketball began during the summer after he moved to Georgetown. There were pickup games and summer league games filled with Georgetown alumni and others who fill NBA rosters. There was Greg Monroe and Jeff Green, Kevin Durant and John Wall.

"It wasn't hard, but I just have to stay focused," Porter said. "Even if I didn't play with bigger guys, always be present, always be known on defense and things like that. When I did transition to college, I just have to make that move to realize that, 'Hey, these guys are the same size as me.' It just make me play even harder."

Porter joined his fellow incoming freshmen at Georgetown on a summer-league team that lost in double overtime in the league title game to a team that featured former Georgetown All-Americans Austin Freeman, Green and Monroe. Porter scored 21 points in the championship game.

"I think I just prepared the whole summer," Porter said. "I came here early. Playing against some returning guys from Georgetown, they helped a lot. Playing against competition, playing against college players, I think that just helped me transition from high school to college."

One pickup game stands out and brings a smile to Porter's face when he talks about it. Durant, Porter's favorite NBA player, showed up to play. As teams were picked, Porter and Durant ended up on opposing squads.

"I was, 'Hey, I'm going to guard him,'" Porter recalled. "I just ended up guarding him the whole time, and I did."

So how did he fare guarding the NBA's No. 3 scorer?

"I was able to stick with him a little bit," Porter said with pride. "I held my own."

Durant was charged with guarding Porter, and the freshman did fine.

"Just trying to beat him," Porter said. "I scored a couple times."

Porter let out a little laugh when asked if he called his friends to let them know who he played against.

"Yeah, I did," he said. "I played against my favorite player."

Porter's growth hasn't been limited to the basketball court. During the summer, he participated in the university's Community Scholars program, which includes workshops, seminars, meetings with academic advisers, a critical reading and writing class and support on such issues as choosing a major, studying abroad and finding internships, according to the university. He was one of five students asked to speak at the banquet at the conclusion of the four-week session.

It was Porter's first taste of Georgetown's academic expectations. He chuckles when asked how classes at Georgetown compare to those at SCC. He's taken advantage of his academic adviser to help balance basketball and school work.

"Georgetown's a top academic school, so you got to have your mind focused on school too, just as much on basketball," he said.

After the scholars program concluded, the lanky 6-8 player who first rode on an airplane when he visited the Georgetown campus during his senior year at SCC embarked on a trip around the world in August. Porter and his teammates traveled 16 hours for an 11-day trip to China.

"I wouldn't say it was tough, but it was challenging," he said about the lengthy flight. "I never flew on a plane for that long, but it was kind of fun actually. Getting to go to different places and play with the team, it was a lot of fun."

Porter got an opportunity to sightsee in China. He walked on the Great Wall of China. He toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It all was surreal for someone whose hometown boasts less than 1,000 people.

"I remember before we went to China, I was watching a movie that took place in China -- I think it was the 'Karate Kid,'" he said. "In the movie, you see the same buildings and stuff. It was amazing."

But the trip also included an ugly incident, which occurred during the team's second game in China. A brawl erupted between the Hoyas and Bayi Rockets during their game. Punches and chairs were thrown during the fracas. Porter, who was on the court when the tussle began, said it was the first time he'd been involved in an incident like that.

"I didn't know what was happening," he said. "I think that that altercation was just the team coming together."

Porter's travels continued early in the season when the Hoyas played in the Maui Invitational in November.

"It was really fun in Hawaii," he said. "The weather was beautiful and things like that."

He's also made trips to Chicago and New York, among other cities, for games as he becomes a pro at air travel.

"I never thought I'd be doing this this early," he said about all the travel. "I dreamed one day I could see it, but not this soon."

Georgetown freshman Otto Porter is averaging 8.7 points per game for the Hoyas, who are ranked No. 12 in the country. (EUGENE TANNER ~ Associated Press)

Thompson understands there was a bit of luck involved in convincing Porter to choose Georgetown.

"Just great recruiting, just the omniscient one I am," Thompson deadpanned.

He paused, then offered the real explanation on how the Hoyas landed Porter.

"Obviously he had a great high school career and first made notice of him his junior year when they made the run to the state championship," he said. "I saw some footage of him in the playoffs his junior year. So that's where my assistants probably first heard of him.

"Also part of the equation, quite honestly, is one of my assistants, Robert Kirby, went to [Three Rivers] and he didn't play with Mr. Porter, but he was behind him. They had a teammate that played with him and he called Kirby and said, 'Hey, you know, Big Otto's kid is going to be pretty good.'"

University of Missouri fans can dream of what Porter would look like in a Tigers uniform, but the thought hasn't crossed Porter's mind. The question of regret at his decision meets with mild disgust.

Porter admits there was some homesickness during the summer, so he talks to his parents and younger brother about every other day. The Georgetown campus, which sits high atop the Potomac River and overlooks the nation's capital, is growing into his home.

"I'm really happy here," he said. "I couldn't see myself nowhere else."

And Georgetown reciprocates the feelings.

"If you see any more like him back there, let me know," Thompson said, clearly talking about more than Porter's basketball skills.

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