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The Nuggets have a lot riding on Michael Porter Jr.’s debut

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Great careers sometimes get jumpstarted in weird, unique, off-the-wall places. The history of Denver sports is certainly littered with examples.

Terrell Davis was a sixth-round pick buried on the depth chart before he made a crushing hit covering a kickoff during a preseason game in Tokyo, Japan. He went on to become the greatest running back in Broncos history and is enshrined in Canton.

A month after being inserted into the starting lineup, Nikola Jokic and his teammates found themselves taking on the Pacers in London, England. At the time, the team was going nowhere fast, struggling at 14-23. That night, Jokic scored 22 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and passed out eight assists, leading Denver to a 140-112 win that transformed the way the team would play moving forward, with their center becoming the focal point of their offense.

On the first Monday in April 2016, Trevor Story found himself in the Rockies opening day lineup. He was the biggest question mark for Colorado when they took the field in Phoenix, Arizona, a 23-year-old rookie tasked with replacing Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop. That night, he hit a pair of home runs to power the Rockies to a win, kicking off a first week in the majors where he’d hit seven dingers and drive in 12 runs. Three-plus seasons later, he’s a two-time All-Star.

The list goes on and on, as there is no shortage of players who simply needed an opportunity to shine, wherever and whenever it might come, in order to become a breakout star. It’s a story as old as sports, dating all the way back to Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp at first base for the Yankees.

On Friday, the Nuggets are hoping to add another chapter to this storybook.

That night, the team will tip off its 2019 Summer League schedule against the Suns in a game that will primarily feature talent that won’t be playing in the NBA this season. It’s a late-night (9:30 p.m. in Denver) start at the Thomas and Mack Center, when most people in Sin City will be most more concerned with making dinner reservations, hitting the tables or lining up an Uber to the nightclub.

But in the Mile High City, every basketball fan should be tuned to ESPN. They might be watching history, catching a glimpse of the Nuggets future star.

That night, Michael Porter Jr. will be making his long-anticipated NBA debut.

This season, the rookie was paid $2.9 million to have the best seat in the house. Never donning a Denver uniform, he watched every game from the bench as he recovered from back surgery that derailed his once-charmed basketball life.

In high school, Porter was widely regarded as the best prep player in the nation. But the much-ballyhooed college recruit saw his career at Missouri end before it started; just two minutes into his first game, he suffered an injury that sidelined him until the NCAA Tournament, where the Tigers were knocked out in the first round. All told, he saw less than an hour of court time as a Tiger.

As a result, Porter fell in the 2018 NBA Draft, slipping all the way to the Nuggets at No. 14. It wasn’t a no-brainer pick for Denver, as the team knew they were picking someone who wouldn’t contribute immediately; that was a bold move for a franchise trying to make the leap from the lottery to the postseason.

But the Nuggets showed patience. Instead of rushing him onto the court, hoping he could help them last season, they let Porter fully recover. Now, roughly 16 months removed from his last live action, the forward is ready to return to the court.

And the stakes are high.

In an offseason when the Nuggets have essentially remained status quo, bringing back all of the key pieces from a team that finished last year with a 54-28 record and earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, Denver has watched as other teams have improved around them.

The Lakers are better. The Jazz are greatly improved. The Mavericks have the makings of a new dynamic duo in Dallas. And depending on where Kawhi Leonard signs as a free agent, the Clippers may become a legit contender.

So how will the Nuggets retain their spot in the conference? And more importantly, how will they improve upon a season that finished with a Game 7 loss in the second round of the playoffs?

They need Porter to be their big offseason addition. He needs to become the equivalent of drafting someone No. 1 or 2 overall in this year’s draft.

In the process, he’d fill the biggest void in Denver’s lineup. During the postseason, it became painfully evident that Will Barton wasn’t ready for primetime, forcing head coach Michael Malone to start Torrey Craig at small forward. As admirably as Craig performed, he doesn’t provide the scoring threat the Nuggets need at that position.

His teammates certainly think Porter’s up to the task. And they’d no better than anyone else, given that they practiced with him throughout last season.

“He is special, for sure,” Nuggets guard Monte Morris said at the end of the season. “He can handle it, shoot it and he’s 6-11. He’s a freak athlete.”

But it’s not just physical tools that should be exciting about Porter.

“The best thing about Michael is that he feels he’s the best player on the court at all times, no matter who is out there,” Morris added. “He carries that swagger about himself, so I feel it will be easy for him to adjust when he steps into the rotation because with that swagger.”

That sounds like exactly what the Nuggets need. A tough guy to guard on the perimeter, who has the moxie to take the big shots and the ability to knock them down.

Will Michael Porter Jr. live up to the hype? Can he be the missing piece on Denver’s roster?

We’ll find out in a relatively empty gym on a July night in Las Vegas. Sounds like the perfect place for another great career to be born.