Otto Porter wields skill, strong work ethic to top of Big East
They call him Otto-matic. It's a cheap pun, but the moniker suits Otto Porter beyond simple wordplay, so pre-programmed is the sophomore forward to fulfill his duties. He is at once a player of modern vintage -- a 6-foot-8 wing with position-bending versatility, a 44.0 percent three-point shooter comfortable running a fast break -- and catnip for extollers of the old school, a label Porter's dependable, exceedingly no-frills excellence inspires with such frequency that it borders on trite. "He goes to the glass, makes the extra pass," says LSU assistant Robert Kirby, who recruited and then coached Porter while at Georgetown from 2010 to '12. "He moves. He sees the play developing. He thinks two passes ahead."
And if he is ideally mechanized on the court, he is a p.r. handler's paragon with the press, a naturally benign, shrugging-and-smiling deflector of praise that longtime Hoyas sports communications director Bill Shapland likens to a lion that doesn't roar. The amplifying chorus of praise that accompanied the Hoyas' recent 11-game winning streak, which inspired national player of the year endorsement from no less than Jim Boeheim and prompted John Thompson III's mother to stroll through campus in a T-shirt bearing Porter's nickname? "It's cool, I guess." The media requests that have recently hounded the reserved star and nearly exhausted his parents? "It's not really too much." What about, say, his skills tending the tomatoes and sweet potatoes and beans in the family garden back home in Morley, Mo.? "I'm OK." And so it goes even in private, such as in the moments after a win over Rutgers in early March, when Georgetown sports information director Mex Carey prepped Porter for a TV interview by informing him he'd scored 28 points. How many rebounds? Porter asked. He was told he'd grabbed eight. No, he specified. How many did the team have?
All of which is to say that Porter has a habit of doing the right thing, or at least the thing that he is supposed to do. When the Hoyas' top rebounder and second leading scorer, Greg Whittington, was ruled ineligible in mid-January just as Georgetown slipped from the polls, Porter's to-do list grew accordingly. In that time he has ascended from one of the Big East's best players -- to one of the nation's, helping revive a once-moribund offense and lead the Hoyas from a slip out of the polls to a No. 5 ranking. He has led a comeback late in double overtime by nailing a three-pointer before assisting on another to set up his own game-winning drive (Feb. 27 at UConn); combated an accosting defense by converting 18 free throws into 15 points (March 2 vs. Rutgers); and even turned in a performance so dominant during the Hoyas' Feb. 23 win at Syracuse -- scoring 33 of his team's 57 points on just 19 field goal attempts while adding eight boards and five steals -- that he silenced a Carrier Dome crowd of 35,012 and wrested the game's narrative from a rivalry's impending farewell to his own apotheosis.
Porter's raw-number improvement -- for example, his 12.8 points per game before Whittington's absence versus 19.0 since -- shines even brighter viewed in light of the oft-inverse relationship between increased usage and offensive efficiency. While Porter's role has grown substantially in that same span, from attempting 11.9 field goals and and 2.8 three-pointers per 40 minutes to 13.4 and 4.4, he has upped his effective field-goal percentage from 53.3 to 58.7, thanks in large part to improving his accuracy beyond the arc from 39.3% to 46.0%. As the postseason approaches, a top seed within the Hoyas's reach, it is unlikely any player will prove more singularly essential to his team's tourney hopes than the Big East Player of the Year.
Thompson is fond of saying that Porter came to campus as the most prepared freshman he's ever coached. At times as a rookie Porter needed reminders to be more assertive on offense -- "Even today you've got to poke and prod him a little," Thompson says -- but for the former high school salutatorian/history club president/marching-band alto saxophonist also known as Bubba, a 19-year-old All-America who says he misses the time he spent mowing his family's six acres of land on a tractor, the demands of basketball as a nearly full-time job required little adjustment. "Bubba loves to work," says Kirby, "because that's all he knows."
Porter's basketball initiation began at his grandmother's house in Haywood City, Mo., on the pair of mismatched hoops atop a patch of asphalt off a gravel road that have become two central pillars in his story. It was the same place Otto Sr. discovered the game, dueling with an older sister's boyfriend for hours on end before helping longtime coach Ronnie Cookson build a dynasty at Scott County Central High. The school serves a trio of towns -- Haywood City, Morley and Vanduser -- with a combined population under 1,200 and a landscape dotted with silos and hoops, and the nearly two dozen bright orange championship banners lining its gym walls could serve as a starting point for Bubba's family tree. Otto Sr. won the first, in 1976, with his future wife, Elnora Timmons, winning the school's first three girls' titles in '82, '84 and '85; Melvin Porter and Mayfield Timmons starred on the Braves' championship teams in '79 and '80, before Calvin Porter and Anthony (Moon) Timmons won a title together in '83; in '85 it was Dean Timmons's turn; from '86 to '89, Jerry Porter four-peated.
A second generation of Porter cousins trace their roots to the same makeshift court, starting as young as five and in groups up to a dozen or as small as one-on-one, staying the weekend as games stretched into the night. "It was dirty and grimy," says Otto Jr.'s cousin Bobby Hatchett, now a point guard at Division II Arkansas Tech. "We'd get in trouble if we weren't playing."
When the time came for more formal basketball schooling, Otto Sr. wasn't outsourcing. In the time since his own adolescence, the AAU circuit had swallowed whole the youth basketball scene as shoe companies shoveled money into elite summer tournaments that served as showcases for college coaches. But this path held no allure for the elder Porter, who rebuffed the advances of several AAU coaches. His own game had been forged in high school by the doggedly critical Cookson, a coach who so artfully found flaws in his star pupil's performances that he was once interrupted during a fiery post-game diatribe by an assistant coach pointing out that Porter had finished with 30 points and a triple-double. Cookson assailed the elder Porter all the way to 29.9 points per game and a retired number; in two years at Three Rivers Community College under Gene Bess, junior college's all-time winningest coach, things didn't get much easier. The final product was Porter, with a steady mid-range jumper and understated style, setting still-standing conference scoring records at then-Division II Southeast Missouri. What Otto Sr. knew of AAU ball -- all-star teams led by coaches angling to keep talented players content -- he saw as potential pitfalls of ego-stroking over instruction that could only spoil his talented son. Everybody's gonna tell you you played a good game, Otto Sr. would say. I'm gonna tell you what you really did.
The gaggle of cousins instead formed their own grassroots team, coached by Otto Sr.'s brother-in-law Larry Mosely, and took their act on the road -- to St. Louis, to Kentucky, to Illinois -- as the elder Porter made good on his promise, drilling lessons into his son at every turn. During his own Saturday morning YMCA workouts, there was Bubba, dribbling up and down the sideline for hours on end, honing his left hand and going between his legs. By middle school they were playing one-on-one in the backyard for hours, first-hand tutorials augmented by pickup games with his uncles and their friends in the school gym on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. These were full-court tests against grown men as happy to holler about not boxing out or failure to execute a fast break as they were to get physical on defense. "They'd beat you up, no doubt about that," says Otto Sr. "And you weren't expected to cry about it either."
As Bubba neared high school, fate lent Otto Sr. an assist. Cookson had returned to the Scott County Central bench on an interim basis after an 11-year retirement after his replacement, David Heeb, was suspended for a season for attempting to recruit players. When Heeb was let go after his suspension ended, Otto Sr. made a request: That his old coach stay at the school through his incoming son's graduation. Cookson obliged, turning Otto Jr. loose in that same frenetic fast-breaking style he and his brother Carroll had learned at Puxico High in the 1950s, riding a new crop of Porter and Timmons cousins to three more state titles, the second two as an assistant. Perhaps he had softened with age, but aside from the occasional chiding to get back on defense, Cookson found little to criticize in Bubba. "He'd come to take care of business," says the coach, now retired again. "I didn't have to teach him to play basketball."
They packed the Verizon Center last Saturday, a mostly gray sea of nearly 21,000. They came to see the Hoyas clinch one last Big East crown and to do it at the expense of ACC-bound Syracuse for whom, as one fan group's oversized banner declared, their hatred is eternal. They also brought with them homemade signs of affection touting the OTTOMAN EMPIRE and PORTER FOR POPE, and when they arrived they were greeted by glossy placards on their seats reading PLAYER OF THE YEAR OTTO PORTER JR. It was a groundswell of acclaim reaching its apex, though an afterthought to Porter himself. "He doesn't care about any of it," Thompson had said of the hype a day earlier, "which is great."
Attention was supposed to be the greatest casualty of Otto Sr.'s AAU opt-out, the trump card prospective coaches fruitlessly tried to play in luring his son to their teams. But secrets don't keep well in basketball recruiting circles, especially not when they're 6-6 gym rats with the ability to lead a fast break. Word reached Georgetown just before Porter's senior year of high school when Bess, Otto Sr.'s juco coach, saw enough from Bubba in one week of his camp against Division I signees to call another of his former charges, Kirby, and recommend he check out Otto's kid. Halfway through the first workout he saw, Kirby phoned Thompson. When the coach showed up to observe a workout of his own, Porter didn't even hit a jumper. But Thompson was enamored nonetheless, deciding then and there to extend a scholarship offer Porter would accept five months later. "He had a work ethic that you could tell immediately was uncommon for college kids," says Thompson. "And he had a skill set where he was comfortable everywhere on the court."
On Saturday against Syracuse it was in the high post, though for the much of the first half his role was subtle. Porter was held to just two shots in the first half and none in the game's first 12 minutes, so he passed as the Orange's zone collapsed on him, finding teammate D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera for three-first half treys, letting the scoring load be handled by Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks. In the second half he got some breathing room and began to bury jumpers, burying the Orange in the process, and by the game's end he had a turnover-less 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as the Hoyas won 61-39. Thompson was asked in the press conference if he would have preferred Porter got those looks earlier in the game, to get his offense going sooner, and Thompson let out a brief laugh. No, Porter had not put on the show he had two weeks earlier. His point total in the rematch was not going to make headlines. But Georgetown had won by 22, taken home the Big East trophy, and Porter had done what he was supposed to do.