Otto Porter Jr. didn’t play AAU basketball.
That makes the 24-year-old Washington Wizards forward something of an anomaly in today’s NBA. Almost all of the sport’s young stars played AAU (Amateur American Union) ball during their teenage years, as the league’s long been known as a place for players to face elite competition while gaining exposure to college and pro scouts. It’s not that Porter wasn’t good enough to play AAU—plenty of teams would’ve loved to have him. But his father, Otto Porter Sr., believed it would be better for his son’s development to train and play in their hometown. That may sound crazy when you consider that Porter grew up in Sikeston, a rural town in southeast Missouri. His alma mater, Scott County Central High School, has an enrollment of 181 people.
Yet here’s Porter today, a max-contract player with one of the most well-rounded skill sets in the NBA. He was one of only eight players to average at least 13 points, 6 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game last season, putting him in the company of players like Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo. For Porter, his status as a burgeoning superstar goes back to Sikeston and his basketball-obssessed family.
Scott County High has won 24 Missouri state basketball championships (18 boys championships, 6 girls championships). A relative of Porter has played a role in almost all of them. His father was on the team for the school’s first basketball title in 1976 and still holds the program record for career rebounds (1,733). His mother, Elnora, was an all-state basketball player for Scott County in the mid 80s. Otto Porter Sr. has six brothers and Elnora has five. Nearly all of them played basketball. According to Bleacher Report, there was a Porter family member on each of Scott County’s first 11 state championship basketball teams.
Porter’s parents instilled in him a ferocious work ethic and a devotion to the fundamentals. As he continued to mature physically, he began participating in pick-up games with his army of basketball-playing uncles. Matching off against bigger, stronger competition helped Porter toughen up, and different family members taught him different moves to integrate into his game.
“My family is a big basketball family. (I learned) the game from my mother and father, and I have so many uncles that I learned from. (That) allowed me to be very versatile, I (could) add a lot of different aspects of the game into my game, whether that was rebounding, defending, hustle plays, jump shooting. (I was able to put) a variety of different things into my game and fine-tune what I was about and what my game was about,” Porter told STACK.
Once he arrived at Scott County High, it didn’t take long for Porter to prove he had enormous potential. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the best players in the state, and AAU teams were clamoring for his services. Even his current Washington Wizards teammate Bradley Beal, also a Missouri native, tried to recruit Porter to play AAU. Yet the senior Porter remained steadfast in his belief that the best thing for Jr.’s development was to stay put in Sikeston. While other players spent countless hours traveling from tournament to tournament, Porter sharpened his fundamentals and honed his conditioning.
“I spent a lot of time doing my fundamentals. My shooting, my ball-handling, a lot of footwork. I was able to that during the offseason and the summer,” Porter said. “I just wanted to play everyday non-stop. (AAU) guys spend most of their time traveling, when they can be working on their game. That’s something I prided myself on, getting that extra time in the gym, working on ball-handling, working on my footwork around the rim, things like that. Running around my school and doing different things like that to stay in top shape so I could compete at a high level.” In 2013, Porter told USA Today that he’s “definitely glad to have not played AAU.”
A number of high-profile basketball figures have criticized the state of AAU basketball in recent years.
“It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid,” Kobe Bryant told ESPN. “It’s a big problem for us because we’re not teaching players how to play all-around basketball.”
Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr offered a similar sentiment to Grantland in 2012. “Winning is devalued in the AAU structure,” Kerr said. “The process of growing as a team basketball player—learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself—becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.”
Porter is the ultimate team player, which is why the Wizards had no trouble awarding him with a four-year, $106 million contract this summer. “He’s not about stats,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said of Porter at a press conference announcing the deal. “He can score more and I get that and I appreciate it, but he’s willing to sacrifice his own game for the betterment of the team.”
True to form, Porter spent much of the offseason working on defense. With Beal and John Wall providing much of the offensive firepower for the Wizards, Porter’s looking to maximize his contributions any way he can.
“I felt like I could become a better defensive-minded player, as far as guarding superstars every night,” Porter said. “Within our defensive scheme, we play a lot of small ball. That requires me to play a lot of the four (power forward). So switching out on a point guard, I want to be able to defend well enough where I can alter the offense’s decisions. Nothing comes easy when guarding smaller guys. But also (against the) bigger guys, holding my ground and becoming stronger in that situation.”
Photo Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images