LAS VEGAS -- Those of us hungry for an obvious storyline from the Wizards' first Summer League game came away slightly disappointed by Otto Porter's answer to the question everyone had on their mind: when did you find out that Trevor Ariza was heading to Houston?
"I found out right at the end of the game," Porter claimed sincerely. "I didn't know."
Oh well. So much for the idea that he was extra motivated for the Wizards' Summer League opener, a 90-74 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in which Porter dropped 25 points on 11-16 shooting.
Then again, it was interesting to hear his first words when asked to comment on the situation. When asked for his thoughts on the news, Porter sighed deeply, choosing his words carefully. After a long pause, this is what came out.
"The door opens up," Porter said. "He had a tremendous year last year, so losing him now is tough. But now it's time for people to step up and fill his shoes."
Porter surely knows that he's the first man on that short list of shoe-fillers, at least unless the Wizards make another signing. This next week is very important for him and the Wizards, who are still reeling from Ariza's announcement. Players and coaches have expressed confidence in Porter from the day his season ended until this moment, but now they need him more than ever. He has to impress in Vegas. Has to.
Luckily, Porter addressed many of their concerns in the Summer League opener. It started with the very first play, when he curled off a middle screen and drained a mid-range jumper. Simple, but effective. Three beautiful pocket passes to Khem Birch on side pick and rolls followed, and Porter was suddenly at ease. You could hear Sam Cassell chirping the same thing right before each made shot. "NIIIICE. NIIIIICE."
"Glen [Rice Jr.] and Otto are the least of my worries on this basketball team," said Cassell, who is coaching the squad. "That's what he brings. He's fine."
The performance showed Porter's versatility and maturity. Yes, he ran off the many baseline screens and flex cuts that are the staple of the Wizards' offense, but he also handled the ball to take pressure off Maalik Waayns and Deonte Burton. His decisions were sound and his change of speed impressive, though he occasionally was tentative attacking the hoop.
Most importantly: he ran and ran hard. Last year, he ran, but grew tired quickly and never had the energy to be a pest. This year, he was constantly down the floor first and darting into creases for loose rebounds. His body is definitely in better shape, though there's clearly a long way to go. Rather than shrinking from the pressure, he relished it.
"That's why Sam told me, 'Hey, this is your team, it falls on you," Porter said. "You've got to lead the guys.'"
Porter, of course, wasn't the only Wizards player who starred. Fellow roster member Glen Rice Jr. was also fantastic, craftily working his way to the free-throw line 16 times. Rice, too, can benefit from Ariza's departure, though he was less in the mood to note such because, as he pointed out, the positions are different.
"It really does hurt to see him go, because he really was a mentor to me last year. He taught me a lot of things. The need to work hard 24/7, that kind of got through to me. You don't want to see him go," Rice said. "But you have to look at it from a business perspective. He had to make the best decision for himself."
It's just summer league, of course. If we're going to shrug off Porter's poor performance last year, we also must take his strong opener with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, on a day where the Wizards were reeling from the departure of a key player from their best team in years -- Coach Al Harrington summed up the mood by shouting "I can't believe it" to a media scrum as he walked by -- The Future's strong day was a good silver lining.