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Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. back with team, is questionable for return Friday vs. Suns

Nuggets small forward Michael Porter Jr. is listed as questionable for Friday’s game at Phoenix after missing the past 10 games because of a positive COVID-19 test.

He was with the team on Thursday, a source told The Post.

Because he still needs to clear a cardio exam as part of his return-to-play protocol, it’s unclear whether he’ll play against the Suns. But there is optimism he’ll be available during the Nuggets’ upcoming five-game trip.

“Once you clear and you start returning negative tests, that’s a big part of it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said following Thursday’s practice. “But then there’s a cardio aspect of it you have to pass and go through, a complete and comprehensive cardio exam. Once all that comes back into play, hopefully he’ll be able to play at some point on this trip.”

Porter hasn’t played since the fourth game of the season on Dec. 29. He’s missed all three weeks of January, first due to contact tracing and then an extended absence following a positive COVID-19 test.

Though the Nuggets’ offense still ranks in the top five league-wide, veteran JaMychal Green said he thought a healthy Porter would’ve given them a few more wins in January. The Nuggets (7-7) had chances earlier this month in losses to Phoenix, an overtime defeat against Dallas and this past Sunday against the Jazz.

“We’re on the right path,” Green said. “Once (Porter) gets to gel with us and we get that chemistry with him, I think we’ll be unstoppable.”

In four games, Porter averaged 19.5 points on nearly 57% shooting from the field, along with almost seven rebounds per game.

Porter’s absence thrust veteran Will Barton back into the starting lineup. And though Malone reiterated Thursday he feels Barton deserves to start, it’s likely Porter eventually replaces Barton at points during this trip.

“I think we have more than five guys that are starters in the NBA,” Malone said.

Barton hasn’t made the upcoming decision easy for Malone. Since returning from a knee injury that forced him to leave the “Bubble” and miss the postseason, he’s shown flashes of his former self.

In Tuesday’s win over Oklahoma City, Barton was an unselfish playmaker, finishing with 13 points, six assists and three rebounds. He had three other games of at least 17 points since taking over as the starter Jan. 1.

“Every game, every practice that Will gets under his belt, I’m starting to really see the return of that explosion, that pop, that was kind of missing earlier in the season,” Malone said. “… I truly respect and appreciate his professionalism, his maturity and his willingness to handle whatever is thrown at him.”

And lest anyone think Barton would grumble about Porter potentially replacing him, the nine-year vet has a much clearer perspective given what he’s been through.

“Once a decision is made, just go out there and be the best person you can be and be the best teammate you can be,” Barton said.

And despite an inconsistent start to the season, Barton’s self-assuredness hasn’t gone anywhere.

“I know once my body is where I want it to be fully, I know where I’ll be as a player,” said Barton, who’s averaging 11.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists this season.

It wasn’t that long ago that Barton said he wondered about where his career was headed. And any struggles aside, he said just being able to compete again has him in a good place.

“Any time I have a bad game, not just a bad game but didn’t play up to the standards I want to play at, I try to take solace in knowing that I’m here,” he said. “Couple months ago, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I wasn’t myself as far as a basketball player. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do.”

But Barton’s made significant progress in returning to the player he was last season. That steady ascent shouldn’t change whether he starts or comes off the bench.

 

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