• After a spinal injury sidelined him for much of what is expected to be his only collegiate season, Michael Porter Jr. is back and playing for Missouri. But why did return at this stage, when the risks seem to outweigh the rewards, given his NBA draft status?
By Chris Johnson
March 16, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Michael Porter Jr. had nothing to prove. Before resuming his college career at Missouri earlier this month, he had already demonstrated he was one of the top teenage basketball players on the planet. He had already hinted at his potential to blossom into an NBA franchise-altering star. He was, in short, a sure thing.

Porter Jr. garnered five-star ratings from recruiting services, led his high school team to a 29-0 record and state championship, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the McDonald’s All-American Game. Sports Illustrated projected him as the leading freshman scorer in the country, and the Southeastern Conference anointed him its preseason co-player of the year. His experience with USA basketball and performance at other high-profile events gave NBA scouts an extensive file to work with before he ever set foot on campus. Porter Jr. probably could have sat out the season without worrying about falling out of the top 10 picks in the upcoming draft.

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Instead, there was Porter Jr., taking the floor last week in the second round of the SEC tournament against Georgia. As Porter Jr. came off the bench to replace junior forward Kevin Puryear with less than three minutes off the clock, a pro-Tigers crowd at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis roared its approval at the sight of the most highly touted recruit in program history entering a low-stakes game for a team already on safe ground for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Porter was removed less than two minutes into Missouri's season opener against Iowa State with what was initially thought to be a hip injury, and it was later announced that he would undergo spinal surgery, a procedure that was presumed to sideline him for the remainder of his freshman campaign.​

Fast-forward to mid-March and the smooth-scoring, 3-and-D prototype drawing Kevin Durant comparisons was playing for Missouri again, but it wasn’t exactly clear why. From an outsider's perspective, his 11th-hour return was as enigmatic as it was exciting.

On Thursday, a day before the No. 8 seed Tigers face No. 9 Florida State in a tourney opener that could well double as Porter Jr.’s final college game, he tried to explain. Seated in the corner of a locker room here at Bridgestone arena, Porter Jr. attracted a herd of reporters wide enough to effectively create a blockade around the entrance. He stared at a wall of cameras and microphones while fielding questions about a decision in which the risks seemingly far outweigh the rewards. Porter Jr. was asked how much he thought about his NBA future in reaching that decision.

“That’s what everybody else was talking about,” Porter Jr. said. “But in my mind, that really wasn’t an issue. I know how I’ll be able to play in the NBA.” What pushed Porter Jr. back into action, as he tells it, was something much simpler. “I just wanted to—if I could help the team—help the team.”

Porter Jr.’s father, Michael, provided more context around the decision. The elder Porter clarified that it was “100% [Porter Jr.’s] decision” and mentioned that “Mike would have been fine if he did move on from here—he would have been fine at the next level not having played at all this year, but he, like I said, grew close to this group of guys and wanted to be with them during this time.” What lies ahead for his son was hardly a non-factor, but at the same time, neither was what’s happening right now—what Porter Jr. can’t get back once he jumps to the pros. “If you want to play, and you want to help these guys, then let’s do it,” the elder Porter said. “Don’t second guess it, don’t look back, be all in and go play.”

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When Porter Jr. does suit up for the Tigers on Friday, it will mark the culmination of a journey that was hardly typical for an elite prospect in the one-and-done era. Missouri did not have to recruit Porter Jr. so much as it had to pave the way for his homecoming. Porter had lived with his family in Columbia, Mo., while his father served as an assistant coach under his sister-in-law, Robin Pingeton, on the Tigers’ women’s team. In May 2016, the elder Porter was hired to a position on the staff of then-Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar, Porter Jr.’s godfather. A move to Seattle followed, and Porter Jr. verbally committed to the Huskies that summer. The following spring, after Washington fired Romar, Porter Jr. was granted his release from the Huskies, and his father agreed to become an assistant for new Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin. Porter Jr. announced the same week that he was headed to Missouri.

In revealing his commitment to the Tigers, Porter Jr. exclaimed in a social media post, “MIZZOU NATION I’M COMING HOME!!!” and wrote that he and his teammates hoped “to restore the atmosphere at Mizzou arena.” Porter already knew what it felt like to play in that building, and his goal didn’t feel unreasonable considering the roster makeover Martin engineered in the space of one offseason. In addition to adding Porter and his younger brother, Jontay—himself a top-25 player in the class of 2017—Martin added two other four-star recruits (power forward Jeremiah Tilmon and point guard Blake Harris, who has since transferred) and a coveted graduate transfer (Canisius’s Kassius Robertson). The Tigers did not look like the SEC’s best team, but they weren’t far behind.

The possibility of a Porter-fueled revival for a program that had spent the previous three seasons languishing in the high-major cellar went up in flames less than a month into the season. As conflicting details about the nature of Porter Jr.'s injury trickled out in the days following the Tigers' opener against Iowa State, on Nov. 21 the program provided clarity on the situation by announcing Porter Jr. would likely miss the rest of the season after undergoing a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs.

It soon became clear Porter Jr. had other ideas. In late November, a message posted to Porter Jr.’s Instagram account implied that he intended to beat the projected timeline for his recovery. “Just letting y’all know,” read the post, which included two emojis with raised eyebrows. “Whoever said it was gonna take 3-4 months to recover lied.” The next month, Porter Jr. gave an interview during a broadcast of a game against Illinois in which he said he was “feeling great” and “getting stronger every day.” In February, Porter Jr. told reporters there was a “good chance” he would play again this season, and he was cleared to return to practice later that month, but he didn’t play in any of Missouri’s remaining regular-season games.

That left the SEC tournament for Porter Jr. to get in a tune-up before the NCAAs. Less than a week after telling Martin that he was “ready to go,” Porter came off the bench at the 17:22 mark of Missouri’s postseason opener against Georgia. He spent 23 minutes dusting off the cobwebs formed by four months sitting out of regulation competition. About six minutes into the first half, Porter Jr. posted up a defender and back-rimmed a contested turnaround jumper. A few minutes later, he came flying off a screen at the top of the key and set his feet, only to air ball a catch-and-shoot three-point attempt. Early in the second half, he tried to blow by Georgia big man Yante Maten off the dribble but his layup attempt swatted away.

After finishing with only 12 points on a game-high 17 shots, Porter Jr. conceded what was obvious to anyone who had seen him play before he got to Missouri: he was “not 100% yet.” Porter Jr.’s return was appointment viewing for college hoops diehards, NBA talent evaluators and supporters of lottery-bound franchises, but no reasonable observer should have used one 23-minute sample after a long layoff to meaningfully revise their opinion of Porter’s ability, particularly one in which he plainly wasn’t at full strength.

The Tigers’ game on Friday is another data point, but not one that, in itself, will cause him to fly up or plummet down draft boards. In any event, Porter Jr. should get a lot of run: Senior forward Jordan Barnett’s suspension over a DWI arrest reduced Missouri to seven scholarship players.

Porter Jr. should be equipped to handle a bigger playing-time load, though he made clear that it’ll be a while before he’s able to display the form that could convince some NBA general manager to take a shot on him near the top of the first round. “Even at this point,” Porter Jr. said, “my mind’s telling me I want to do some certain things that my body just won’t be able to do for a couple more months.”

You will not see the best version of Porter Jr. on Friday. You may not even see a version than can lead the Tigers to a win over an unremarkable Seminoles squad that’s dropped three of its last four games. In Porter Jr.’s eyes, that is preferable to the alternative in this tourney: not seeing him at all.

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