CHICAGO — He’s 6’10” and lanky and 18 years old, with a lightning bolt shaved horizontally into the left side of his fade. He’s dating a former Disney Channel star and he talks on the phone with Steph Curry monthly.
Michael Porter Jr. is the No. 1 player in the 2017 recruiting class, and he looks every bit the celebrity. He’s the kind of kid we are—or were—conditioned to think would wind up at Duke, or maybe Kentucky, potentially North Carolina. But last week, he flipped his commitment from one team that did not make the NCAA tournament this spring, Washington, to another, Missouri, that hasn’t gone dancing in four years. He wants to play for his dad, who’s now an assistant coach for the Tigers, in the town where he grew up, because any team he plays for will be his team, likely just a stop on his way to the pros. Which makes Porter the most 2017 star of all.
The small forward is spending the week at the annual McDonald’s All-American Game festivities in Chicago, where he’s doing as much recruiting as he is hooping. Porter is new Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin’s greatest asset when it comes to team-building, and if the new commit has learned anything in the past five days, it’s that his power of persuasion will go a long way in building the roster that will surround him next fall—and the legacy he’ll leave at Missouri.
When Porter committed, it was to a team that went 8-23 last season (2-16 in conference) and averaged just nine wins in three seasons under former coach Kim Anderson. He alone, no matter how talented, isn’t enough to turn around a program in as dire straits as Missouri, and certainly not in one season. Which is why Porter seems to have taken matters into his own hands. Of the 24 players competing in Chicago this week, six are undecided, meaning they’re all now Missouri targets. One sticks out: 6’8” wing Kevin Knox, who said Porter has been in his ear all week and that Missouri is now a possibility.
"I just tell them, especially these dudes, let's go do something special,” Porter said Tuesday. “It can be our team, and we can go in there and do something special and then head to the league together whenever we decide to go, after one or two years. Plus, I'm close with a lot of these dudes, so I think they might like playing with me."
It’s not uncommon for top prospects to band together when it comes to picking schools—look at close friends Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, Duke’s two superstar freshmen who have both declared for this summer’s draft—but for a team like Missouri to land two top-10 players would be…something. There are exactly two former Tigers currently playing in the NBA, and the team has seen just four players drafted in the past five years. It’s last first-round player? DeMarre Carroll in 2009. It’s last top-10 pick? That’d be KeyonDooling in the 2000 draft, which was held the day before Porter’s second birthday.
Porter’s commitment alone is the biggest thing to happen to Missouri basketball this century, but he’s using more than just his presence as a sales pitch. Porter’s father was an assistant coach for the Tiger women until he spent last season at Washington, and the head coach of that team is none other than his aunt, who coaches his two sisters, Bri and Cierra. It should come as no surprise, then, that Porter is more than familiar not only with Columbia, but with Missouri’s facilities, which he touts. "I've put more shots up there than I can count,” Porter said. “I was in there, like, every day. Even when some of the Mizzou players weren't there, I was there."
“I feel like they really treat their athletes well out there. I mean, for us, that's always attractive about a school, the facilities. I tell them, go visit, see for yourself what I'm talking about."
Porter is also waiting on word from his brother Jontay, Scout.com's No. 43 player in the class of 2018, about whether he’ll forgo his senior year of high school. Jontay was committed to Washington, and his early graduation has been a possibility for months. His motivation to reclassify stems from a desire to play with his older brother in college. According to Michael Porter Jr., Jontay has made a pro-con list, but he still isn’t sure where he’ll land next year. If he were to jump to college a year early, it’d presumably be at Missouri, making this even more of a Porter family affair—and giving the Tigers another weapon they couldn’t have dreamed of a month ago.
When it came time for a decision last week, Porter said he knew he wanted to play for his father wherever he landed. (The elder Porter was fired with the rest of former Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar’s staff on March 15.) He bristles at the thought that his father persuaded him to pick Missouri, but the two are without a doubt a package deal. Jontay’s looming decision, too, could have a ripple effect: Porter said he’d consider playing two years of college ball if it meant getting a year in the same uniform as his younger brother.
And that’s where Porter may not fit the mold. He has the celebrity connections, the casual name-drops, the look. He knows his mere presence puts his school on the map. But he maybe—maybe—looks at college as more than just a pause on his path to the NBA. “I would love to play with my brother,” Porter said, “and if he stays in high school, that would play a big part in (my decision to turn pro after a year). I hate losing, so if I went to a losing school and we lost both of our games, then I'd probably come back a second year to try and win. The money will be there; I want to try to leave a legacy in college. So I don't know what I'll do yet, but that's some of the factors."
There’s a very real chance that Porter will be the third player to go one-and-done on a team that failed to make the NCAA tournament before becoming the draft’s No. 1 pick. Ben Simmons did it a year ago at LSU, and Washington’s Markelle Fultz will likely go first overall this June. If the Tigers fail to sway another top recruit or two and post a mediocre season next winter, Porter could be little more than a footnote in Missouri basketball history. But he could also be much more.
When Porter announced his commitment to the Tigers on Twitter, it was with a photo of himself in a Missouri jersey, dunking in front of the words “I’M COMING HOME.” The decision brought back good memories of the town where he spent middle and high school, he said Tuesday, with one standing out more than the rest. It was in the fall of 2011, when Porter was a talented seventh-grader. Thanks to his family connections to Missouri’s women’s team, he was able to shoot hoops in the school’s facility in the evenings. One day, Frank Haith, then the first-year coach at Missouri (and now the head coach at Tulsa), pulled the gawky kid aside and offered him a scholarship. It was Porter’s first offer, from a school that had been one of the Big 12’s better programs in recent years. “I wasn't great at the time,” Porter said, “but he believed in me.”
Now it’s time for Porter to do the same for the school he once again calls home.