The 2018 NBA draft received its first major jolt this week as Missouri announced star freshman Michael Porter Jr., a likely top-five selection, would undergo back surgery and miss the rest of the season. As a no-brainer one-and-done candidate, it means Porter’s college basketball career will likely amount to a wash. And while the draft remains a good seven months away, the news casts a shadow over his draft stock as the 2018 class takes shape without him.
Naturally, Porter’s back injury prompts the immediate question of what it means for his standing in the eyes of NBA teams, but without more information it’s impossible to make a definite call. The microdiscectomy involves two spinal discs in his lower back, and is a procedure designed to clean up herniated tissue around the spinal cord. The prognosis, according to Mizzou, is 3–4 months recovery time, which would put him on track to work out in front of teams in the spring and give him a chance to assuage concerns. On a base level, it’s tough to look at any 19-year-old player with serious back problems and feel great about them, but on the other hand, the fact that he’s still young may aid his chances of making a smooth comeback.
Although the injury will hurt his odds of being the No. 1 pick in the draft, Porter’s size and impressive scoring chops should preclude him from a precipitous slide. There have been murmurs here and there about Porter’s back that date back to his high school days, and he was held out of action the entire week of the Jordan Brand Classic earlier this year with what was labeled as back soreness. Porter participated in Missouri’s preseason, including an exhibition against Kansas and secret scrimmages against Wisconsin and Missouri State. He then logged just two minutes in the Tigers’ first game of the season against Iowa State, before being pulled with what the team later called a hip issue. It’s unclear exactly when and how Porter’s injury occurred, and that’s just one piece of the puzzle here.
At this point, the expectation is for Porter to remain a top–five selection, as arguably the draft’s most polished perimeter threat and its best wing player by most accounts. He profiles as a combo forward with some defensive versatility and the potential to lead a team in scoring down the line. He was projected as the No. 4 pick in our most recent Mock Draft and as the fourth-best prospect on our Big Board's Top 60 prospects. There is little question about his talent and there's a gap in quality between the top five prospects in this draft and the next tier of players.
Regarded as an elite prospect since his freshman season in high school, Porter has been a well-known quantity for years, and though there’s no statistical sample from the college ranks, teams are highly familiar with him. As long as his medical files contain no serious long-term red flags, his case as a prospect remains strong. He will now enter the league with essentially no experience at the college level and come with some level of injury risk. But as with any injury situation, any draft slot impact often comes down to which teams have what information and how they choose to interpret it.
Teams atop the draft will lean on their in-house medical staffs and consultants to suss out the extent of the injury. Back problems can be complex and variable from body type to body type, and right now there’s no telling what degree of impact this might have on Porter’s long-term outlook. That said, there’s also a newfound power for Porter’s camp given that they will have the ability to withhold information from teams and potentially attempt to steer him to a preferred destination. It’s common practice for agents to use medicals as leverage, and it could certainly impact the arc of the draft once the order is established.
It’s a frustrating situation for Porter and the Tigers and puts a black eye on what should have been a comeback year for the program under Cuonzo Martin. The best–case scenario here is that Porter returns in time to rebuild his profile in private settings with teams, and obviously that everything with his back checks out. From a pure basketball standpoint, the fact that we’ll face a prolonged wait before seeing Porter take the court stings. And like everyone else, NBA teams are hoping it'll be just three to four months before we see exactly that.