• Michael Porter Jr. has been cleared to return to the court—but playing this season could be a risky move for his NBA draft stock. The Crossover’s Front Office examines the Missouri freshman’s conundrum.
By Jeremy Woo
February 23, 2018

The saga of Michael Porter Jr. (and his back) took a turn on Thursday night, as CBS Sports broke the news that Missouri’s star freshman had been cleared for a full return to basketball activities. From the Tigers’ vantage point, the timing is a gift. They are fighting for air and on the tourney bubble, and it’s fair to suppose that Porter, the five-star recruit who was scheduled to lead them back to the tournament, might be the breath his team sorely needs.

Before we go any further: as of this writing, it’s unclear whether “able to return” translates to “actually playing." Porter has missed nearly the entire season after undergoing back surgery in November, playing just a few minutes in Missouri’s first game before leaving with discomfort. Emotionally, it’s easy to jump on board with the narrative: superstar shows up, digs team out of hole, and catapults himself to NBA stardom. But while it probably sounds brutal to look at this as a business decision, when it comes to Porter’s stock as a prospect, returning to the court shouldn’t be that simple. The winds may be blowing in that direction, but it probably shouldn’t happen at all.

Yes, Porter entered the season as a contender for the No. 1 pick, and yes, if his back is healthy, which it seems to be, he’ll have a chance to go somewhere in the top five. He might be the best pure perimeter scorer available. After a decorated high school career, there are no secrets about what he does well. The uncertainty exists mostly in the negative sense. The odds he takes the court and immediately turns into Missouri’s savior are slim. Even then, the risks likely outweigh any potential rewards. 

If his back is in bad shape, or if he’s rushing to return, he chances re-injury. Odds are that he comes back rusty regardless, given the time he’s missed. It may not be enough to get Missouri into the field of 68—and it’s far more likely he’ll secure desirable draft position by picking his spots in workouts and steering himself to the right franchise. The rule of thumb for prospects is generally that the more teams know about you, the less likely you are to convince them you’re something you’re not. Even NBA teams will admit that mystery can really only help matters when it comes to players’ draft value. By and large, teams still view Porter’s skills and star potential as worthy of an early selection. He could conceivably go as high as three, and fall no further than the top 10. Why offer teams anything to pick apart beyond medical records and controlled access?

Without even hashing through the financial numbers tied to draft slots, there’s a lot at stake if Porter comes back. Being 19 with a medical history of back problems is difficult enough, no matter how good you are. But forcing yourself to play your way into shape and doing so with the weight of expectations is quite the load. There’s a greater chance Porter ends up raising more questions by playing than he would by sitting. And while his NBA situation will matter (as always) when it comes to his development path, it’s still possible he ends up closer to Otto Porter than a full-fledged star. Even then, Otto got paid nicely. Again, why risk that? The prudent move is shutting it down, hiring a good agent and going from there.

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Porter has said publicly he’d like to come back this season, but it’s just not a good time to be gung–ho about his future. The fact that his father is on Missouri’s coaching staff may complicate this equation, as well as the presence of his brother Jontay, who has emerged as a viable draft prospect in his absence. If he comes back and actually bails Missouri out, respect it. Skepticism is a fair stance until it happens.

While the final stretch of college basketball season—and the predraft process—will be much more fun to follow with him in uniform, none of those reasons make it the correct long-term decision. Only Porter knows how his back really feels, and where his game is at after a long hiatus. For the sake of everyone involved, if he’s going for it, let’s hope he’s ready.

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