NEW YORK — Michael Porter Jr. is being asked questions — from peers, reporters and NBA teams — that he can’t answer with his words, so he should be understandably annoyed. His game isn’t being dissected like his fellow draft prospects’ because concerns over his health far outweigh anything he might be lacking in skill.
So, he cracks an uncomfortable smile when he’s asked about his recovery from the invasive back surgery that cost him all but three games in college, or the hip spasms that left him bedridden a week before the draft. Porter serves up convincing-sounding responses that he’s fine, but that won’t stop folks from examining his every movement to see if there are any irregularities in his stride or a noticeable limp.
The whole ordeal could be maddening if, in spite of it all, he weren’t still expected to be a lottery pick in Thursday’s NBA draft. Porter is the classic high-risk, high-reward choice and arguably the most intriguing player in this class because of how highly regarded he was before getting hurt in his first game at Missouri. He had every intention of flipping college basketball upside down, but instead had adversity turn the table on him. The setbacks haven’t jarred his confidence because Porter still sees himself as the ultra-competitive workaholic that he’s always been — not some kid on a mission to restore past glory.
“Honestly, I don’t have to prove nothing to nobody,” Porter told Yahoo Sports. “It’s really just getting back and being the best version of me that I can be.”
Before the health setbacks, Porter was seen as a player with the versatility, gravity-defying leaping ability, deft ball-handling and shooting stroke that had him pegged for stardom. Since then, he’s become a polarizing figure whose slight frame and suspect medical history have made his sure-thing status a matter of opinion, rooted in how much optimism his past inspired. Hope that all of the believers didn’t bail has brought along Porter and kept him from succumbing to negativity.
The NBA will soon look to overhaul the one-and-done rule that has frustrated league and NCAA officials since its inception in 2006. Porter would’ve benefited from having the rule abolished before he finished high school because the 2017 McDonald’s All-America MVP and consensus national player of the year stood the best chance of going first overall. “I probably would’ve gone out of high school. I think I was ready out of high school. [Going first] was possible, yeah. That’s crazy to think about,” Porter said. “At the end of the day, that back stuff probably would’ve happened at some point. I’m glad it’s over and it happened in my college year. Now I’m here and I’m good.”
The third child, and oldest boy, of eight basketball-loving siblings, Porter arrived on the scene as a sophomore at Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, Missouri, when he took off a step inside the free-throw line and dunked on an unsuspecting defender. Porter became an internet sensation and wound up dominating the highlight programs. “I don’t think Mike had necessarily done that jam before because the expression on his face was of, ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’ ” Father Tolton coach Jeremy Osborne told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “It was an awesome moment, to see a kid flash some athleticism that he didn’t know he had at that time.”
Osborne still marvels at Porter’s refusal to be complacent in the wake of his sudden fame. Porter would continue to improve, elevating his game even more when the family moved after his father, Michael Sr., accepted a position at the University of Washington. After Porter’s godfather, Lorenzo Romar, was fired a year later, Michael Sr. took a position under Cuonzo Martin at Missouri, and the elder Porter’s two sons followed. But in his one year in Seattle, Porter Jr. quickly ingratiated himself in that tight basketball community, winning a state championship and earning the mentorship of players such as Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas and former NBA All-Star Brandon Roy, who was the coach of Porter’s high school team at Nathan Hale.
Thomas declared on Twitter that Porter is the best player in this draft. Crawford agreed, telling Yahoo Sports in a text message, “He is the best because his skill set translates, and is there now, but progresses long term as well. As good as he is, so much, much room to get better. He’s a gym rat. He is a guy who doesn’t run or back down from challenges and wants to be great. He’s willing to put in the work to be great.”
Michael Porter Jr is the best player in the draft!!! No question about it… Pass on him if you want too
— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) June 14, 2018
Porter leans on the advice of Roy, Crawford, Thomas, back-to-back Finals MVP Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, with whom he connected after winning MVP of his basketball camp. Curry invited Porter to work out with him, which he has done multiple times, and plans to continue each summer. Having relationships with some of the game’s best hasn’t completely removed the mystique of one day joining them in the league. “Even when I’m in the NBA, I’ll still be in awe of great players,” Porter said.
Trae Young, a fellow lottery hopeful from Oklahoma and former AAU teammate, spoke almost daily to Porter, listened to his frustrations over not playing last season, and believes he is motivated by being overlooked. “Mike did all his work in high school. That’s all he needed to do. When he was healthy, he was really good. I hope he gets back to that level,” Young told Yahoo Sports. “If I was hurt for a while, and I wasn’t able to play, and people had doubts, I would be excited to play and be ready to show people why I’m here. I’m sure he’s very ready to do that.”
Porter understood that coming back late last season could damage his draft stock if he were unable to play at the same level — or higher — as he did before the back ailment. That didn’t stop him because sitting by idly without attempting to compete was an unacceptable alternative. His performance created more questions than answers, but Osborne was encouraged by how Porter responded after Missouri lost to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. “Mike takes losing very, very hard. He said, ‘We were 0-3 when I played.’ He thought that was a direct reflection of him, and obviously, it wasn’t,” Osborne told Yahoo Sports. “I thought that was very telling how hard he wants to work and how much he wants to win. He kind of took it personally. He said, ‘Next time I’m on a basketball court, I guarantee it’s not going to go like this.’ ”
The time away — which Porter told Yahoo Sports “was a good trial for me” — helped him learn how to be a teammate without being the star and that not everyone around him was invested in his well being. He leaned on his faith and family — “That’s all I’ve got,” he told Yahoo Sports — was able to dismiss those whom he felt abandoned him. “It really shows who cares for you and who was there for the ride, all along. Certain people are trying to hop on now that weren’t there for a while. That’s tough seeing that. It’s part of life. It was good for me to go through that, because I grew as a person because of it,” Porter said.
Porter doesn’t want to look back too much on what he’s overcome — though he has tried to find the positives in his struggle to return to form — lest he lose sight of what possibilities lie ahead. Though he is eager to get back to playing, Porter admitted that he might skip playing in summer league if the team that drafts him, and his agent, Mark Bartelstein, determine that it’s best for him to take more time for a full recovery. He cited Harry Giles, whom Sacramento drafted 20th last year and sat out the entire season, as an example. Wherever Porter lands will depend on which team is willing to bank on his ability to have a long, productive career. The annoying part for Porter is that it’s anyone’s guess.
“For me, it’s never been about draft number. It’s just been about the right situation. So if I was to go at No. 2, No. 3, but the No. 5 team is the fit for me, I’d rather go No. 5,” Porter said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up in the top five. I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t. Like I said, I’m trying to stay open. If I get drafted 15th, it’s going to be the best day of my life.”
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