Anyone who opines that Missouri freshman Michael Porter is soft or questioned his decision to return for postseason play after undergoing back surgery and missing all but two minutes of the regular season should have been in the Tigers’ locker room after their first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida State last Friday.
The 6-foot-10 Porter was surrounded by media as he tried to explain his emotions after a season that was mostly stolen from him had ended for good. He did everything he could to prevent that from happening, even playing at what he estimated was 65 or 70 percent of his capabilities. His doctor assured Porter he couldn’t do any more damage to his back, so he gamely gave it a go, for his teammates — which included younger brother Jontay.
Though he was far from in game shape and admitted to being “gassed” during the 28 minutes he was on the floor, he managed to rack up 16 points and 10 rebounds. Was his shot selection always prudent? Is any freshman’s shot selection always prudent? Was he strong enough to battle with the Seminoles humongous frontcourt players or quick enough to elude their pesky guards? Not yet. Was his defense suspect? Of course.
There are two ways of looking at what Porter attempted to do, as Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports learned when he polled NBA scouts. One, it was an effort in futility that could only have damaged his NBA Draft stock. Two, he proved his mettle by playing hurt, which every NBA player does, probably a lot more than the press and public knows, during the course of a career.
I know I’m going to be good. I can’t wait to see myself a couple of months from now."
Back to that locker room. Porter was devastated by the loss, took it personally, as though he, in his diminished capacity, could have done much to prevent it. “I can honestly say, during the time I was out there, I played as hard as I could,” Porter said.
Porter was noble to shoulder some of the blame, but the truth is Missouri was just lucky to have gotten to the NCAAs. During the season, the Tigers lost three players -- two of whom transferred -- who played the point, forcing coach Cuonzo Martin to promote previously seldom-used reserves to the starting job, or even resort to using shooting guard Kassius Robertson, who had earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors after averaging 16.3 points and shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range. Running offense wasn’t the job he expected to do at Mizzou.
Given that loss of manpower at point guard, Porter’s loss was felt even more. Not that Porter is the second-coming of Ben Simmons, but he showed in one game in the SEC Tournament and another in the NCAAs that he had the ability to defensive rebound and dribble the length of the court, to facilitate offense with his passing, and to be a steadying presence to his teammates, even at his young age. Had he been available all season, maybe Porter could have filled in at the point.
But no one will ever know how Porter’s only season as a college basketball player would have turned out. Those who know him best can only speculate.
Michael Porter, Sr., father of Michael and Jontay and an assistant coach on Martin’s staff, has never been concerned about his oldest son’s NBA future. He espouses more of a live-in-the-moment philosophy, so he was fine with Michael, Jr. coming back for postseason play, regardless of whether he was at full strength.
“I could care less about next-level stuff,” Porter, Sr., said. “Tomorrow’s not promised. All we’ve got is today, and I wanted him to make the most of today. So, whatever he decided to do, I was comfortable with.”
Porter, Sr. thought his son would have benefitted more from having been able to play an entire season than Missouri would have.
“He would have added a lot to this team,” he said, “but a healthy Michael would have benefitted from being with this bunch during the season, more than vice versa. Jontay’s a different player now from having gone through 30 games. And if Michael had had the opportunity to go through 30-31 games, I think he would have gained a lot.”
Jontay Porter, a 6-foot-11, 240-pound stretch four who has shown up as a first-round pick in mock drafts, echoed his father’s thoughts. He wound up averaging 9.9 points, fourth on the team, led the Tigers in rebounding (6.8 rpg) and blocked shots (55) and shot a solid 36.4 percent from 3 (40 of 110).
Jontay Porter wishes the season had turned out differently; he reclassified in high school to be able to graduate a year early and have the chance to play with Michael, Jr. But he didn’t want to speculate about what could have been.
“That’s kind of all theoretical, and I don’t like to look at what ifs,” he said. “But Michael is still the same special player he was before the surgery. And I think he would have still done the same special things he was capable of doing if he hadn’t been injured. He’s the best player on our team, I don’t think that’s a secret.”
NBA teams will get to see how special Porter is during the run-up to the draft, when he interviews and works out. Porter’s doctor has told him that his mobility will be incrementally better a month from now, and better still a month after that.
Despite the way his season turned out. Michael Porter doesn’t look back with regret.
“It killed me at the time, but I look at it as a blessing in disguise,” Porter said. “Now my body’s out of that pain that I was in for a couple of years. It’s hard, but I see the potential in me now, not having that pain. I know I’m going to be good. I can’t wait to see myself a couple of months from now.”
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