ORLANDO – Nearly every NBA Draft has that one fly-below-the-radar player who, for whatever reason – whether it’s injuries, size concerns or simply being a late-bloomer – gets overlooked and falls further than projected, but ultimately blossoms into a star.
Last season, that player was Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick of the 2017 draft. In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon became the first-ever second-round pick to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. And the list goes on and on with the likes of Devin Booker (13th pick in 2015), Clint Capela (25th pick in 2014), CJ McCollum (10th pick) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (15h pick) in 2013, Damian Lillard (sixth pick) and Draymond Green (35th pick) in 2012 and Kemba Walker (ninth pick), Klay Thompson (11th pick), Kawhi Leonard (15th pick) and Jimmy Butler (30th pick) in 2011.
In this NBA Draft, which will be held on June 21st, that potentially overlooked star could be Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. Though a series of events have caused his draft stock to drop, Porter is calling his shot in terms of telling teams they will someday regret passing on him in this draft if they do so.
``I’ve played against all of these guys,’’ Porter said last month at the NBA’s Draft Combine in Chicago, referring to the other projected top picks. ``They’re all great players. But I’m the best player in this draft and I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.’’
That might ultimately prove to be a boon for a star-starved team such as the Orlando Magic, owners of the No. 6 pick of the first round. The Magic could be in the perfect position to nab a player such as Porter, who seemingly checks all the boxes in terms of size (6-foot-11, 211 pounds), production (36.2 ppg. as a high school senior) and star potential (MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game; Rivals.com top-rated player heading into college).
Questions, however, persist about the health of Porter Jr., who injured the L-3 and L-4 discs in his spine in his first collegiate game at the University of Missouri and needed a surgery that wiped out most of his only collegiate season. As a result, there is but a limited body of work with which to judge Porter Jr. on prior to the draft: 19 points in 23 minutes of the Nike Hoop Summit in 2017; three collegiate games at Missouri (10 ppg., 6.7 rpg. in 17.7 mpg.); and a ``Pro Day’’ workout attended by several NBA teams last week in Chicago.
Porter, 19, did not go through physicals or the testing at the Draft Combine in late May, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he went through a physical with doctors from the Chicago Bulls (owners of the No. 7 pick) last week. That information will be available to all 30 teams and they must decide whether Porter Jr.’s back injury will fade over time or diminish his potential as a possible difference-making star.
Porter says NBA teams will ultimately see a position-less player who dealt with the adversity of a major injury and got himself ready to become a superstar at the NBA level.
``It’s been challenging, for sure, but I’m at 100 percent,’’ Porter said recently. ``I feel better than ever, actually. That injury actually happened a couple of years ago and it got worse. I feel pain-free and better than I have in a long time.
``It was a very minimally invasive surgery. They just had to fix the discs, take about 10 percent off that nerve and they said, after I got an MRI, that it has healed fully,’’ he added. ``I just have to keep up with my (leg) extensions, my core exercises and stretching. I have a great physical therapist and team working with me through the draft, and they’re making me feel better every day. The recent MRI was to see how it had fully healed. There’s no risk to reinjure it.’’
As recently as a year ago, Porter Jr. was being projected as the top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft following a circuitous, yet star-studded senior season of high school basketball.
Porter Jr. transferred from a private high school in his home of Columbia, Mo., to Nathan Hale High School in Seattle prior to his senior season. There, while playing for former NBA standout Brandon Roy, Porter Jr. poured in 36.2 points and 13.6 rebounds a game while leading his school to a 29-0 record and a Class 3A state title in Washington. Those gaudy numbers earned him the USA Today and Gatorade Player of the Year awards and he dominated all-star showcases in the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic.
Porter Jr. said all the scrutiny that surrounded his high school career and his return from a back injury will ultimately help him when he reaches the NBA.
``You’re about to walk into a league of grown men, and as a rookie, I think your job is to be humble, accept your role and do what the coach tells you,’’ he said. ``Even my agent (Mark Bartelstein), he said he’s seen multiple guys come back (from surgery) way more athletic than ever. It was a big deal, obviously, but it’s not going to hold me back at all.’’
Coming out of high school, two other recruiting services – ESPN and Scout.com – ranked Porter Jr. as the second-best prospect in the country, behind only power forward Marvin Bagley III, who is expected to be picked ahead of the Missouri native in next week’s draft.
After originally committing to the University of Washington, Porter Jr. changed course when head coach Lorenzo Romar was fired, and Porter instead went back home to Missouri for college. However, disaster struck just two minutes into the highly coveted recruit’s first game when a hard fall against Iowa State badly injured his back.
A microdiscectomy was performed on Nov. 22, 2017, and the rehabilitation was expected to keep him out the rest of the season. However, Porter Jr. healed faster than some physicians expected, and he made his controversial return for Missouri in two SEC and NCAA Tournament games. Following a nearly four-month layoff, Porter Jr. hardly looked like the same explosive athlete who dominated at the high school level, shooting just five-of-17 against Georgia (12 points in 23 minutes) and four-of-12 versus Florida State (16 points in 28 minutes).
Porter Jr. said he doesn’t think he less-than-stellar performances upon returning from the back surgery will hurt his stock at all in the eyes of NBA talent evaluators. He went as far as to say that he surgery he has was a blessing in disguise – both in terms of fixing his back and giving him time to explore life outside of basketball.
``(The surgery) was a step back to take three steps forward,’’ he said. ``Sophomore going into my junior year (of high school), that’s when I first fell on my back. From there, I was just compensating for more things as it got (stiffer). It just got worse to the point where I eventually had to have surgery.
``I actually got to explore (life outside of basketball) a little bit when I was hurt,’’ he continued. ``I started reading a little more, fishing a little bit. Besides that, I just like hanging out with my family. I like to read C.S. Lewis books. I think he’s obviously a great author, and I love fishing.’’
NBA teams will obviously be fishing for any sort of information that will help them evaluate the long-term star potential of a player like Porter Jr. Will the back injury be a life-long issue that saps him of the explosiveness that made him a high school star? Or will he be this draft’s below-the-radar talent who slips between the cracks before ultimately blossoming as a superstar at the NBA like so many players before him?
Porter said boldly that the teams that pass on him will eventually regret it.
``I’ve got a little chip on my shoulder and something to prove,’’ he admitted candidly. ``But it’s all just a little motivation. I don’t have any jealously toward anybody. Those (players in the draft) are all my guys. Wherever they get drafted, I hope it all works out for them. But it’s just about feeling motivated and knowing that you’re the best. And I want to be the best.’’
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