Michael Porter Jr. is the single-biggest mystery in this year’s NBA draft.
He is a tantalizing talent that can do things athletically and as a shooter that 6-foot-11 people are not supposed to be able to do. He was absolutely sensational at the 2016 Peach Jam, which is the finals of the EYBL circuit and arguably the highest level of basketball that Porter played prior to college. He impressed at the 2016 FIBA Americas tournament. He was good enough at Hoop Summit and on the all-star circuit that there were people that were projecting him as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft as recently as November.
But all of that changed in the course of the last seven months.
It starts with the back injury. After playing in a scrimmage against Kansas and just two minutes of Missouri’s season-opener against Iowa State, Porter shut it down, opting to undergo a microdiscectomy, a surgery on a bulging disc in his back that kept him out of action until the start of postseason play. He returned to the Missouri lineup and … looked like a kid that had been out of action for four months while recovering from surgery. He didn’t have his wind. He didn’t have his legs. He was rusty.
And, up until a workout last Friday — where, according to reports and sources that NBC Sports has spoken to, Porter was impressive — that’s all the tape we had on him. Porter also sent out the results of a physical that was conducted by the Bulls medical staff to every NBA team. One front office member that NBC Sports spoke with said the results came back “fine”, that there was nothing in those results that was overly concerning.
Then Wednesday happened.
Porter canceled a second workout that was scheduled to take place on Friday, and varying reports coming out on Thursday said that he was dealing with hip spasms that made it difficult for him to get out of bed despite the fact that an MRI that was conducted came back clean. It’s worth noting here that when his initial injury was reported by Missouri, it was termed a hip injury.
Is this a smokescreen? Does Porter have a promise from someone in the lottery that is looking to keep the teams drafting above them from taking him? Or is this something that is truly concerning, a reoccurrence of his previous injury? Back injuries for 7-footers are concerning, and Porter is 6-foot-10. No team wants to end up with the next Greg Oden in the top seven.
And that’s before you get into the questions about his position and his makeup.
Porter has a ceiling as high as anyone in this draft, but when the floor is as low as his is, it makes him a scary — and risky — player to take.
2017-18 STATS: 10.0 points, 6.7 boards, 30% 3PT, 53 total minutes
DRAFT RANGE: 2-15
On paper, Porter checks every single one of the boxes that teams are looking for frontcourt pieces for the modern NBA. He’s big, he’s athletic and he is a natural wing, far more comfortable playing on the perimeter than in and around the paint.
It’s all centered around his shooting ability and the physical tools that he’s been blessed with. Let’s start with the latter. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan and a 9-foot-1 standing reach, he has the size to play the four at the next level with the potential to play the five in smaller lineups. He has dunk contest leaping ability and is mobile enough that he can grab defensive rebounds and go the length of the court. He’s always going to be a lob target, especially in transition, where he thrived as a prep player.
Porter can be a terrific shooter as well. He’s a catch-and-shoot threat that is more than comfortable getting to his shot in isolation and off of hang dribbles. He has the height to elevate over smaller defenders and range beyond the NBA three-point stripe. He can also be run off of screens or used in pick-and-pop actions, which gives him more value and versatility in terms of the kinds of offense that he can be successful in.
His ceiling is as a player that can get you 25 points a night in the NBA, and as a 6-foot-10 shooter, he’s not all that common.
Without question, the biggest issue facing Porter in his basketball career is his health. Bad backs are not typically something that just go away with time, but we’ll get to that.
Here, we’re going to focus on the issues that he has on the court, and his biggest center around the fact that he plays ‘high’, but not in the J.R. Smith way. Porter has high hips and a high center of gravity, and that manifests itself in three ways: An inability to blow by defenders on the perimeter, issues staying in front of quicker ball-handlers and a lack of strength when it comes to holding his position in the paint.
For my money, his issues putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim is the biggest concern. He lacks some of that initial burst to get his shoulders by a defender, and even when he does, his frame doesn’t have the strength or the balance to take the hit and play through. As it stands, Porter has a tendency to revert into a high-volume, low-efficiency jump-shooter, a player that survives too much on contested mid-range jumpers to get his points. That’s not a death sentence for his career — see: Anthony, Carmelo — but you have to be extremely good at what you do to make yourself a positive influence on a team that way, especially when you are not a natural playmaker; Porter is a score-first player, through and through.
And let me be clear: That is not necessarily a bad thing. Porter might just be good enough to be a star in the NBA as a scorer, and it’s not unheard of for someone that was a bit selfish in the high school ranks to develop the ability to pass as he learns more about the game. I wasn’t kidding when I said that he could end up averaging 25 points in the NBA, but that gets us to the other problem.
Porter doesn’t always sit in a stance and move his feet, staying in front of quicker players. That is a problem if he wants to be a wing in the NBA. There is an incredible value in a player that has positional versatility and the ability to keep a man in front when put on an island. As we saw with the last two rounds of the playoffs, the modern NBA is becoming increasingly more about switching and isolation play, and there are valid concerns over whether or not Porter has the lateral quickness to thrive defensively.
The same can be said if you project him as a four. Can he handle the physicality of the paint in the NBA? Will he get knocked off his spot if one of the NBA’s best big wings tries to back him down? This concern is added by the fact that his frame is slender. He doesn’t have broad shoulder. Just how much more weight and muscle will be be able to add?
Superstardom comes for Porter if, given his scoring acumen, he is a versatile defender, and there are real questions about whether or not that will ever come to fruition.
Let’s say that Porter’s back really is completely healthy, he’s able to play 75 games a year and that he adds the strength and quickness necessary to become a plus-defender as a big wing in the NBA. If all of that happens, I can see Porter being something of a Paul George 2.0. That’s his ceiling.
His floor? Terrifyingly low given the injury concern. It took Joel Embiid until his fourth season to play more than 31 games and his third season to play, period, and even now, the entire city of Philadelphia goes full lemon booty every time he hits the floor. Imagine that, but instead of Embiid it’s the 2017-18 version of Andrew Wiggins.
Or Michael Beasley.
The biggest thing with Porter at this point is the unknown.
His performances in college were quite unimpressive, and it is really, really difficult to get that out of your head. That said, it is important to do so, because it’s obvious to anyone that watched Porter play before college that he was nowhere near 100 percent in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
It’s also important to remember that Porter is now effectively a year behind the rest of the players in this draft class. What I mean by that is that some of these issues Porter has as a prospect are things that can be coached out of him. Some of these issues can be resolved when he gets into an NBA strength and conditioning program that will add muscle to his lower body, strengthen his core and get him quicker and more explosive. Those red flags are no an uncommon problem for tall, skinny freshmen to have.
But unlike those other tall, skinny freshmen, Porter’s one season in college was spent rehabbing from back surgery instead of spending time in the weight room and on the practice court. That issue is compounded by the fact that he is old for his grade. Porter will turn 20 on June 29th, making him two months older that Kevin Huerter and Josh Okogie, likely first round picks that both spent two seasons in college before declaring for the draft.
That has to be considered by NBA teams as well.
As does the intel that has leaked out of Missouri regarding Porter as a teammate. A source close to the Missouri program called Porter entitled and arrogant, that he’s not the best teammate and may be more into the celebrity that comes with NBA stardom that the NBA itself. Other outlets have reported similar concerns about him, and that’s to say nothing of the reputation for being soft that he carried with him throughout his high school career.
The issue isn’t so much a character concern as it is a question of whether or not he will be willing to accept a role initially in the NBA and how he will handle the hazing that comes with being a rookie in the NBA. I think it’s important to note that Porter comes from a big family. He has seven brothers and sisters, all of whom are or were home-schooled through eighth grade. Porter was so shy, his father told NBC Sports, that he wouldn’t even be able to order food from a waiter at a restaurant. The family bought and ran a shaved ice stand in their hometown in an effort to get Porter to learn how to handle human interaction.
That’s a tough adjustment, something he might grow out of but still another thing for NBA teams to have to consider.
All in all, it’s caused Porter to slip. He’s a risk, one that is probably worth taking in the 6-8 range but not quite for teams picking in the top five.
That said, chew on this: The last time a one-and-done combo-forward from Missouri with concerns about efficiency, toughness, defense and a reliance on being an isolation scorer was drafted, he turned into Jayson Tatum.
And that pick looks pretty savvy today.