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NEW YORK — Heading into the 2017-18 college basketball season, Michael Porter Jr. was considered one of the top candidates for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, a prospect on par with — or perhaps even ahead of — Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III among incoming freshmen.
Even after suffering a back injury in his debut for Missouri, one that would necessitate surgery that limited him to just 53 minutes at the NCAA level, the 2017 McDonald’s All-American and Mr. Basketball USA winner was still considered one of the most intriguing prospects in this year’s draft class. Porter still profiled as a three-level scorer with incredible size and athleticism, one whose promise made him worthy of a high lottery pick … and perhaps even the No. 2 selection, owned by the star-starved Sacramento Kings.
But things can change quickly in the NBA draft.
As new and concerning reports swirled about the health of his surgically repaired back, the 6-foot-10 Porter sat in the green room at Barclays Center on Thursday night, watching 13 prospects stride across the stage and hearing NBA commissioner Adam Silver call 13 other players’ names before his turn came. The player once viewed as a potential first overall selection and surefire cornerstone slid all the way down to pick No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets — a team Porter told reporters in Brooklyn he hadn’t spoken with until earlier Monday — finally stopped his fall.
“They were like, ‘We don’t think you’re going to make it to 14,'” Porter said. “‘You’ve never even been on our board. We thought you would be far gone. But if you do [drop], that would be awesome. We’ll take it into consideration.'”
Twelve months ago, Porter being available at the bottom of the lottery would’ve been unthinkable. Before his health setbacks, Porter had cultivated a reputation as a versatile and athletic forward capable of handling the ball, commanding an offense, and pouring in points from anywhere on the court.
“What has always set Michael Porter Jr. apart from others in my eyes is his package of size, agility, smooth athleticism and skill,” Rivals.com’s Eric Bossi told Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports back in March. “Here is a kid pushing 6-foot-10 who has prototypical size for an NBA four man, but the game of an NBA three man. He’s a versatile player that should be able to play the three or the four in the NBA and his ability to put the ball on the floor, feel for the game and scorer’s mentality should help him find early success in the man’s league.”
But a fresh round of concerns over Porter’s health cropped up when hip spasms caused him to cancel his second pro day workout a week before the draft.
Porter underwent an MRI on his hip that returned clean, was cleared to work out for teams last Friday afternoon, and indicated that the hip issue was much ado about nothing.
“I was hopeful that — obviously you want to get drafted as high as you can, I’m not going to lie,” Porter said Thursday night. “But I was hopeful, Sacramento, because that was one of the teams that was like — Memphis, Dallas, they were all really, really interested. I was hopeful that they would still not worry about the back. I understand that’s going to get right and this is about the long-term.”
Even so, the chatter surrounding Porter in the run-up to draft day focused more on his physical status than on his potential as an elite scoring threat. Despite those nerves, though, Porter projected confidence that, between his high school tape and his representatives’ efforts to communicate about his medical status with prospective suitors, they had done all they could to put him in the best position to land as high as possible.
“Honestly, I don’t have to prove nothing to nobody,” Porter told Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “It’s really just getting back and being the best version of me that I can be.”
Hours before Thursday’s draft, though, word began to spread that the concerns about Porter’s health — along with lingering questions about his game beyond scoring that had trailed him from the prep level to the college ranks — had left quite a few teams reluctant to gamble on his talent.
“There’s a lot of concern among teams in the lottery about a medical report they saw earlier this week that gave them pause about the long-term viability of [Porter’s] back, that caused him to miss most of that freshman season at Missouri,” Adrian Wojnarowski said during ESPN’s pre-draft coverage. “I talked to his agent, Mark Bartelstein, tonight, who has provided some more up-to-date medical information that he believes is going to give teams some more confidence. But right now, in the lottery, the Clippers at 12 and 13, and the Nuggets at 14, are preparing for the possibility that Michael Porter Jr. may be all the way down there, and they’re going to have to make a decision on drafting him.”
As it turned out, that projection proved prescient.
“It was crazy, because I was working out for a month straight, hearing from the very top teams in the draft, and that little episode of that hip pain happened, and all the top teams are a little scared,” Porter said on Thursday night. “[…] The hip episode happened, and then doctors got involved and they got scared. So once one team gets scared, a lot of them get scared. And that’s what caused the drop.”
Dallas opted to swing a deal that landed them European star Luka Doncic. Memphis went with Michigan State big man Jaren Jackson Jr. The Orlando Magic chose Texas center Mo Bamba. The Bulls picked Duke center Wendell Carter Jr. Cleveland went with Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, the Knicks preferred Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, and Porter’s slide was on.
“I had no expectations,” Porter explained. “But then, when you’re sitting there at your table, and another pick goes by, and another pick goes by, and you start seeing all your friends going, you start getting a little anxious.”
Porter had to sweat it out all the way down to the final pick of the lottery.
Sources: The Denver Nuggets have selected Michael Porter Jr. with the No. 14 pick in the NBA draft. Strongly considered Zhaire Smith here.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 22, 2018
With the decision and his destination out of his hands, all Porter could do was to reframe his frustration and look for the silver lining of the chance to find “the right situation.”
“I consider it a blessing, because maybe the team I was going to go to at the top wasn’t the right team for me,” Porter said Thursday. “For me, we’re all in the NBA now. We’ll see who are the best players and we’ll see who should have been the top draft picks.”
He’ll get to make his case on a Nuggets team that won 46 games last year, finishing only one game out of the playoffs after losing on the final day of the regular season.
He gets to line up alongside emerging star Nikola Jokic, an elite playmaking center who fuels Denver’s high-powered offense, and dynamic backcourt players Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. He’ll play for a hard-nosed coach in Mike Malone, who will demand effort and defensive intensity, and alongside a stabilizing veteran presence in two-way stalwart Paul Millsap, who can show him the way.
It’s not the landing spot Porter might have envisioned this time last year. But sometimes things happen for a reason.
“Honestly, through those dark times that I’ve had — I don’t want to say ‘dark,’ those harder times for me to say positive — it’s been my family, my agent who keep telling me positive things and keep making me believe the right things,” Porter said. “They all believe in me. They all know I’m going to do great in this league, and I’m going to have a long, successful career.
“Their whole message to me was you want to be with the organization that believes that as well. That happens to be the Denver Nuggets, and I’m very, very thankful.”
The Nuggets could wind up being very, very thankful, too.
“During last spring’s all-star circuit at places like the McDonald’s All-American game and the Hoop Summit, [Porter] is the guy that NBA people felt was ahead of everybody else,” Rivals.com’s Bossi said. “I think with his injury this season and the emergence of Deandre Ayton playing to his potential, people have kind of forgotten about how good Porter is.”
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