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NASHVILLE – At 12:09 a.m. local time on Saturday morning, Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. sat on a wooden bench in a makeshift locker room at Bridgestone Arena. He buried his head in his hands and was crying when nearly 30 media members bull-rushed into the locker room and formed a semi-circle cocoon around him.
Tears still in his eyes and sweat dripping down his forehead, Porter faced a half-hour inquisition on his tepid performance against Florida State in Missouri’s blowout loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Porter had just made his third and likely final appearance for the Tigers in a fleeting career that amounted to little more than a tease. After missing all but two minutes of the regular season with back issues, Porter Jr. labored through two postseason losses for the Tigers, one in the SEC tournament and the other in the NCAAs. He showcased the type of ragged game expected from someone playing out of shape and at what he termed as 65 percent of his physical capabilities.
Porter, a 6-foot-10 wing, didn’t play awful in what’s expected to be his final collegiate game. He huffed and puffed his way through a 16-point, 10-rebound performance in 28 minutes against the Seminoles that showed flashes of his boundless potential. There were rebounds snared well above the rim, a silky jumper and an alpha presence to demand the ball. But his poor conditioning, understandable because of his long layoff after November back surgery, led to an effort so awkward he ended up pleading to a higher power for strength. “I was asking God, ‘Please give me some extra strength to finish this second half,’ ” he said afterwards. “It’s really tough being out there when you’re not fully confident in your body movements. That was the hardest thing.”
The next few months will have Porter facing an inquisition of another kind. The skeptical eye of NBA front offices will be trained on him, and the small sample size from his hobbled performances will be analyzed and overanalyzed. (In the two games he returned, he shot 9 for 29 from the field and 3 for 10 from 3-point range.)
The question of whether Porter returning for two games helps or hurts his NBA stock has become a divisive one in league front office circles. Yahoo Sports polled eight NBA scouts and executives on Porter’s future and found mixed results. Three said the tepid performances in the postseason comeback could hurt his draft stock, three said it will have no impact and two said returning for the two games will ultimately help him.
The NBA folks who thought Porter’s return would hurt his stock had varying reasoning. One said the actual performances had no impact, as he clearly wasn’t in game shape. But he said the returns “raises questions” to why he didn’t return earlier. Another said there may be an “overreaction that blames it on these two games,” but pointed to the real concern coming from “the back surgery itself and people deciding he doesn’t have the personality/mentality to be a killer.” Another scout pointed to Porter having already earned a rep for being “soft.” (Other knocks include defensive indifference and carrying himself as a bit “too cool.”)
The scouts in the camp who thought the performances will have no impact had varying reasons. NBA scouts have already seen Porter plenty at varying exposure events, so getting a glimpse of him isn’t really a concern. “Not worried too much about his talent level,” one said. Added another: “I think we all knew what he is before he came back. He’s still a lottery guy to me.”
The camp who felt Porter helped himself brought up an interesting perspective. One veteran executive pointed out that the grit to play hurt means more than his milquetoast performances. Being willing to play when you aren’t 100 percent is a big part of NBA life, the executive reasoned. Another scout added that simply playing in the games will be important for a general manager in convincing an owner to take a player that they’ve likely tanked their season to draft.
“Obviously the medical records will be key, but the fact that he simply showed he can play, and it’s unlikely that he has a debilitating back injury is very important,” the scout said.
Porter acknowledged the narrative that he had much more to lose than gain by coming back. He’s considered a likely pick somewhere in the No. 4 to No. 8 range, even if he hadn’t played. (Sometimes a bit of mystery about a prospect helps, as the more film there’s more to pick over the more issues can be found.) Porter said he has faith that people in basketball will acknowledge the severity of his injury and will be able to see marked improvement once he’s 100 percent.
“I’m going to be a completely different player in a couple months,” Porter Jr. said. “Even if I do drop, they’ll see the player I am soon. It wasn’t about that. I wasn’t really worried about that.”
Porter said his decision to come back “would have been a whole different process of elimination” if there hadn’t been a flurry of attrition and injury that left Missouri with a threadbare roster heading into the SEC tournament.
“Us having six or seven players, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “Even at 60 or 65 percent I was going to do what I could.”
The determination to play, and the risk it involved, impressed Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin. He pointed out that players were skipping NIT games because of the risk of injury and that Porter’s decision showed a window into his makeup.
“Just on that alone, I argue that he’s the top pick,” Martin said. He added: “For a guy to lay it on the line like this, it says a lot about him.”
The way Porter handled the media throng prodding his emotions, asking him to walk back through his decision and analyzing his play was also impressive. In the emotional cauldron of a cramped locker room after a devastating loss, he came off as sincere, dejected and professional.
“I’m not myself yet,” Porter said. “Right now, I’m playing mostly on one leg because my other leg isn’t fully strong yet. I was gassed. It’s the NCAA tournament, you have to give your team everything that you have. I can honestly say I played as hard as I could for the time I was out there. It just wasn’t enough.”
We’ll find out in a few months if that’s enough to convince an NBA team to build their franchise around Porter.
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