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Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

The 14 players with the most on the line at the NBA Draft Combine

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The NBA Draft Combine begins on Wednesday, and meaning that nearly 70 of the best basketball prospects this side of the NBA will be trying to prove themselves up close and personal with NBA front office personnel. 

Interviews, 5-on-5 hoops, athletic testing, physical measurements. 

This is, essentially, a job fair for NBA prospects, and there are quite a few that will have plenty on the line this week.

This list is made up of 14 players that have quite a bit on the line as this week commences.

A player with a * next to their name has not yet signed with an agent.

THE GUYS THAT WEREN’T SEEN

One thing that was clear with the players that were invited to the Combine is that the NBA prioritized the unknown. College basketball All-Americans like Trevon Bluiett and Joel Berry II, players that every NBA scout has seen play dozens of times, did not get invited while talented underclassmen that missed some or all of last season did make the cut.

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MICHAEL PORTER Jr., Missouri: The big thing for Porter in this draft process is going to be his medical records and who he decides to share them with. He missed essentially the entire season after undergoing back surgery, and no team is going to risk a top five pick on him unless their doctors give the all-clear. That likely will not happen at the Combine. What will happen, though, is that Porter is going to have a chance to interview with some front offices, and that could help assuage some other concerns about him: That his arrogance and cockiness is too much. Does he already think he’s an NBA superstar? Is the work ethic there to capitalize on the potential that he has?

JARRED VANDERBILT, Kentucky*: Vanderbilt is another guy whose season was derailed by injury. He averaged just 17 minutes in 14 games this season, missing the first 17 games of the year with a lower left leg injury, the same thing that kept him out of the lineup for Kentucky’s final six games of the season. Vanderbilt is a big-time athletic with a body that can handle some physicality and the versatility to defend multiple positions. For someone whose career has been marked by injuries, selling a team on taking him early enough that he can get some guaranteed money has more importance for him that it does other players at his level.

DE’ANTHONY MELTON, USC: Melton was in line for what many believed to be a breakout season before getting caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. He didn’t play one possession for USC this year despite putting up impressive per-40 assists, steals and blocks numbers as a freshman. He’s had nearly a full year to train and develop for this year’s draft, and this week will be his chance to show to NBA scouts what he’s now capable of. Proving he has a consistent jumper would be nice.

BRIAN BOWEN, South Carolina*: Bowen, a top 25 prospect coming out of high school, did not play this season after the FBI alleged that a $100,000 payment plan was set up to get him to Louisville. Bowen has since transferred to South Carolina, but there is no guarantee that he’ll ever be eligible to play next season. If he can get himself drafted in a range where he can get a guaranteed deal, that might be his best bet.

BILLY PRESTON, Kansas: After spending the first two months of the college basketball season waiting to get cleared, Preston left to sign a professional contract in Bosnia. He played a few games for KK Igokea, but he didn’t make much of an impact. Preston was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, a 6-foot-10 power forward with plenty of talent and even more question marks. There is a lot on the line for him this week as he tries to prove he is an NBA talent with an NBA outlook.

THE 3-AND-D GUYS THAT NEED TO PROVE THEY CAN 3 OR D

Everyone knows how valuable a 3-and-D wing can be, but that’s not the only thing that NBA teams are looking for. They want multi-positional defenders that can prevent penetration as well as rim protectors, all of whom that can, of course, make threes. Here are four names that could play their way into the first round.

KEVIN HUERTER*, Maryland: The guy that NBA draftniks fell in love with from Maryland was Justin Jackson, their long-armed, 6-foot-7 combo-forward who spent much of this season battling through injury. Jackson has some things to prove in his own right this year, but it may surprise some Terps fans to know that there’s an outside shot of Huerter playing his way into the first round of the draft. Huerter, a lanky, 6-foot-7 wing, averaged 14.8 points on 42 percent three-point shooting last season. The key question with him is going to be whether or not he has the tools to be a multi-positional defenders. The shooting stroke is already there.

SAGABA KONATE*, West Virginia and OMARI SPELLMAN*, Villanova: In an ideal world, an NBA team would be able to draft both Konate and Spellman and then blend Konate’s shot-blocking ability — a block-rate of 15.6, better than Jaren Jackson and Mo Bamba —  with Spellman’s ability to stretch the floor — 43.3 percent three-point shooting — to create the NBA’s ideal 3-and-D center. Unfortunately, this is not yet something that is medically possibly, which means that NBA teams will be evaluating a couple of things during the combine. Just how much more room for improvement is there with Omari Spellman’s body? Can he lose more weight and get more explosive, thus making him a better shot-blocker, without doing himself any physical harm? With Konate, NBA teams will likely be looking at whether or not his 79 percent free throw shooting (on 100 attempts) is the kind of thing that could lead to being a capable three-point shooter at some point in his career?

MELVIN FRAZIER, Tulane: Frazier’s name is probably not one that you’ve heard all that much about, but there is a very real chance that the Louisiana-native hears his name in the first round. An athletic, 6-foot-6 wing, Frazier is well-built with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. He also significantly improved his shooting this season, making 38.5 percent of his threes and improving this true-shooting percentage by more than ten points. Defensive-minded, positionally-versatile and three-point range. That has NBA role player all over him. The question that people at the combine will be looking to answer is whether or not this shooting was a fluky season or a legitimate improvement.

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THE GUARDS TRYING TO PROVE THEY CAN BE NBA PLAYMAKERS

TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse*: Trying to figure out what to make of Battle as a prospect is difficult. On the one hand, he spent this season as an inefficient, shoot-first lead guard that had more turnovers than assists. On the other hand, he was more or less the only outlet offensively on a Syracuse team that didn’t provide him with much help and asked him to take a large number of bad shots. Did he shoot under 40 percent on the season because he’s a bad shooter or a good shooter that spent the season taking low-percentage shots? That, along with the question of whether or not Battle is going to be a good defender at the NBA level, are the things he will be looking to prove to NBA teams.

DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova*: DiVincenzo is in such a weird spot here. He was very much in the eye of NBA scouts this year, playing on the nation’s best team alongside four more guys that could end up getting to the NBA at some point. But he also spent the year looking like he was an inconsistent, streaky scorer that struggled when handling the ball against pressure. Can he prove he’s more than that?

JEVON CARTER, West Virginia: We all know how good of a defender Jevon Carter is. The question that needs to be answered is whether or not he can be a point guard. One problem he had throughout his college career was shot selection, but like Battle, was that a product of who he is as a player or the way that West Virginia played?

DEVON HALL, Virginia: People don’t seem to realize just how good Virginia’s players are until they get to the NBA. Tony Bennett has done a terrific job of turning his program into a pipeline for role players at the next level, and Hall might be the next in line. A lefty-playmaker, Hall shot 43.2 percent from three and averaged 3.1 assists despite playing at the slowest tempo nationally and not being a point guard. He has good size and, playing for Virginia, is clearly going to be able to defend. This will be his chance to prove himself worthy of a pick that will get him a guaranteed contract.

JAYLEN HANDS, UCLA*: Jaylen Hands didn’t exactly have a great season. He didn’t defend well this season, he made poor decisions, he’s not a great passer, he’s an inconsistent shooter and he he did all that while playing behind one of the best point guards in the country in Aaron Holiday. That last part might be the one that is the most relevant here. Were Hands’ struggles this season a result of simply being forced out of position by a guy having an all-american season, or should there be legitimate concern about Hands’ future as a basketball player?

 

 

2018 NCAA Tournament: Big men that will break your bracket

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There’s a line of thinking that the NCAA tournament is a guard’s game, and there’s ample evidence of its veracity when we look back at runs by Kemba Walker’s UConn, Kris Jenkins and and Josh Hart’s Villanova and Russ Smith’s Louisville in recent years. Don’t, though, forget the big guys. Here’s a list of post presences that could help determine a national champion – and your bracket pool winner.

Marvin Bagley III, Duke: The Blue Devils freshman was the toast of the sport early in the season before being overshadowed by Trae Young, but he’s been consistently great. He’s great around the bucket, good enough from distance to keep defenses honest and rebounds at a high level. He may not be June’s No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but he ain’t slipping past five, either.

Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, Arizona: This is about as close to a throwback frontcourt as you’ll see – despite the fact that Ayton fits well enough in the modern game to be a potential No. 1 pick in June. It’s rare that a team can put two seven-footers on the floor and make it work, but Arizona’s pair can make it work. Still, it’s Ayton that fuels this pairing as he’s established himself as a dominant force inside and capable of keeping the Wildcats moving through the bracket.

Michael Porter, Jr., Missouri: Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon held down the fort inside all season long for the Tigers, but they’re now adding Michael Porter, Jr. to the mix – which could either make them fearsome up front or create a rocky fit. It’s one of the big bets of the NCAA tournament that coach Cuonzo Martin is making here. The upside is massive given Porter, Jr.’s talent.

Isaac Haas, Purdue: It’s pretty astounding that the Boilermakers lost Caleb Swanigan, one of the best big men the sport has seen in recent years, and somehow had a better season. Isaac Haas is a big reason why. The 7-foot-2 senior is on the floor more this year without Swanigan now that coach Matt Painer doesn’t have to juggle the two big men, and Haas has upped his production as a result. His size and skill bends the defense like few other players in the country.

Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward, Michigan State: Jackson is the darling of NBA scouts with his modern game while Ward is a more traditional big man – together they make up an incredibly dynamic and productive frontcourt for the Spartans. Ward is the country’s most prolific offensive rebounder and Jackson is one of the top shotblockers in the nation. And both shoot better than 60 percent from the floor.

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Luke Maye, North Carolina: Maye went from a nice story on last year’s national champion Tar Heels to one of the most productive players in the country this year. He’s averaging a double-double of 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds as his role has exploded from bit player to star for coach Roy Williams.

Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: With all the turnover off last year’s national runners-up, Tillie has seen his role and his production trend way up. He’s one of the most efficient scorers in the country with a true-shooting percentage of 68.2, which is top-10 nationally. He’s not as proficient as a shotblocker and rebounder, but he’s a major problem for defenses.

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: The Jayhawks’ roster is incredibly dependent on Azubuike given the dearth of other options inside, making his health status one of the more important subplots of the NCAA tournament. The sophomore missed the Big 12 tournament due to a knee injury, but is expected to return to the court this week. His presence inside really facilitates Kansas’ guard-oriented and 3-point heavy approach.

Mike Daum, South Dakota State: The 6-foot-9 Jackrabbit may be the best mid-major player in the tournament. He’s a high-usage player with a 59.5 true shooting percentage and rebounds on the defensive end at a high rate. His athleticism isn’t going to wow anyone, but his ability to score at every level and in unique ways makes him an incredibly tough cover. If South Dakota State turns into this year’s Cinderella, it’ll be Daum who fit them with the glass slipper.

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: The 6-foot-10 senior is a double-double machine, averaging 13.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. His prowess on the glass is what separates him from the rest of the big man pack as he’s elite on both the offensive and defensive ends on the floor in that area. He’s not a prolific scorer, but he creates extra shots for the Pirates and limits those extra opportunities for their opponents.

Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Another super-sized frontcourt that harkens back to a different era of basketball. Both of these guys are great around the rim, but not threats from the 3-point arc. Williams is a fantastic shotblocker while Davis is a great offensive rebounder.

Mohamed Bamba, Texas: Bamba appears to have healed up from a sprained toe and will try to help the Longhorns escape the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. The 6-foot-11 freshman with an expansive wingspan is one of the most impactful defenders in the country as an elite shotblocker. His offensive game lags behind his defense, but he is capable of causing headaches for opponents on that end as well.

Medical clearance brings difficult decision for Michael Porter, Jr.

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Michael Porter, Jr. came to an antiquated situation in a very modern way.

The 6-foot-11 phenom signed up to play for his father at his hometown university.

And Missouri really is more than just the hometown university for Porter — it’s home. His aunt has coached two of his sisters on the Tigers’ women’s team. His younger brother, one of his seven siblings, is also on the roster. After hitting rock-bottom in the Kim Anderson era, Missouri was getting its prodigal son and savior all in the same package.

Nevermind it came after his family moved to Seattle as his father was hired as an assistant by Lorenzo Romar in Washington, no doubt in part because of the long-standing relationship between the two men but also because Porter, Jr. is possibly a generational talent. And forget that his father’s next job came from Cuonzo Martin at Missouri.

In the end, Porter, Jr. began the season playing for his father and with his brother, a five-star center who reclassified in order to join the Tigers, undoubtedly envisioning a magical season alongside his family in his hometown in the pursuit of a national championship.

It’s not Hoosiers, but it ain’t far off.

The season hasn’t exactly worked out that way, and after Porter, Jr. found himself in a nostalgic role by following a contemporary path, in order to live out that he’ll have to turn his back on current-day — somewhat cynical — common sense logic to get one last chance at it.

After sitting out the whole season due to a back injury and with a week left in the regular season, Porter, Jr. has been cleared to return to basketball activities, seemingly setting up the decision on whether to give college basketball one last chance or simply sit out to preserve his best chance to make the most money in the NBA.

Essentially, it boils down to this: Is the added risk to the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars Porter, Jr. could make in the NBA worth the reward of an NCAA tournament run playing alongside his brother with his father on the bench at the university that in some ways has defined his family?

How much is that one chance of collegiate glory worth?

The simple answer for most in 2018 is not enough to justify playing.

Porter, Jr. probably can’t move the needle on his draft stock by playing. Could he possibly be good enough in just a couple weeks after months on the shelf to move ahead of Deandre Ayton? Luka Doncic? Mo Bamba or Marvin Bagley III? Maybe, but is going first or second that much of a difference than going fifth or sixth when the real money comes on his second and third contracts? Or his shoe deal?

Were he to injure himself — especially if it was an aggravation of the back injury or a foot issue — teams might have memories of Greg Oden flash before their eyes. Is there a team willing to risk a Joel Embiid-like injury profile in the first seven slots of a draft this strong?

On the other hand, Porter, Jr. is going to be drafted no matter what potentially happens after his potential return. I can’t imagine even in the most catastrophic of scenarios where he slips outside the top-half of the first round. He’ll make millions of dollars, and that’s the worst-case scenario. Playing, if he’s fully healthy, only adds some risk.

Is that added percent — or two or five or 15 — acceptable when weighed against the unique opportunity that generations of basketball players have dreamed of and never even been given chance to fulfill?

Charging headlong into a chance to win a title — and Missouri very well could be a title contender in a year like this year with a healthy Porter, Jr. — for your school, community and family has to be a tantalizingly tempting choice. Even if it doesn’t come with a paycheck.

It’s chasing a storybook ending over limiting future financial risk.

How to adjudicate those two choices is up to Porter, Jr.

It’s a choice he gets to make. Does he try to have it all or play it safe? Is the lure of shared family success stronger than that of financial security and better long-term viability?

Playing for free has a cost. Is Porter, Jr. willing to pay it?

Michael Porter, Jr. cleared to return to basketball activities

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Missouri may be adding a lottery pick to its roster for the stretch run.

Michael Porter, Jr., who began the year projected as a potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, has been medically cleared to return to basketball activities after missing the entire season with a back injury, a source confirmed to NBC Sports.

CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein was the first to report the news.

The 6-foot-11 freshman played the opening minutes of the Tigers’ opening game against Iowa State to start the year, but has been sidelined ever since. It is currently unclear if he’ll move from being cleared to play to actually hitting the floor for the Tigers.

It seemed unlikely that Porter would ever play college basketball because of the injury, but throughout the season he has never ruled out the possibility. Now that he has reportedly been cleared to play, the question undoubtedly will become should he?

Even without playing another second of college hoops, Porter will be a top pick in June’s draft. Some teams may even consider him for the top pick, if his health screenings check out, just based on workouts and the track record of his dominating play on the AAU circuit for years.

Still, if he’s healthy enough to play and wants to play, it’s unquestionable that it is a decision that is completely his. And it would make Missouri one heck of an interesting team.

The Tigers are 18-10 overall and 8-7 and appeared poised to make the NCAA tournament in coach Cuonzo Martin’s first year in Columbia. For their next game, they play – of course they do – Kentucky on Saturday. Talk about added intrigue for that game.

Michael Porter, Jr. missing Monday’s game to see “specialist”

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The mysterious leg injury that has kept Michael Porter, Jr. off the floor to start his collegiate career took a potentially serious turn Monday.

The Missouri freshman will miss the Tigers’ game Monday against Emporia State in order to see a specialist regarding the injury, according to multiple reports.

Porter, Jr., one of the favorites to be the top pick in June’s NBA draft, has missed the last two Missouri games after playing just 2 minutes in the team’s opener against Iowa State. The 6-foot-10 wing did not watch the Tigers’ win last week over Wagner from the bench, opting instead to watching from the locker room. He did not travel with the team to Utah, who toppled the Tigers, 77-59.

The Tigers haven’t offered much clarity or specificity on what exactly the injury is or what the timetable Porter, Jr. may be facing.

Missouri heads to Orlando later this week for the AdvoCare Invitational, and it’s uncertain whether or not Porter, Jr. will make the trip. Given his draft potential, it’s probably safe to assume that Porter, Jr. will be abundantly cautious with his health in order to prevent whatever the injury is from worsening.

For the Tigers, it deprives them of one of the country’s – presumably – most dynamic players in coach Cuonzo Martin’s first season in Columbia. Missouri has other young talent, namely Porter, Jr.’s brother, Jontay, and Jeremiah Tilmon, but their ceiling will be lowered considerably if Porter, Jr. continues to be sidelined.