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Michael Porter Jr’s flawed but promising return

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Was it worth the wait?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Missouri vs Georgia Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Highly touted freshman Michael Porter Jr. made what was essentially his college debut Thursday afternoon. The NBA draft prospect had back surgery this fall following Missouri’s season opener against Iowa State, where he played just two minutes. Missouri took on the Georgia Bulldogs, in the 2nd round of the SEC conference tournament, but despite the hoopla surrounding the event (it took place in St. Louis, so there were more than a few Tiger fans in attendance), Mizzou came up short in their comeback bid, losing 62-60.

The important question, of course, is how did MJP look? Ian Miller, creator of the Mavs Moneyball Big Board, and Jordan Brodess, author of Prospect Watch, discuss.

Ian Miller: Well, let’s start with the good:

He actually played. After undergoing back surgery in November, most expected that Porter, Jr. would miss the rest of the college season, and begin focusing on draft preparation. That he’s back so soon is a pleasant surprise, and with Missouri facing foul trouble, Porter played plenty, as he logged 23 minutes of game time and didn’t appear to re-injury anything or fatigue himself too greatly.

He scored 12 points, grabbed eight boards, dished an assist and recorded a block, with no turnovers. Not bad considering he hadn’t played in four months. He also finished in the positive in plus/minus.

He got better as the game went on, hitting a big three in crunch time that pulled Missouri to within striking distance. The Tigers had a chance to win, getting the final shot, but coach Cuonzo Martin called the play not for Porter but for leading scorer Cassius Robertson, who missed from the corner as the clock ran out.

Now the bad:

Porter’s 12 points came on 5-of-17 shooting, as his jump shot was short most of the night. Clearly, there was some rust, and that shouldn’t really surprise anybody. Porter was looking to get his shot off and at times tried to do a little too much, especially when Missouri saw two of their frontcourt players foul out.

Porter didn’t look hobbled out there. He ran the floor just fine and wasn’t hesitant to mix it up inside, but the explosiveness clearly isn’t all the way back just yet. On one drive in the first half, Porter got to the rim but didn’t have the lift to dunk it, so he tried to lay it up and was blocked. When fully healthy, expect that same play to result in a poster.

Because Missouri lost, we won’t get to see MJP take on Kentucky in the next round. Instead, we’ll have to wait until Sunday to find out the Tigers’ next opponent. They are still currently projected to make the NCAA tournament, however.

Overall, I think there were plenty of positives to take away from MJP’s return, even if it wasn’t exactly a spectacular performance. Porter, Jr. wasn’t likely to come back and immediately drop 40 on Georgia like he was still playing at Nathan Hale High School. The jaw-dropping athleticism Porter is known for should in all likelihood return as he gets in better shape and becomes farther removed from the surgery. His jumper -- which is silky smooth, truly -- doesn’t need much work to get back to peak form, either.

Finally getting to really see Porter, Jr. on the floor, it’s immediately obvious why he’s been talked up so much. At a legit 6’10, he is deceptively huge, and combined with the lift he gets, it makes his shot almost unblockable. He also moves like a guard, covering ground very quickly in the open court, and that movement skill makes him a potential weapon on defense, as well, as he’s capable of switching onto bigs or smalls.

What also impressed me was how Porter, Jr. moves without the ball. He’s a highly intelligent player on the floor, finding open spots for passes and cutting at the right moment. He had more than a few plays where he managed to slip behind the defense for a wind open look, but his teammates couldn’t find him. One play sticks out where Porter came free on the baseline, but when the pass didn’t come, he quickly moved back out to the three-point line, leaving the lane open for Jordan Geist to drive and score. It was a simple play but one that Porter read and reacted to perfectly.

That brings me to some of the rubs surrounding MJP. As nice as it is that he moves so well without the ball, it also underscores that he’s a little more comfortable as a play finisher at this stage. His handle isn’t bad, per se, but it’s a little herky-jerky, and upright, and he’s yet to show off a lot in the way of deceptive moves or counter-moves. I think he has room to grow in this area, but projecting him as a dynamic two-way threat becomes a lot easier if he’s able to consistently create looks for himself.

The other bugaboo with Porter, Jr. is that his lower body is clearly underdeveloped, and will need the benefits of an NBA-caliber strength program. I think he can make it as a wing at the next level, but to maximize his talent, he’ll need a stronger base for when he’s matched up on fours. He did a nice job of battling in the post against Georgia, and rebounded well, but NBA bruisers will expose him quickly.

All in all, it was nice to get another look at a very talented prospect who could very much be in play for the Dallas Mavericks should they select in the No. 3-6 range. If the medical staff clears him, expect him to be very high on the team’s board. I’ve written already about how I believe the Mavericks want wings, despite the unusual depth of big men in this class. Porter would be a tremendous fallback option if European sensation Luka Doncic is gone.

Jordan Brodess: The biggest thing I was watching for when MPJ took the floor on Thursday was how he looked any time he took contact to his back. Off the top of my head, it happened a few times where he either hit the floor after jumping, or had a player jumping on him from behind while rebounding. From what I could see, Porter never seemed bothered by it. Granted, any pain or discomfort could come in the next 24 hours. But still. It was encouraging to see him moving as much as he was. He said after he felt he was about 65 percent, and that was evident. A lot of the conditioning and mobility will take time.

But if we’re able to continue to see improvement from him, and (waaaaay in the future) the Mavericks training staff can sign off on him, he easily moves in to my top three. There were plenty of glimpses today of what makes him special, even if it was all rusty. He’s a dynamic playmaker, moves well without the ball, and has a versatility that few players have at his age. Paired with his frame and basketball IQ, it’s easy to see a bright future ahead if he stays healthy. As for the other Porter, with how strong he has come on recently, I won’t be surprised if his younger brother Jontay Porter ends up being a steal for a team in June.

Ian Miller: Jordan hints at the last area I’d like to cover: the other Porter. While so much attention has been paid to Michael, and rightfully so, his younger brother has quietly built a very interesting draft resume so far. Coming off the bench for much of the season, Jontay has been a major weapon for Cuonzo Martin, as both a defensive anchor and deadly three-point shooter. Jontay was easily the team’s best player Thursday, leading the Tigers with 20 points on just eight shots (making 4-of-6 from behind the college line).

I was initially a bit underwhelmed by the younger Porter, who doesn’t have elite athletic traits and whose outside shooting has only come on recently, but I’m starting to see what others already have. He’s a very crafty big with surprising skill, and as he (like Marvin Bagley) reclassified to skip his senior year of high school, he’s one of the youngest draft-eligible players. Kevin Pelton’s early draft projections were released Thursday morning, and in what was a shock to this writer at least, it was Jontay who came out first in the “stats only” projection, ahead of household names like Ayton, Bagley and Young. While nobody—not even Pelton—is going to argue Jontay is the best prospect in the draft, he’s clearly shown the potential to one day play along side his brother at the next level.