Eight months ago, many considered Michael Porter Jr. to be the top high school basketball player in the country and a strong candidate to be the number one draft pick the following summer. A lot has happened since then, and his draft stock has dipped. Although he is still expected to be picked in the first round, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about Porter’s future in the NBA. Let’s take a closer look at the draft’s mystery man.
Basketball is in Michael Porter Jr.’s DNA. His father played college ball at the University of New Orleans and has been involved in organized youth sports for decades. His mother Lisa, though, was the real star. She averaged 58(!) points per game in high school before playing at the University of Iowa and then overseas in France. Porter’s aunt is also the coach of the University of Missouri Women’s team, where two of his sisters currently play.
Porter was a star at Nathan Hale high school in Seattle, and was widely considered the nation’s top senior in 2017. After initially committing to the University of Washington, where his father was an assistant coach, he switched to the University of Missouri-Columbia. His father and brother, Jontay, followed, in a “package deal” arrangement that isn’t all that uncommon for top prospects.
From there, things went awry. Porter, who injured his back in a fall while in high school, re-aggravated it only minutes into his college career. He eventually elected to have surgery to repair the damage. The procedure, a micro-discectomy, was performed by spinal surgeon Andrew Dossett in Dallas in late November and the recovery time was expected to take four months. At that point, most assumed Porter’s college career was over.
In January, Porter hinted at a possible return. Just three months after the surgery, he returned to practice with the team. In late February, with the conference tournament coming up, he expressed the desire to play and, to the surprise of many, suited up against Georgia in the first round. It didn’t go well. Porter struggled shooting and looked noticeably less explosive than in he did in high school. This wasn’t especially shocking considering the nature of the injury, but Missouri lost the game and then fell to Florida State in the NCAA Tournament as Porter continued to brick shots and appear out of shape.
While draft pundits commended his desire to try and help his teammates in the postseason, Porter did himself few favors by playing when he wasn’t close to being 100 percent healthy. A top-three prospect in early November, Porter is now projected in the back half of the top 10, and may drop even further. In an ESPN Mock Draft special that aired Tuesday, Porter fell to 15th. The panel touched on issues beyond the injury questions, delving into the kind of teammate Porter is and how well he fits within a team system. Porter’s talent is undeniable, but it’s clear he has a lot to work on if he’s going to live up to the potential he showed as a teenager.
The hype around Michael Porter Jr. begins with his offense. He measured at 6’10 ¾ in shoes at the combine with a 7’0 ¼ wingspan and 9’0 ½ standing reach. For comparison, Bam Abedayo had a 9’0 standing reach and Wendell Carter Jr. measured at 9’1. Porter has legitimate center dimensions as a perimeter player. He also has a beautiful looking jumpshot (I’ve heard some describe it as having a slight hitch, but it looks just fine to me), with tremendous arc and touch, and his range extends well beyond the NBA three point line. As an amateur, he was more volume shooter than marksman but that may be more due to shot selection than anything. Not lacking for confidence, Porter got in trouble at times because he looked to get his shot any time he wanted over defenders.
More than just a chucker, one thing I noticed in his brief time at Missouri is that Porter seems like a natural moving without the ball. Although he hunts his shot, he also knows where to be on the court. Using his shooting gravity to stretch the defense, Porter can get his teammates points even if he’s not making the pass himself. Also, while you wouldn’t want to go overboard in praising this, the fact that he got so many shots up in just 53 minutes isn’t purely a function of him being a ball hog. He also knew how to get open. Several of his misses were open looks that when healthy he’ll get his legs under and drain.
SEC fans didn’t get to see it, but perhaps the most enticing element of his profile is that Porter is a high level athlete, who threw down highlight reel dunks in-games on a regular basis. At his size, he will be a major threat to grab a rebound and start a fast break himself. His dribbling repertoire isn’t outstanding yet, but he has enough skill there as a stretch four to be a plus. With the threat of his jumpshot, attacking closeouts will get him high percentage looks at the rim, and he’s quick enough to beat opposing bigs straight up, as well. Again, though, to what extent that’s true will depend on how much tighter he can make his handle.
The combination of size and athleticism could also make him a playmaker on defense. Against Nevada, Porter recorded 10 rebounds and three steals in just 28 minutes. That was despite playing at what he termed roughly “70 percent.” He’ll need to add strength—there aren’t many one-and-dones you don’t say that about—but on paper he brings a lot of the qualities teams covet as a switchable, multi-positional defensive athlete. In limited action, you saw how effective he could be attacking ball handlers on switches and trapping the ball when the opportunity was there. The year of missed basketball didn’t help him in terms of on-court development but the tools are there and you see the leaps and bounds his brother Jontay made during his freshman season.
As promising as Porter’s profile looks in platonic ideal form, there is no sugarcoating this: Michael Porter Jr. is a major boom-or-bust prospect with some serious question marks. The injury concerns are obvious and honestly I won’t spend much time talking about them. If Casey Smith and the Dallas Mavericks training staff evaluates and clears him, that will be enough for me. Still, there are troubling issues to address even if he’s healthy.
To start, Porter might be a tweener at the next level, and while this is the era of position-less basketball, he’ll need to get stronger if he’s going to battle with opposing fours. That should be his position in the immediate future, because as I’ve already touched on, he’ll need to improve his dribbling if he’s going to get any consistent burn as a wing. He has the fluidity that you’d contrast against someone like Harrison Barnes, who is a bit stiff and robotic with his dribble, but Porter can get way too lose and sloppy with the ball, and you don’t see much creativity or deception yet.
Also concerning is that Porter logged 53 minutes of college ball and handed out just one assist. That trend isn’t new; he had a similar rep in high school and in the AAU circuit. Porter’s talent certainly earns him the right to take his shots, but if he’s not a willing passer his pro ceiling drops considerably, as does his fit on Dallas given the presence of the aforementioned Barnes, who’s dribbling profile and lack of vision put him in the 10th percentile (that’s really bad) of the league in assist rate.
That segues to the final point here, which is that a few outlets around the web have suggested that there are whispers among certain NBA clubs about Porter’s locker room disposition and personality. Is he a good teammate? How coachable is he? Will he adapt to the NBA where players inevitably fail and must learn from doing so?
I have nothing new to offer on this front except my recollection of what I’ve read. Back in November when Porter was the toast of the town, the sense I got was that Porter was considered a shoot-first guy but not necessarily selfish (I can point to more than one instance where I heard or read a college analyst specifically say he wasn’t a selfish guy, for whatever that’s worth). Porter then rushed back from injury to play with his team in the tournament, which from my vantage point doesn’t come off as a selfish act, since he had a lot to lose individually and was surely being advised by people outside his immediate circle not to come back for that very reason. Porter didn’t play well and there were some examples of bad body language in defeat. He was very emotional at the end of the Nevada game, and you can read into that whatever you want.
How Porter acts around his teammates is a total mystery me, as is how he’d handle being coached hard by someone like Rick Carlisle. That is a big question, and one I assume any team that drafts him will want to try and answer beforehand. It’s important to remember that from an evaluative standpoint there is a void here created by the time he missed from injury, and while some of these questions would persist if he had played, the games are ultimately what matter and if we had that data that would be what I’d look to and weigh most of all.
Fit with the Mavericks
I’ve hammered this point home as much as I can in just about every draft related discussion: Dallas needs high level shot creators in the worst way. Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are true workers and they’ve done everything they can do to help their team, but in my view the simple fact is that those guys are closer to third and fourth options than anything else. Barnes has led the team in scoring the last two years, but he’s done so with below average efficiency and little peripheral offensive contributions.
Enter MPJ. Porter’s size, athleticism and shooting could give Carlisle plenty of lineup flexibility, and the idea would be that Michael and Dennis Smith Jr. would develop into the Batman and Robin for the next contender in Big D. One imagines that since the surgeon who operated on Porter is based in Dallas, Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and Casey Smith will be as informed about his health status as anyone, and in terms of team culture, there couldn’t be a better landing spot for Porter in the top 7 than the Mavs.
There will be voices out there shouting that Porter Jr. has too many red flags to go this high, and in all honesty, some of that shouting is valid. But the Mavericks are in a difficult spot here. Picking fifth, there is a good chance that Doncic, Ayton, JJJ and Bagley will be gone, and the next tier down gets a bit dicey. I would submit that there are two options: (1) go with the home run swing, in Bamba, or MPJ, or if you’re a real gambler perhaps Trae Young, or (B) go for the ground ball between shortstop and second, and take one of the Bridges, or maybe Wendell Carter Jr.
If you’re all about taking that solid single, that’s fine, and who knows, maybe one of those ‘safer’ dudes turn into something more. I’m just kind of reading the tea leaves here and my sense is that Dallas likely won’t sniff this high in the draft again for a while (not because I think they’ll be making the playoffs next year, but more because I think the will do whatever they can do be competitive), so why not try and go for it all when you have the chance?
I don’t love comps, but I can see an optimistic outcome for MPJ as sort of a cross between Rashard Lewis and Paul George-lite. Lewis was the textbook stretch four man for years, and Porter’s size-shooting profile is similar. But his movement and fluidity are closer to George, and I think you could use Porter shooting off screens in the way teams like OKC have used George, and I’m hopeful that there’s room for growth as a ball-handler in MPJ as well. If Porter’s shot selection and handle don’t improve significantly, a taller Rudy Gay is also a possible outcome.