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NBA Draft 2018 Scouting Profile: Michael Porter Jr.

The three-level scoring machine comes with one major question: can he regain the alluring star power he displayed before back surgery limited his lone college season?

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NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Missouri vs Georgia Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Position: Forward

General Information: 19 years old, played for Missouri. From Columbia, MO.

Measurables: 6’10”, 211 lbs, 7’0.25” wingspan, 9’0.5” standing reach

2016-17 Season Statistics: 3 games played, 10.0 PPG, 0.3 APG, 6.7 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 1.0 TOPG (17.7 minutes a contest) – 33.3% FG, 77.8% FT, 30.0% 3P

Summary: One of the greater risk/reward picks in recent years, Porter was at the top of the recruiting charts a year ago before back surgery limited his lone collegiate season to just 53 minutes played. In his final year of high school, he flashed three-level creation ability, and his excellent size and physical tools make him one of the top scoring prospects in the class. Still, the lost season kept him from addressing concerns about his handles, his decision making, and his lackluster defensive awareness. We know how the other premier talents handled themselves against the best in their age group, which makes Porter a riskier selection than Deandre Ayton or Luka Dončić.

Intangibles: This section normally comes later, but for Porter, context is king. Per ESPN’s rankings, he was the number 1 recruit in the 2017 class (before Marvin Bagley reclassified and was named number 1), and even eight months ago he was considered a favorite for the top selection in the 2018 Draft. Hyperbole called him the next Kevin Durant (because all 6’10 skinny forwards with the ability to shoot over dudes must be Kevin Durant).

Then the games started. 2 minutes into the opening game against Iowa State on November 10, Porter asked to be taken out. His father, Michael Porter Sr., an assistant coach with Missouri, told the Athletic’s CJ Moore (if you have an Athletic subscription, read the whole piece) that his son has been dealing with a back injury “since the summer of 2015 when he took a hard fall while playing for his grassroots team, MOKAN Elite, on the Nike EYBL circuit.” Apparently the injury finally tipped the pain scale in that November contest. Days later, he had “a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs,” with an estimated recovery time of three to four months.

And so Porter became a man of mystery to the general basketball audience, the supposed star in waiting. For four months, there were plenty of rumors that Porter would return for this game or that game, but there was always the chance that he wouldn’t come back at all, and would stay a enigma for fans (and for any NBA team that hadn’t properly scouted him in high school). The Tigers used a deeper than expected roster—including a breakout freshman season from Porter’s younger brother, Jontay—and climbed into the top half of the SEC standings. In the SEC tournament opening round against Georgia, Porter returned to massive fanfare and an incredible jumble of expectations and hype.

Missouri’s SEC tournament run ended against Georgia, and while they earned an NCAA Tournament berth, they lost in the opening round against Florida State. Porter played a combined 51 minutes in those two games, and was a shadow of his former self; he was rusty from the months off, struggled to balance his scoring instincts with his still-present physical limitations, and never showcased great chemistry with his teammates because... well, he hadn’t played with them.

The smart thing for fans and armchair scouts to do is trust that NBA medical staffs will evaluate and understand Porter’s medicals. The Kings, blessed by the No. 2 pick, have already met with Porter and Pete Youngman probably has those records. We also have a recent NBA case for comparison; Dwight Howard had the same surgery in the April of his last year with the Magic, and was playing for the Lakers on opening night six months later. But how quickly Porter will be back to 100%—or even what his 100% might be in a few years after the surgery—is a puzzle that will have to be answered by those medical personnel who are better equipped to make that judgement, as opposed to the majority of us who couldn’t tell you what the L3-L4 discs are without the infallible power of Google.

What isn’t smart for us to do is to judge Porter by those 53 wayward minutes he played in a Tigers uniform. I both applaud Porter for deciding to come back, for whatever reason that might have been, and completely dismiss almost all of the Missouri tape. Those games should not define Porter’s NBA profile when he was so clearly not the same player as he was in high school. But that leaves high school tape as the primary way to judge Porter as a player.

The major downside here is the inability to judge how Porter would have handled the physicality of college ball over high school, his motor and attitude in crunch time of a nationally-broadcasted game, and his leadership of a Missouri team that had been expecting him to be their primary scorer. There’s also been a ton of smoke put out about Porter’s personality on and off the court. For insight into team’s questions about Porter’s mentality on the court, the Athletic’s Sam Vecenie offered up this nugget.

...Porter’s combine was all about glitz vs. substance. He came with a single, simple message: He believes that he is the best player in this draft, a declaration that may actually end up being true given his prodigious skill level.

But those brash words will likely do little to quash the perception of entitlement that NBA executives feel he has developed. The intel they’re getting back is mixed from his time at Missouri, where questions have arisen about if he was a great teammate. When mixed with the early prep career questions about his toughness, it’s a complicated picture for NBA evaluators to wade through.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks also had this to say. It’s smokescreen season, so it’s fair to wonder who benefits from these “personality” insights, but there’s a LOT more smoke out there about Porter’s personality than the other prospects in the class.

The other downside is the high school tape is a year removed from what Porter could have been after a full season of college basketball. The positive development he could make immediately into his NBA career, or the weaknesses he might unveil that were hidden while playing high school talent, could render this profile (and all of your comments) obsolete even faster than most players do (remember when I said Willie Cauley-Stein could be a game-changing defender? That was fun).

So, here is Michael Porter Jr.... a year or two ago.

Offensive Breakdown:

Porter is a strong three level scorer who has confidence beyond the three point line, an off-the-dribble jumper for the mid-range, and craftiness around the rim. He’s got excellent size and length for a forward, and before his injury he highlighted above-average explosiveness and nice fluidity. He’s too skinny right now for NBA bigs, and he might be a step behind the elite NBA wings, but it’s easy to be excited about his ability in transition or in a fast paced NBA offense with these tools.

Porter’s length and pop on his shot puts the ball out of reach of most blockers. He doesn’t have the most fluid looking shot, but some of that might still be connected to his back injury (which started plaguing him in 2015). Take a look at his mechanics pre-surgery, and see how well he moves without the ball on some of these attempts. He doesn’t NEED the ball in his hands to be an effective scorer.

Players with Porter’s size and ability to shoot at a high level, hit off the dribble, and ISO are an incredible advantage at the NBA level. The versatility in his scoring game gives him legitimate top-option potential if he continues at the development pace he showcased as a senior.

This fluid one-dribble step-back is a nasty move, and he’s got some crafty moves with the ball in his hands. This move won’t be as effective against a defender who is closer to Porter’s size, but his level of ability at this age indicates he’s only scratching the surface on his creation ability.

Porter’s confidence was a double-edged sword in high school; his shot selection worked against smaller opponents, but he missed a likely efficiency reckoning in his shortened college season. Porter didn’t look a very natural playmaker pre-Missouri, and often resorted to poor shots over passing out. His future team needs to develop a strong offensive system to keep his on-ball tunnel vision from becoming a problem at the next level.

While I said his game minutes at Missouri should be relatively ignored, it’s key to point out he only had 1 assist (and 29 shot attempts) in those two season ending games. For all the motivations that could have contributed to this—Missouri was missing Jordan Barnett in those games due to a DUI, and it’s logical that a primary scorer like Porter could have been trying to work back into the game with what he’s most confident in—Porter needs to show some strong decision-making improvement before he can be a real top offensive threat.

Hopefully when he’s given extended playing time with a stable group of long-term teammates, his passing eye can unlock itself. He certainly had some nice flashes where he successfully reads the defense... it’s just not as consistently as you’d hope from a high-usage player.

One area of improvement to watch for will be in his handling ability; it’s vital to unlock his full on-ball creator skill, but was loose enough a season ago to be concerning. When people mention Kevin Durant as a comp for Porter, this is the major difference in their games at similar ages—Durant’s handle and ball control skills were far ahead of Porter’s.

This play at the Nike Hoop Summit showcases his ability to attack the basket from the mid-post, but he also has to stare at his dribble when he makes his move.

With improved ball control, he has the instincts and length to be a really strong rebound-and-go guy.

But as those plays above (and below) show, he plays with a hunched-over dribble (an issue going back to his high school days) that almost certainly was limiting his explosiveness on drives.

Defensive Breakdown: As long as he’s healthy and won’t be perpetually impacted by his back injury, Porter has all the tools needed to be a very solid NBA defender. It’s fair to say he wasn’t as engaged defensively pre-college as he was offensively, but you can pretty much copy/paste that into 95% of prospect profiles from now until the end of basketball. He rarely played with a defensive stance, so he’s obviously got plenty of refining to do beyond the moderately high floor his physical tool set provides. He’s flashed the ability to be a solid contain defender with his wingspan.

He’s not without significant flashes of poor effort or instincts, though, especially on help defense.

He’s not as crafty and developed on defense as he is on offense. In the play below, he gets stuck in no-mans land—the ball in front of him, his assignment running beyond the ball, and no one between him and the basket. Instead of closing out on the ball, he stays drilled into the floor.

Here, Porter does a good job of flipping direction and sticking in the passing lane. But when he misses a rebound and it’s tipped to his man, he gives a half-hearted swipe and seems to hope Mo Bamba can stop it.

I’m optimistic that Porter will eventually become an average NBA defender, but it comes down to his motor and determination to learn better angles when off-ball and how to contain smaller defender on-ball. Check out the back-to-back defensive plays by Porter against Tadas Sedekerskis (considered a late-second/summer league prospect in this draft).

On the first play, Porter takes an a terrible angle that NBA wings will take advantage of (Sedekerskis fails to get anything out of it). On the second, Porter meets Sedekerskis at the top of the arc, disrupts a high-handle, contains Sedekerski, attacks the hand-off, and gets called for a ticky-tack foul.

If Porter’s engagement and awareness improve, he could be a strong switchable option, but I don’t think it’ll be a quick transition. I expect he’ll feel that missed season—and the chance to get used to a higher level of rivals—mostly on defense.

Rebounding is another area to watch for improvement from Porter, especially if he’s asked to play the 4 or even a small-ball 5. Much like his defense, Porter has loads of potential but struggled at times in the match-ups against collegiate size. He averaged 14.3 rebounds in his senior season of high school, an impressive accomplishment even considering the talent level. But in the five FIBA U19 2016 games, he averaged 5.4 rebounds, and in the Nike Hoops Summit he had 4. Those numbers are impacted by his role in those games—he played on the perimeter on offense, and guarded wings on defense—but his immediate transition to boarding against NBA bigs may be pretty rough considering his lack of bulk (211 lbs at the combine) and inconsistent physicality in the paint.

Fit with Sacramento: The Kings need an alpha scorer to develop with the young guards on the roster. Porter plays a massive position of need (either forward spot) and can develop into a true alpha scorer. Is there any wonder why the Kings would be high on him?

The whole NBA—but especially the Kings!—should know who Michael Porter Jr. is by now. Even with the injury, he played hundreds of minutes in front of professional scouts. Teams have known about him as long as they’ve known any prospect in the last decade. Getting a chance to talk with Porter one-on-one and finding out about his attitude and locker room rapport at Missouri is a necessary step, but any front office worth their scouting budget should have had a solid opinion on Porter’s potential before the season. And as long as their medical staff agrees that he’s healthy and is worth the risk of high draft capital, they can treat Porter like he was what he and many of these lottery picks should have been; a guy coming straight out of high school into the pros.

But that missed season does make Porter a riskier pick than Deandre Ayton or Luka Dončić. They’ve both had more chances to beat the premiere talent in their age class (or in Luka’s case, way beyond his age class), and were able to show their avenues to NBA efficiency. Luka’s broader offensive skillset offers him a wider chance at that efficiency, and Ayton’s got an all-around developing offensive game a body crafted by the basketball gods. And neither of them have had major surgery before. It’s not fair for Porter, but even if you consider all three near-equivalent talent, two of them come without medical flags.

I believe the Kings’ draft night decision will come down to Dončić or Porter. Based off injury concerns alone, Dončić has the higher floor... and based off of his demolition of the 2nd-best-league in the world, his strong ability on- and off-ball, and his wide-ranging skill set and excellent feel for the game, I also think Dončić has just as high a ceiling in the modern NBA as best-case scenario Porter. But given the allure of Porter’s creation ability and greater athleticism, the Kings might completely disagree with this opinion.

Porter can be an ideal scorer in the modern NBA. He’s got the confidence and a developing, flashy creation ability to be a star. Here’s hoping, however the draft pans out, that the NBA gets to see the best of Michael Porter Jr.