Michael Porter, Jr. is the biggest wildcard in the draft this year. Going in to the season, Porter was considered by many to be the consensus number one overall pick. But a back injury cut short Porter’s college career, holding him to just two underwhelming games during his lone season at Missouri.
Porter had a microdiscectomy on the L3 -L4 spinal discs back in late November. Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux, when discussing the injury on the Dunc’d On podcast, seemed at least somewhat optimistic. Porter’s injury was higher up on the back than athletes like Dwight Howard or Tiger Woods, which means, in combination with his youth, he should have a relatively easier time returning to his pre-injury form.
That, of course, is the optimistic view. The more pessimistic—read: realistic — for Grizzlies fans—would be the old adage: No one ever used to have a bad back.
But Porter’s upside is tantalizing, and if the Grizzlies medical staff is confident that the former Tiger can return to form, they may be looking at a bargain with the number four pick.
What makes Porter special is his combination of size and ball handling. Porter is almost 6’11” but handles like a guard. He’s able to create shots for himself and others off the dribble. He’s able to rise up and hit shots over smaller defenders. He’s excellent in transition and in the pick-and-pop.
Coming into the season, Porter was seen as a potential number one pick, and it’s easy to see why by watching his high school highlights. Even against top-level competition (watch the game against Marvin Bagley’s team), Porter looked comfortable handling the ball. He’s able to use his first step to get into the lane, and he’s willing to pass to open teammates, a quality that disappeared post-injury.
Even more encouraging than his handle is Porter’s jump shot. Porter’s shot is clean and smooth, and he’s comfortable shooting off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations. The question will be whether the shot returns. In his brief time post-injury, Porter’s shot never quite looked like what it had been. He required elevation to shoot; the lift wasn’t there in his two Missouri games.
Porter’s transition game also looked diminished post-return. In high school, Porter could get out in the open floor and finish above the rim. At Missouri, he looked stiff and uncomfortable, and when he did try to go up and finish, he lacked the same explosion.
Obviously, the biggest question about Porter will be whether or not he’s healthy. Porter played in two games after returning from his injury and looked nothing like the star he’d been coming out of high school. He lost his athletic explosion, which affected his jump shot, his ability to finish, and his willingness to create shots for his teammates.
The injury also robbed Porter of the ability to add weight and strength, and that affected his game down low. He was pushed around pretty easily in the post in his two games at Mizzou, making rebounding and finishing in traffic a struggle. He should be able to add strength and muscle in an NBA training program, but that will take time.
If healthy, Porter’s jump shot should return to form. The real question will be how well he can get it off against NBA competition. Porter’s release is a little prolonged. He’ll need to speed that up a bit at the NBA level.
The defense is another question for Porter. What he lacks in strength, he makes up for somewhat in length that makes him able to defend inside, and he also has the foot speed to defend on the perimeter. But the effort and instincts are almost completely unknown. Even if Porter turns out to be 100%, the team who takes him will be gambling with Porter’s defensive skills.
As mentioned earlier, Porter is the wildcard of the draft. So much of where he falls will rely on his medical records and which teams are allowed access to them. If he’s healthy, and if a team’s medical staff is confident he can make a full return to his pre-injury form, he’s well worth a high lottery pick. But those are big questions, and ones we likely won’t have answers to.
When he was healthy, Porter drew comparisons to Kevin Durant due to his combination of size and ability to handle the ball. That’s likely a little too optimistic—Durant is one of the game’s greatest pure scorers ever—but it gives you some idea of his ceiling: a shooter with size who can create for both himself and his teammates, and someone with at least the size to defend both on the perimeter and inside.
The downside risk is stark. Porter may never be the same player he once was, and that’s what should really scare the Grizzlies. He’s the draft’s version of the current baseball paradigm; he’s either a home run or a strikeout, and it’s hard finding much in between.
Memphis will have to think long and hard about spending a pick on Porter if the players they really love aren’t there at pick four. A healthy Porter would be a perfect centerpiece for the Grizzlies both now and moving forward, but the Grizzlies have suffered so many failures with injured players (Chandler Parsons, Vince Carter, Jarell Martin, Jordan Adams) that it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t factor into that decision.
But Memphis doesn’t pick this high often, and the argument can be made that swinging for the fences is their best bet, and that Porter is the exact type of player on which to roll the dice.
And regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, there’s guaranteed to be plenty of debate before the draft rolls around.