Michael Porter, Jr. (MPJ) is a curious case of a superstar signing a Letter of Intent (LOI) that was intended to supercharge a coach’s career, start his dad’s college coaching career, and singlehandedly turnaround the Missouri basketball program. Cuonzo Martin, the coach in question, attracted Porter, Jr. by hiring his father, Michael Porter, Sr. to be an assistant coach at Missouri. This mirrored the strategy of Lorenzo Romar, former head coach at Washington, who did the same thing for MPJ’s dad. Unfortunately for Romar, he was fired prior to Porter, Jr’s freshman season. With Martin’s assistant coaching offer to dad, MPJ was let out of his LOI and allowed to sign with Missouri. For obvious reasons, one big winner in this scenario has been Michael Porter, Sr. Additionally, Coach Martin gained enormous credibility for his recruiting acumen with potential Missouri recruits. Finally Missouri fans had a chance to return to winning that they’ve been craving for the last few years.
To make it even better for the Porters, Michael’s younger brother Jontay gave up his high school senior season and reclassified to play with his older brother at Missouri as a fellow freshman. Everything looked to be set up for a fantastic story for the Tigers and the Porter family. The real question is how did this work out for Michael Porter, Jr.? When he stepped on to the Missouri campus, he was the consensus #1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
From the standpoint of this small time AAU coach, MPJ had earned the ranking of the #1 player in his class and it was logical to expect Porter, Jr. to end up as the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, a back injury suffered in his first game changed everything. But how bad did those effects have to be?
Porter, Sr., gave an interview saying that he’d only play his son if his son was 100%. A fair question to ask is when a player has been injured since November and said player has only practiced around 5 or 6 times prior to the NCAA tourney, is there any way ANY player (not just Porter, Jr.) could be declared 100%? As the interview states, MPJ wanted to play. I certainly can give Porter, Jr. props for wanting to help out his team. When you’re as good a Porter, Jr. is - and as young as he is, it’s certainly reasonable for him to expect any basketball story to end with a success.
That optimistic expectation of success is not reasonable, though. When competing at such a high level, continued practice is a key to a player’s success. Missing that much practice (essentially the entire regular season) is an almost impossible deficit to overcome and it doesn’t just effect one area of a player’s game:
No ball handling drills to help you control the ball during the heat of the game.
No passing drills to help you hit your teammate in the shooting pocket when he’s open and awaiting a pass.
No shooting drills to give you the confidence that you can put the ball off of the glass with a defender on you. Or to know you can knock down a three pointer when your team needs it.
No conditioning to give you the endurance to play much more than 3 or 4 times up and down the court against similarly talented opponents.
These are key challenges that make even an otherworldly talent like Michael Porter, Jr. an underdog to be able to contribute to a team that needs him to be more than just another player, but needs him to be the star that he was prior to injury. Even more of a challenge is the fact that Porter, Jr. was unable to practice the team’s offensive and defensive sets, as well. Most people learn by doing, so when it comes to game day, very few individuals will have learned enough to go out and run the offense and defense well enough to help their teammates win. Thus, instead of running offense to score points, a player missing all of that practice is simply trying to run from point A to point B when the offense demands it.
In summary, Porter, Jr. demonstrated his willingness to come back and play with his teammates for the good of the team. But should he have been allowed to? By allowing him to do so, Porter, Jr. was allowed to look out of shape, raised the possibility that he is still injured and/or the injury is more severe than once thought, was unable to shoot, passed poorly, and ran both offense and defense in a sub-Porter, Jr. manner. As a result, when you look at his NBA Draft status, some have him going as low as 8th in the draft. That is a lot of money on his initial contract and a lot of prestige when it comes to attracting advertising and marketing dollars from corporations.
No one would deny that NCAA basketball head coaches need to think first about the future of the college program that they have been empowered to run. I’d argue that this perspective needs to include more than just the next game or two in the school’s future. How will prospective recruits look at what happened to Porter, Jr.? Will they be concerned that the coach had an opportunity to help MPJ’s future NBA draft prospects? How will some future 5-star basketball star judge the fate of what happens to MPJ in this year’s NBA Draft? Will Porter, Jr. be chalked up as a positive, or a negative, when a future 5-star is deciding where to play basketball at Missouri? Having possible “black marks” like this on a basketball program’s resume is also something that needs to be considered by the coaches who are entrusted the program’s health. Sometimes winning the next game and worrying about the future after that really isn’t the best way to build a program for the long term. Sometimes, there are bigger issues than just winning one game in the NCAA tourney.
And of course, this is only one moment in time that a player might look at when considering to whether to play for Coach Martin. The free fall of Ivan Rabb would be another case study for a prospective recruit to review. EJ Liddell and Courtney Ramey would be encouraged to look at that cautionary tale as well when making their decisions. Their prospective NBA careers could depend upon decisions made by their coaching staff. You want any coach entrusted with your future to be thinking beyond the next game. Even if it’s an NCAA game.