CHICAGO — When Michael Porter Jr. was first offered a scholarship by Missouri, the idea of a top basketball recruit playing in Columbia didn’t seem completely out of the ordinary. At the time, the Tigers were on their way to a 30-5 season that would land them a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
This was the type of success Missouri had come to expect. The program was only a few years removed from a trip to the Elite Eight and in the midst of a stretch of five straight NCAA tournament appearances. It had recently produced a first round NBA draft pick in DeMarre Carroll and was watching Marcus Denmon turn in an All-American season.
So when Porter was taking jumpers in Mizzou Arena one night and was pulled aside by head coach Frank Haith, he knew he would seriously consider the scholarship that was being offered. Porter thanked the coach, but he didn’t accept it right away. That would have been entirely premature — after all, Michael Porter Jr. was only in seventh grade.
Almost six years later, Porter finally gave Mizzou his commitment earlier this month. In the time that’s passed since, he grew to 6’10, became the No. 1 recruit in America, started dating a Disney actress, and grew close with NBA stars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
So much has changed for both the player and the program over those six years, but Porter’s talent has remained the one constant.
Porter heard chants of “M-I-Z/Z-O-U” as he accepted the MVP award at the 2017 McDonald’s All-American Game on Wednesday night. He just scored 17 points to lead his West team to victory in a performance that included brief flashes of his all-world talent.
For Porter, this was just another mile marker in his long coronation as the best young basketball prospect in the country. It’s what was always supposed to happen. But for the Mizzou fans that stuck around the United Center to shower their newest recruit in praise, this moment was surreal.
The dream of Porter playing in the gym where he grew up was supposed to have died long ago. Porter had committed to Washington and moved 2,000 miles from Columbia to Seattle. He just finished a perfect 29-0 senior season at Nathan Hale High School under coach Brandon Roy, the former NBA star by way of Washington who started coaching only to coach Porter Jr. He would be off the Huskies in the fall and after one season he’d be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
At least that was what was supposed to happen. Instead, a major shakeup at two proud programs that had fallen under tough times threw Porter’s world into flux just when everything was expected to settle down.
“The last three weeks changed my life,” Porter Jr. said before the McDonald’s All-American Game. “Whatever happened, I knew God got me. I’ll be alright. But it was an emotional time.”
There is never a boring story about how a top basketball recruit choses his college. The stakes are too high and the money is too big for that. But even in the weird world of college basketball recruiting, the circumstances that led Porter to Washington and then Missouri stand out as particularly convoluted.
For Michael Porter Jr., everything is a family affair, so that’s where the story starts.
Both of his parents stand 6’4 and played college basketball, his father Michael Porter Sr. at New Orleans and his mother Lisa at Iowa and then professionally in Europe. Together they had eight children and at least half of them turned into big-time basketball prospects, none bigger than Michael Jr.
In 2010, Michael Porter Sr. accepted a job in the Missouri athletic department and later became an assistant coach under his wife’s sister Robin Pingeton as his two oldest daughters Bri and Cierra went on to play for the Tigers.
At the same time, Michael Jr. was blossoming into one of the country’s best young prospects. As his recruitment started to heat up, Michael Sr. accepted an assistant coaching job across the country at Washington under his longtime friend Lorenzo Romar, who happens to be Michael Jr.’s godfather.
The Porters would move out to Seattle and Michael Jr. would give his commitment to Washington shortly after. He would be homeschooled just as he was for much of his life, but he and his younger brother Jontay, a top-50 prospect in his own right in the class of 2018, decided to play at Nathan Hale, a school that was coming off a 3-18 season.
As the Porters came to Nathan Hale, so too did Roy. It was a perfect match: a former NBA star grooming a future one, and the results were undeniable. Nathan Hale went 29-0 and won a state championship as Porter Jr. was named national player of the year and Roy was named national coach of the year. It all should have seemed too good to be true for Washington fans, but it happened as the program was deteriorating on the court.
Washington finished 9-22 and missed the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight year. They did it with Markelle Fultz, the likely No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft. The administration decided it didn’t need to watch the exact same scenario unfold again and fired Romar after 15 years on the job.
Suddenly, the biggest packaged deal in college basketball was back on the market.
Mizzou had nowhere to go but up. During Kim Anderson’s three seasons, the Tigers had amassed a 27-68 record, never winning more than 10 games and finishing in the basement of the SEC every year.
Anderson was fired earlier this month and replaced by former Cal coach Cuonzo Martin. Martin came with the reputation of a man who knew how to get things done: he once got top recruit Jaylen Brown to pay his own way from Atlanta to Berkley to visit the Golden Bears after his five official visits were used up. Brown committed shortly after to join fellow five-star recruit Ivan Rabb.
The Bears would ultimately underachieve that season with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Hawaii, but Martin’s status as an elite recruiter was sealed. When he took the Mizzou job, his first move was to call Michael Porter Sr. and offer him a spot on his staff.
Seven days later, Michael Jr. announced he was coming home.
All of this happened so fast for the Porters, but they knew they were lucky to have family at their side. Not even a month removed from being caught in the center of a storm that would change their lives, both father and son are doing well to keep things in perspective.
“Michael is used to things going his way,” Porter Sr. said at the McDonald’s Game. “When it happened, it threw him for a loop. I’m just glad he’s going through some of this while he’s still at home with us so we can help him process it.”
For his part, Michael Jr. seems at peace. He handled every media request during McDonald’s week with thoughtfulness and grace. It’s clear he already carries himself like a professional.
As anyone who has watched him play knows, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be exactly that.
Porter’s talent would have been in demand in any era, but he feels uniquely suited for the way the game has been trending recently. He’s the type of versatile, hybrid forward every team wants but so few have.
At 6’10 and 215 pounds, Porter has the size of a big man and skill set of a wing. He was draining jumpers off of dribble pull-ups throughout the two practices that proceeded the McDonald’s Game, and he did it while flashing the elite athleticism that separates him from everyone else.
Like any 18-year-old, Porter is still growing into himself and his game. Still, it’s easy to see a future star with the training wheels on. His jump shot is pure and he gets his head to rim-level for rebounds and dunks. He said he wants to be his own player, but sees parts of Tracy McGrady and Kevin Durant in his skill set. Durant sees it, too.
Durant sponsored Porter’s grassroots team Mokan Elite ahead of last season on the EYBL. The two text often. That’s not the only famous former MVP in his phone.
Porter first met Steph Curry when he was invited to his SC Select Camp for elite guards. Porter was the tallest player there, but he quickly developed a connection with the Warriors star. For two days this past summer, Porter flew out to the Bay Area to train with Curry. He said they talk every month.
If basketball is a fraternity, Porter Jr. is already a member. His talent is undeniable and his approach to his burgeoning celebrity status is developed beyond his years. He already looks and talks like basketball’s next big thing because he’s been preparing for this for years.
In between winning state championships in high school, conquering the grassroots circuit, and rising up the recruiting rankings, the basketball world has learned one thing: Michael Porter Jr. can’t miss. If the everyone else doesn’t know it yet, they will soon.