On Thursday afternoon, a few but probably not too many minutes after 3:45 p.m. EST, Michael Porter Jr. is going to jog onto the court for just the second time this season. This matters because Porter is one of, if not the single most promising prospects in the upcoming NBA draft. Before the season there was a near-universal assumption that a healthy Porter could and quite possibly would be the best college player in the nation; two minutes into that season, Porter’s college career seemed to be over. When Mizzou and Georgia tip off, one way or another, Porter will show Missouri fans and everyone else what we’ve been missing.
A back injury that grew progressively bothersome throughout the fall sent the Missouri freshman to the locker room just two minutes into the Tigers’ season-opener against Iowa State; the Tigers sent him to the surgeon’s table on Nov. 21, which seemed to be a wrap for his SEC career. Up to that point, Porter’s entire college legacy consisted of the 6-foot-10 Porter tearing through another very good Kansas team in a preseason scrimmage with a silky brutality, Porter doing some cool dunks and layups at the Missouri preseason showcase, and those 127 seconds, two points, and one rebound against the Cyclones. Even those handful of flashes already seemed like enough to land him a top-five spot in the NBA draft. It’s hard to know how good Porter will be on Thursday, but he is that good.
Missouri, for its part, seemed fully fucked without Porter in the mix. For the first two months, Porter’s lengthy recovery process seemed likely to devour his freshman season entirely. While that would deprive Porter of the chance of competing against top-tier talent in front of NBA scouts on a national stage, it was even more devastating to Mizzou’s aspirations of finally being a conference contender down the drain. Head coach Cuonzo Martin had bet a lot on Porter, and went so far as to gift Porter’s dad a job on his bench, unofficially but almost certainly to gain access to his kid’s talents for one year. That’s a gamble in large part because a player worth that kind of effort doesn’t stick around for a second season.
Missouri floundered without Porter early in conference play, dropping five of their first eight SEC games, managing only to best South Carolina, Tennessee, and the team they’ll face with Porter tonight, Georgia. The Tigers sat near the bottom of the conference and aside from the consistent play of a couple seniors, Martin’s all-in gamble on Porter seemed to have busted. Then, come the start of February, Missouri’s luck started to change.
Thanks to a trio of veterans—forward Kevin Puryear, senior guard Jordan Barnett, and the sharpshooting grad transfer Kassius Robertson—the Tigers started to finally gel. Younger players like freshman forwards Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter—Michael’s little brother, who reclassified to play with him—matured quickly on the court. Mizzou won three games in seven days, including the program’s first-ever victory over Kentucky, boosting them to 16-8 on Feb. 6 and breathing some life into tourney chances that seemed dead just two weeks before. Three days later, Porter dropped a not-so-subtle hint that he might end up donning the Mizzou black and gold at some point before he crossed a stage to shake Adam Silver’s hand come June. In front of a gaggle of reporters, Porter predicted team doctors would be amazed at his progress, adding that he felt like he could make it back before his sole season in the college ranks came to a close. Missouri ticked off two more wins to take their winning streak without Porter to five games, capping it with a four-point win over Texas A&M on Feb. 13. The following morning, Valentine’s Day, Porter was cleared to practice with the team.
Missouri closed out the regular season 2-3, ending with a win over Arkansas to secure its first winning conference slate in five years; the Tigers also hit the 20-win mark with the victory, which was good for a five-seed in the SEC tournament and a second-round date with No. 12 seed Georgia.
Nobody’s quite certain what Porter’s return will mean for Missouri or the field of 68, not because Porter is some unknown entity—the guy’s clearly going to be a star—but because it’s not clear just how much he’ll be able to unleash in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Martin told ESPN that Porter is game-ready, but still not 100 percent; he also said depending on how Porter feels, “he could play 20-25 minutes.” Remember, Porter’s presence was expected to make the Tigers an SEC and fringe national contender—he was one of the few players whose commitment could entirely alter a program’s entire trajectory. This is, after all, the very same Tigers program that combined for 18 wins total over the past two seasons. And yet here they are, already at 20 wins thanks to the wrong Porter brother and a group of misfit seniors. Missouri’s already good, in other words, and Porter, who can play all five positions in the college game, could make them one of the NCAA tournament’s most entertaining eight or nine seeds. He very well could carry this team to a Sweet 16; even if he just plays 20 minutes per night the whole way, he still might.
But until Porter proves or disproves that he’s still got his crafty lane-cutting abilities or the endurance to contribute 20 minutes of NBA-caliber ball, all we can do is guess. Georgia coach Mark Fox, meanwhile, gets to deal with being the first one to gameplan for the unknown. He told ESPN he’s had to keep his game-planning fairly vanilla because, “I’m not sure what position they’ll play him at.” Godspeed, Mark.