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Breaking down the return of Michael Porter Jr

Daniel O'Brien

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Mar 8, 2018; St. Louis, MO, USA; Missouri Tigers forward Michael Porter Jr. (13) handles the ball as he is defended by Georgia Bulldogs forward Nicolas Claxton (33) during the second half of the second round of the SEC Conference Tournament at Scottrade Center. Georgia won 62-60. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

After months of anticipation and uncertainty, Missouri’s high-profile freshman Michael Porter Jr. finally returned to the court after back surgery in November. The potential top-five NBA Draft pick suited up for the Tigers Thursday in their nail-biting SEC Tournament loss to Georgia.

There was no guarantee Porter would come back this season after playing just two minutes in Mizzou’s opener, so his appearance was a welcome bonus for Tigers fans and NBA scouts alike. Porter missed nearly four months of game action, and it showed during his rusty 12-point performance on 5-of-17 shooting.

Even though Porter’s shooting was erratic and Missouri succumbed to the Bulldogs, it was still exciting to see him take the floor at the Scottrade Center. The 6-10 forward offered glimpses of his versatile potential, as well as hints of some possible shortcomings.

It’s obviously too early to make any sweeping generalizations or conclusion’s about Porter’s NBA value. But here’s what we gleaned from MPJ’s up-and-down return to the college hoops fray:

Interior offense

Porter checked into the game at the 17:22 mark in the first half, and he was in and out of the lineup throughout the rest of the game. He got plenty of touches in Missouri’s sets early, and he scored quickly on a give-and-go with his brother Jontay.

The newcomer’s basketball IQ and feel for the game were as advertised on offense. He made some nice cuts to the hoop, slid to the open spots for lob layups and crashed the offensive glass. Porter’s teammates found him a few easy looks near the rim:

 

Porter also posted up several times, catching the ball in the mid-post or low block with his back to the basket. The results were mixed at best, and most of his turnaround shots didn’t fall. He did make an aggressive move to draw a foul in the second half, but for the most part, he was not a major post-up factor for the Tigers.

Perimeter offense

Missouri didn’t try to ease Porter into the offense. Coach Cuonzo Martin gave him the green light right away, and he obliged with a series of errant jumpers. Among his missed attempts were an air ball coming off a pin-down screen and an unsuccessful stop-and-pop jumper:

However, Porter hit a catch-and-shoot triple late in the first half that went down smoother than a midsummer daiquiri. He also drilled a timely trey in the game’s final minute to bring the Tigers within one possession of Georgia:

 

Those buckets are just a taste of his perimeter potential at the next level. It would be great if he sped up his delivery a little bit, but for the most part, his mechanics and touch pass the eye test.

I’m less concerned about Porter’s shooting effectiveness than I am about his off-the-dribble repertoire. Porter tried a few drives against the Bulldogs: he lost control on one, and he got blocked on a couple other plays, including this one:

 

Porter clearly doesn’t have all of his bounciness back yet, nor does he have tight enough handles to consistently get separation as a slasher:

If Porter wants to be a productive all-around scorer, he’ll need to improve his ballhandling and get back some of his springiness. Right now, he’s a bit heavy-footed when driving to the hoop.

Meanwhile, Porter’s passing skills looked solid, if unspectacular. He made the right reads on the wing and didn’t force bad passes. He also dished an assist to his brother. Even though he might be a high-volume scorer, he’s not too greedy to miss good passing opportunities.

Defense

Porter’s activity on defense and on the glass was encouraging. He fronted the post a couple of times and disrupted passes, and he played stout post defense against Georgia’s bigs. Porter also snagged six defensive rebounds, including a crucial boxout and board to finish a late-game defensive possession.

Porter spent some time defending the perimeter, but Georgia didn’t challenge him off the dribble much. We didn’t really get a feel for how he’ll defend in space, which is something he’ll be asked to do sporadically in the NBA.

Perhaps when Porter gets closer to 100 percent athletically, we’ll gain a more tangible perspective on his defensive ceiling. For now, we’ll tentatively project that his fluidity, size and instincts will make him a respectable defender against 4s.

Draft value

We have to wait until the NCAA Tournament to see Porter in action again. But how will his comeback tour affect his draft stock?

Barring an amazingly dominant Big Dance, Porter’s postseason performances won’t drastically affect his NBA value in one direction or the other. Scouts and executives won’t heavily weigh his small sample size of makes and misses. They’re looking at his defensive effort, shot-creating progress and level of athleticism.

One scout told Sean Deveney of Sporting News that he thinks Porter’s comeback will only help, not hurt his draft stock even with struggles, saying that “he will get points for trying to go out there and contribute.”

Nothing we saw in Thursday’s loss to Georgia changes his status as a potential top-five pick. If he has similar performances in the NCAA Tournament and looks sharp in pre-draft workouts, he’ll likely land in the 4-7 range on draft night. His shooting skill and multidimensional upside on offense are still worth the early-lottery love.

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"Dan O'Brien is a Syracuse native, lifelong basketball aficionado and former college player at Franciscan University. He loves both the beauty and the ugliness of the sport, whether it's an offensive master class by the San Antonio Spurs or a knock-down, drag-out defensive battle courtesy of the Memphis Grizzlies. Dan is also an NBA Draft Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report, and you can find him on twitter: @DanielO_BR."

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