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Michael Porter Jr. is this draft’s true mystery

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Due to injury, Michael Porter Jr. played just 53 college minutes. Is he the star recruit we saw in high school, or closer to the player we saw in the NCAA tournament?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018 NBA Draft discussion, Luka Doncic somewhat unfairly gets the label of the “Mystery Man.” As the lone top prospect that didn’t play in the NCAA last year, draft writers often take the approach of portraying the Euroleague MVP as someone who we know little to nothing about, despite all he’s accomplished. Because the average fan probably hasn’t seen much of him, we pretend that NBA teams are taking a wild flier on some unknown prospect.

However, that description is probably better used on someone else at the top of this draft class. Someone we actually haven’t seen perform consistently at the NCAA level, and someone who has a lot more questions related to his NBA stock: Michael Porter Jr.

Porter played just 53 minutes in 2017-18: Two minutes of Missouri’s season-opener against Iowa State, and then two very high-profile games: an SEC Tournament loss to Georgia, and then an NCAA Tournament game against Florida State. In between came a injury that puts his entire career in question: a back injury that turned out to be a herniated disc, which Porter had surgery for. This is perhaps the weirdest backstory of any top-10 prospect in years. Weirder than Nerlens Noel’s ACL tear. Weirder than Greg Oden’s leg-length discrepancy. Weirder than Joel Embiid’s many pre-draft injuries, because at least we’d seen him play. Not since Kyrie Irving’s foot injury have we seen a draft prospect we’ve known so little about.

If you believe the high school tape, Porter is a future star. The Missouri forward was a consensus top-three prospect heading into the year along with Doncic and DeAndre Ayton, and there are obvious reasons why. Standing 6’10” with a seven-foot wingspan, Porter has the size and mobility combination that should make him a tough matchup on the wing, and he averaged 37 points per game as a high school senior. He came into the year with primary scorer equity, and didn’t give us the chance to think any different from his college play.

Porter hints at three-level scorer equity — he’s a strong pull-up shooter, he can finish well at the rim, and he’s crafty enough off the dribble that he should be able to create enough in the mid-range to be valuable. His shooting stroke is his best asset; fluid, nearly one-motion, and high enough that it’ll be difficult for defenders to contest, even at the NBA level.

Porter also has shown the ability to create at the rim. He isn’t a power athlete, but his touch is pretty strong for a guy his size:

Porter’s gifts lended to an idea that he could be the next Kevin Durant back in August. As a 6’10” small forward with incredible pull-up gravity, it was easy to see a path to that level of scorer, especially as he bulldozed high school wings to the rim.

But there are a few hurdles to Porter reaching that ceiling, some that presented themselves at the college level, and others that were present from the beginning. The primary problem with Porter is his passing — he’s proven time and again to be a bit of a black hole on offense. Porter had just one assist in college, compared to 20 shot attempts, and this has been a consistent problem. He lacks ideal vision, and it’s tough to say at this point whether he will be able to make the adjustment to being a complimentary player, as he certainly would be in Cleveland.

The larger elephant in the room is his defense — something he never has really taken seriously. Porter has great defensive tools thanks to his physical gifts, from his length to his quickness to his rebounding ability. But that hasn’t materialized in consistent defensive production, perhaps the biggest problem with his injury. We don’t know what he looks like when he’s healthy and engaged, because he spent most of his college time being neither:

It’s hard to tell what the culprit is in the play above — is he still rusty because of the back injury, or is this slow reaction and bad contest because he simply doesn’t care? We saw plenty of that lack of initiative in high school, but the back injury clouds everything. Porter was clearly a step slow in his two games post-injury, and we know his athleticism is better than what we saw in April.

Porter has star potential in the NBA due to his shot-making, but it’s difficult to parse how likely it is that he’ll be able to put that to use. There are clear weaknesses here, and that’s before we get to his injury, which has shown high variance in performance after return to play. Porter clearly looked limited by the injury in his return, but how much that matters remains to be seen. That Porter can control how his medical file is used in discussions with teams that can draft him is a further limitation to assessing his health moving forward.

There’s also the matter of intangibles, which may further limit his performance. Porter has always been seen as a number one scorer, and it’s tough to determine if his scoring profile is good enough to reach that ceiling. If it isn’t, it’s doubtful that Porter will be able to still contribute to a winning team in a meaningful way. Take a look at performances from Porter’s high school All-Star circuit, and they paint with mixed reviews. He looked very passive at the Nike Hoops Summit, struggling to connect with teammates and do much other than score. But he was Team USA’s best player at the 2016 FIBA Americas Championship, and he’s had several solid performances at the national team level. This is another area where a full season at Missouri would help, but it’s difficult to figure out exactly how good he’ll be as an NBA player.

Porter’s NBA stock is a tough one to parse. He has all of the tools to be a complete NBA star, from his physical stature to his insane shot-making ability. Unfortunately, though, we haven’t seen meaningful minutes from him since the 2017 Nike Hoops Summit, and he has enough red flags, both medically and on the court, that mean he could be present in the back half of the top-10 in this draft. Porter is perhaps the Cavaliers’ best shot at a star at No. 8 overall. He is, however, anything but a sure thing.