Twenty-five minutes, 14 points on 6-of-18 shooting, 10 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal.
It’s a pretty weak career stat line for a walk-on, much less the No. 2 recruit in the country. Because of the back injury that sidelined him for basically the entire regular season, what Michael Porter Jr. did so far in his 1-plus games of action at Mizzou did not live up to those sky-high expectations.
The hope that he and his brother, Jontay, would team up and lead the Tigers to their first regular season conference title in 24 years came and went. Even after Porter made his highly-anticipated return to the court in Mizzou’s first game of the SEC Tournament, it wasn’t enough to get past No. 12-seed Georgia.
And now, with the brutal 8-9 matchup in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, there’s a realistic possibility that Porter’s college career ends without him playing a full game in a Mizzou win. Even if the Tigers do get past a solid Florida State squad, No. 1 seed Xavier likely awaits.
It’s got to be a daunting thought for Mizzou fans. Barring a deep NCAA Tournament run or a surprising return to college, Porter will go down as the great “what ifs” of the one-and-done era.
But no matter how this thing shakes out, Porter’s 25 minutes on the court should have already earned your respect.
That thought crossed my mind as I watched Porter in action against Georgia. He definitely wasn’t at 100 percent. You could tell that he was laboring to get up and down the floor. I mean, the dude was understandably rusty (via Matt Spendley).
So MPJ may be a bit rusty??? pic.twitter.com/L0WHrEW4aQ
— Matt Spendley (@mattspendley) March 8, 2018
I can’t imagine being 6-10 and trying to return early from a back injury. Every fast break, every block out and every uncalled screen has to be excruciatingly painful. Keep in mind that he battled through the back injury in the preseason until it became unbearable 2 minutes into his debut. Just because Porter was cleared to play with a couple of games left in the regular season didn’t mean he was going to avoid pain if and when he decided to return.
As Cuonzo Martin said repeatedly, this was Porter’s decision. I believe that.
What I also believe is that Porter probably had a million people in his ear telling him what to do. Obviously the risk of further injury was there, which had an impact on his NBA Draft stock. But the thought of not getting to play with his brother and watching his teammates play without him expedited his return.
I still don’t think most people realize how admirable of a decision that was. After seeing Porter’s performance in St. Louis, I thought it was more commendable that he wasn’t this unstoppable force.
But naturally, the narrative after a disappointing loss shifts to “well, he’s obviously overrated.” What it should’ve been was “well, in hindsight, suddenly inserting Porter into the lineup this late in the season against a team that defends as well as Georgia was probably tougher than everyone imagined.”
That’s not to say Mizzou deserved a free pass for that performance. Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett shrunk, nobody shut down SEC Player of the Year Yante Maten and Porter obviously pressed a bit with some of his shots. If that formula repeats itself, the Tigers will be out of the NCAA Tournament quicker than you can say “what could’ve been.”
Still, in the one-and-done era, Porter’s story is the breath of fresh air. A guy who inevitably has millions of NBA dollars on the way fought like crazy to get back to his college team. It was the exact opposite of the easy way out.
We don’t know what the rest of the story is for Porter. Who knows? Maybe everything clicks and we see Mizzou take a page out of the 2014 Kentucky playbook en route to a deep March run. Or maybe Porter’s second game will look like his first and the Tigers won’t even reach the weekend.
Either way, Porter’s toughness should always be appreciated by Mizzou fans. It’s not every day that 5-star recruits stroll into Columbia, and it’s not every day that any 5-star recruit has Porter’s mindset.
Would it be frustrating to look back on an early NCAA Tournament exit with that kind of next-level talent? Of course. Opportunities like that don’t come around very often.
But if you find yourself hating on a kid who did everything in his power to make the most of his opportunity, get a life.