Before Missouri graduate student Kassius Robertson could see Michael Porter Jr. calling for the ball, he pulled up for three. As he did, Porter crashed the boards and came down with a rebound at the bottom of the SEC logo on Missouri's floor. It was the Tigers' first game of the season, and the home crowd was eager to see its new star score. After pump-faking two shorter Iowa State defenders, Porter kissed a layup high off the glass for his first collegiate points.
Less than a minute later, he was off the floor. He hasn't appeared in a game for the Tigers since. On Tuesday, we learned those first collegiate points could also be Porter's last: Missouri announced he will likely miss the remainder of the season following back surgery. The procedure—a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 vertebrae—has a recovery window of three to four months. He is expected to make a complete recovery, according to a statement released by the program.
"I really appreciate the support of my family and the Mizzou men's basketball program as I begin this process," Porter said in a statement. "I'm thankful for all the kind words and messages I've received from fans. Those mean a lot to me. I cannot wait to be completely healthy and playing the game I love once again."
Where the process could take Porter will be one of the most fascinating and closely watched storylines of the spring. Up until this news, the 6'10", 215-pound forward was on the short list of candidates to be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, along with Slovenian star Luka Doncic and Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III. As he pours himself into recovery and rehabilitation, Porter will also have to decide if he plans to declare for the NBA draft or return for a second year at Missouri.
Before the season, Porter said he would consider returning as a sophomore to Missouri, a position that seems outlandish in the one-and-done era. But he has strong ties to the program. He grew up in Columbia, and he has immediate family all around him in the athletics department: his father, Michael Porter Sr., is an assistant coach on the team; one of his brothers, Jontay, is a teammate; and two of his sisters, Bri and Cierra, are on the women's team. Still, it seems hard to imagine Michael will not be an NBA draft prospect come June.
"I think he had a real chance at No. 1," one NBA front office executive told B/R. "It's a really loaded draft, and there wasn't a perfect guy at the top. If he'd played out the season, his size and shooting ability could have helped pull him ahead of everyone. He was maybe the most extreme package of talent available. Now, who knows?"
NBA sources who spoke to B/R stressed it's too soon to speculate how this setback will affect Porter's standing. The draft is, after all, seven months away, which will give him plenty of time to prove he is healthy. If the team's recovery timetable is accurate, he could even participate in May's NBA Draft Combine.
Recent history is mixed in terms of teams' responses to injuries. Joel Embiid and Harry Giles were at certain points considered potential No. 1 picks in their respective classes. For Embiid, a foot injury only cost him two spots—he was selected third in 2014. But multiple knee injuries caused Giles to slide to No. 20 in 2017.
"If you're holding the No. 1 pick and you're making a franchise-altering decision and there are three or four amazing talents available and one has major back uncertainty," the executive said, "that's going to give you serious pause."
Research by Five Thirty Eight showed lottery picks who are between 6'8" and 6'11" miss, on average, 14.2 percent of the games in their careers, about the same as the averages for those who are shorter than 6'8" but drastically lower than those who, like Embiid, are 7 feet and taller (23.5 percent). In a draft that will be heavy on big men at the top—five of the top 10 players in B/R's most recent mock draft were centers—Porter, a skilled wing, should be a coveted commodity.
B/R's NBA sources said that, at this point, it's hard to imagine Porter sliding below the middle of the lottery. He will not have the benefit of showing off his skills this college season, but scouts and executives have had plenty of chances to evaluate him—Porter has participated in the Nike Hoop Summit, McDonald's All-American Game and Adidas Nations, among other events. He may not be selected before potentially franchising-changing talents like Deandre Ayton, but with each passing pick, Porter's value as a potential "steal" will rise.
"The one thing about Michael is his game isn't predicated on incredible athleticism," an NBA scout said. "He also has the size and the shooting stroke that you want. It's not like he's Collin Sexton, who needs the speed he has to be the type of player he is. But with the way surgeries are now, guys can come back better than they were before. Maybe that happens here."
For top prospects, part of the predraft process is deciding how much information to give to teams. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick in 2016, only worked out privately with one team—the Philadelphia 76ers. Several players with injury concerns in the past few drafts have chosen certain teams with whom to share medical information.
"I think a big part of this depends on how transparent his people are willing to be about his health," the executive said. "That'll be a pretty big storyline through the combine and the draft—the degree to which teams are able to assess the long-term impact of the injury."
In the short-term, if Porter leaves Missouri, he'll do so without having had the chance to accomplish many of his goals—leading the team to the NCAA tournament, leaving a legacy or rebuilding the program. But his long-term goal of a prosperous NBA career is still very much in play. It'll be seven months before anyone can say with certainty how much this injury cost him. And it could be even longer if he decides to give college basketball one more shot.