Two days after Michael Porter Jr. signed with Missouri, the Tigers’ odds of winning the NCAA Tournament jumped from 250/1 to 28/1.
It speaks to Mizzou basketball’s astonishing offseason turnaround — an 8-24 record last season capped the program’s worst three-year stretch in a half-century — but it also underscores the sudden enormity of expectations for Porter.
At 18, he’s the top prospect in the 2017 class, according to most prominent prep basketball evaluators, a 6-foot-10 hardwood savant blessed with uncommon shooting range and ball-handling skills that makes NBA scouts drool.
He’s also still a high school senior whose back seized up during a whirlwind coast-to-coast all-star tour — probably from carrying the weight of the Show-Me State’s basketball hopes on his still-maturing shoulders — forcing him to sit out the Jordan Brand Classic on April 14 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“People look at Mike and all he’s accomplished and how tall he is, but you’ve got to remember, man, dude still watches cartoons,” said his father, Michael Porter Sr. “He’s a kid.”
Porter Sr., hired as an assistant on new Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin’s staff, understands the hype.
He’s witnessed Porter Jr.’s rise from a gangly freshman at Father Tolton Catholic High in Columbia into the consensus national player of the year last season at Nathan Hale High in Seattle.
Porter Jr., who lived in Columbia from 2010-16 and considers mid-Missouri home, led the Trailblazers to the Missouri Class 3 state title last spring and powered the Raiders to the 2017 Washington Class 3A state championship in March.
After averaging 36.2 points and 13.6 rebounds as a senior, Porter Jr. won the Naismith Prep Player of the Year award, the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year award and was chosen MVP at the McDonald’s All-American Game.
The other players to claim all three honors are Alonzo Mourning (1988), Chris Webber (1991), LeBron James (2003) and Dwight Howard (2004).
No wonder Mizzou’s campus has been abuzz, riding a wave of Michael Porter Jr. euphoria since he committed March 24 with a simple message — “I’m coming home” — on Twitter.
And he insists he can handle the pressure.
“There’s a lot of expectations, for sure, but I embrace it,” said Porter Jr., who signed with Washington in November but was released in March after a coaching change. “That just means that people think highly of you, so I’m not going to wish it away. I want to go in there and do my thing, but I try not to put any pressure on myself. I just go out there and try to play the game I love.”
Mizzou Arena has always felt like home to Michael Porter Jr.
“I’ve put up more shots there than I can count,” he said.
Porter Jr.’s favorite memory in that gym happened 5 1/2 years ago when he caught the eye of Frank Haith as a long, lean seventh-grader.
“Shooting one night, he walked up to me, pulled me aside and gave me my first scholarship offer,” Porter Jr. said. “That was real special for me. … I wasn’t great at the time, but he believed in me.”
Porter Jr. also believes in Mizzou and appreciates the passion Tigers fans have for basketball, even if it’s been hibernating the last few seasons.
“I have tons of memories … because when I got there my fifth-grade year going to sixth grade, every game was packed,” Porter Jr. said. “That’s back when Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Laurence Bowers and all those guys were there.”
Porter Jr. yearns to stir those echoes, stoking capacity crowds into bathing the banners that hang from the rafters for retired jerseys and past championships in roars once again.
“It would be awesome,” Porter said. “That’s why I always say, we could do something special next year, because I know how hungry Missouri fans are for that to be restored to Mizzou Arena. If I could be part of that, that would be great.”
In fact, it’s a big reason Porter Jr. signed with the Tigers and has become the program’s ace recruiter — helping woo fellow former Washington commit Blake Harris, working feverishly to land East St. Louis center Jeremiah Tilmon and convincing fellow McDonald’s All-American Kevin Knox II to visit Columbia.
“College is nothing like high school,” Porter Jr. said. “In high school, you can win with a couple good players. In college, you need a team. … I think, for sure, we can be a very good team next year.”
It’s easy to draw a straight line from Porter Sr.’s hiring to Porter Jr.’s commitment, but he actually thought he might wind up at Oklahoma — playing alongside best friend and former MoKan Elite teammate Trae Young — immediately after Washington fired Lorenzo Romar as coach.
“I didn’t know my dad was going to go coach there,” Porter Jr. said. “I didn’t know Cuonzo. … I was actually thinking Oklahoma, because me and Trae have always wanted to play in college together. I thought, ‘Well, here’s our chance,’ but Mizzou was still there in my head because it’s home, so I’m happy it worked out that way.”
The chance to play for his father obviously was a big deal, but Porter Jr.’s familiarity with Mizzou and Columbia — he’s got the route from home/school to the Broadway Bluffs Chipotle down to a science — and the proximity to family and friends also were important factors.
“People act like I got forced into this decision, because my dad is going to coach there, but, no, I want to play for my dad,” Porter Jr. said. “I trust him, and I know he has my best interests in mind.”
Martin thinks it’s an ideal situation, especially given the immense weight of expectations Porter Jr. faces.
“He has the luxury of having his dad on the staff, so — tough times, bad days, hard times, good times — he has a guy he can lean on to really get a grasp on what’s going on behind-the-scenes,” Martin said.
It also frees up Porter Jr. to keep Mizzou’s best interests in mind. NBA riches soon enough, but first he wants to leave an indelible mark in black and gold.
“Michael is so different from most kids,” Porter Sr. said. “Part of it is the homeschooling and him being around so much. Michael has talked so much over the years about legacy. That’s why he didn’t care about going to a blueblood. He wanted to go someplace and have some sort of legacy.”
That’s also why Martin doesn’t worry that the attention Porter Jr. receives will create jealousy and division in the locker room.
For one thing, everybody’s seen Porter Jr.’s dunk-filled highlight reel and understand the hype.
For another, Missouri’s returning players are hungry for hype, eager for expectations and crave relevance — to Tigers fans and on a national scale — even if it means enduring endless episodes of “Justice League” on team flights.
“His ability to want to lead, to be a good teammate and to fit in — as talented as he is, he wants to fit in — so I think those guys will embrace that and look forward to it,” Martin said. “... Being around him, I think he has a tremendous level of humility for a guy his age. He wants to be a part of this and wants to see Mizzou be successful, so it’s a tremendous opportunity to have a guy of his caliber and, more importantly, his character.”