Mizzou freshman Michael Porter Jr. said Tuesday it was “too early to tell” whether he can return to playing basketball for the Tigers this season. But he believes he will recover from back surgery and eventually be “150 percent.”
“My time is coming,” he said during his first news conference with reporters since Missouri played Kansas in an exhibition game on Oct. 23. “I just can’t rush it.”
Coach Cuonzo Martin emphasized that he will not influence Porter’s decision of when to play again. The coach, in his first year at MU, will rely on what trainers tell him.
“I never make calls when you talk about physical health,” Martin said. “That’s not my place as a coach. I try to make that very clear. I never want a player to feel like well coach is pressuring me to play. … I’ve never asked that question of when is Mike coming back. I don’t ask him that because I don’t want a young man to feel like coach is pressuring me to come out. The health is the biggest concern for me. I never want that precedent or set that type of tone.”
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Porter has missed all but two minutes this season because of a back injury that he later had surgery to correct. The exact surgery was a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs, and the team said in November, when the procedure took place, that Porter would require a three-to-four-month recovery time, which meant he could miss the entire season.
This will likely be his only college season, too. He was one of the country’s top recruits coming out of high school, and — despite the surgery — he remains a projected top five pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
When asked about whether the surgery could affect his draft stock so much that he might return for his sophomore year at MU, Porter said “of course there’s a chance” he comes back to school. But freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon, seated next to him, began laughing. It would be shocking if Porter delayed his entry into the NBA for another college season.
“I know when I’m healthy people will see what I’m capable of, and it’ll all take care of itself,” Porter said. “Even if I get drafted fifth, sixth, it’s how I do in the NBA that determines my legacy. I’m still going to become the best player that I can become. That will take care of itself.”
Porter said the injury first occurred about two years ago, while he was playing for his AAU team, MOKAN Elite. He went up for a dunk and was hit high in the air. He said he came down to the floor flat on his back.
The 6-foot-10 forward added that if he had sat out then, there was a possibility he could have avoided surgery.
The injury became worse in the weeks leading up to Mizzou’s season opener against Iowa State, Porter said, and his parents “got multiple opinions. They kind of decided surgery was the best.” Michael Porter Sr. is an assistant coach for the Missouri basketball team.
“I kind of forgotten what it’s like to play normal,” Porter Jr. said. “That’s why I’m blessed to have the surgery because I feel like I’ll be far better than I was playing without those limitations. So I kind of expected it to be the same just playing through the pain. But then it got worse to where I couldn’t play anymore. I didn’t feel like I’d be helpful to the team in the state I was in. I decided it wouldn’t be a go.”
He said his physical therapy involves not sitting for extended periods, and that was why he hasn’t been on the bench during some Missouri games. He plans to go to Dallas on Thursday to visit with his doctor, and he expects to be cleared for more physical activity.
Right now, Porter Jr. has been running on the treadmill and shooting baskets, but he’s not jumping that high on his shots.
“I’m doing everything I can to recover as quick as I can,” Porter Jr. said.
Porter Jr. said this is the longest he has gone without playing basketball since he was 3 years old. He has spent more time reading books. Martin said Porter Jr. is “around when he’s around.”
“Basketball is like his whole world,” said freshman forward Jontay Porter, his younger brother. “To see him not be able to play, it was rough on him at first.”
Martin said he was not very familiar with Porter Jr.’s back injury prior to the freshman beginning to play for him.
Missouri coach’s did not have much of a history recruiting Porter Jr. After Mizzou chose Martin as its next head coach in March 2017, he hired Porter Sr. to be one of his assistants, and the talented recruit followed his father to MU.
“To his credit, you know — (he was) practicing, playing, not complaining about it,” Martin said of Porter Jr. “Doing the rehab. Normal rehab. I think really the time when we played Iowa State was like, OK … it’s an issue. Let’s move forward.”