Michael Porter Jr. is 19 years old and burdened with a level of fame that he has not yet had the chance to earn, and which can only hurt his life's pursuit. So in matters of optics and expectation management he deserves every benefit of the doubt possible which is why the following sentence is written this way:
The adults around him aren't helping.
Porter Jr. was the most talented basketball player in the building when Mizzou beat Arkansas 77-67 at Mizzou Arena on Saturday, but for the 30th time this season, and third since he was medically cleared, he did not play.
Despite hinting posts on social media.
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Despite Porter Jr. saying he's never felt better.
Despite his coach saying the decision would be the player's.
"Just wasn't quite ready," Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin said.
"I'm praying every night he gets healthy enough to play," said Jontay Porter, Michael's younger brother and Mizzou's starting power forward.
This was supposed to be Porter Jr.'s return. Some close to the program were surprised he didn't play on Tuesday, because he's looked good in practices and expressed eagerness to compete. Coming back on Saturday made sense — at least get one game in before the postseason.
That speculation has been sparked and encouraged by the natural anticipation of seeing one of the country's great talents, but also Porter Jr.'s own words and reports citing sources around Mizzou.
The problem with dealing in mystery and insinuation is that when the thing you're insinuating doesn't happen people will make up their own minds. Some of that will be inaccurate, and much of it unfair to a kid and team that both deserve better.
Unfair to the kid because circumstances out of his control have him stuck between protecting a career that could earn generational wealth and a university he has been connected to as long as he can remember.
"It hurts him to see us out there hooping, having fun," Jontay Porter said.
Unfair to the team because the scraps from the Kim Anderson disaster, a breakout season from Kassius Robertson, and two talented but inconsistent freshmen just finished tied for fourth in the SEC and made themselves a virtual lock for the program's first NCAA Tournament in five years.
Think about it like this: Mizzou was picked fifth in the SEC, which seemed high even before we all saw the league was better than most expected, and now it will be the No. 5 seed in the league tournament with Porter not playing a second of conference play.
"It's been amazing what this season has done despite losing the best player in the country," Jontay Porter said.
A certain level of circus was inevitable. Porter Jr. is the highest profile recruit in Mizzou history, and the fortunate conspiracy of his high school graduation and Martin's hiring gave the program life again.
Almost as soon as the school announced Porter Jr. was having season-ending back surgery fans and a portion of the college basketball world began doing the math on his potential return.
But it didn't have to go like this.
Someone should have convinced him to stay off social media, particularly from any posts suggesting an imminent return — between-the-legs dunks, for instance, or drumming up a random pickup game. An hour or so before Mizzou played West Virginia in November, Porter Jr. wrote, "Just letting y'all know whoever said it was gonna take 3-4 months to recover lied."
He also could have been better coached on what to say publicly. Three weeks ago, he said he was not worried about re-injury, that he felt better than ever, and that he'd like to play a few games before tournament play. Well, Mizzou just played its last game before tournament play, and its fifth since the rumors began that he was about to play. Those who've seen Porter Jr. in practices or scrimmages tend to gush.
The most logical conclusion, then, is that Porter Jr. grows skittish when it's time to make the real decision about playing, or that he's being talked out of the perceived risk.
But here are a few truths:
- At this point, the injury could absolutely be cover for an underwhelming performance, and if he plays close to his talent he might move up a few spots in the NBA Draft. The potential difference between the No. 5 and No. 3 pick in last year's draft was $5 million.
- There will now be more pressure on Porter Jr. to play than ever. Not just because the SEC tournament starts in five days, and not just because of what's been said so far. But on Saturday, Cullen VanLeer suffered an ACL injury, leaving Mizzou with just seven scholarship players.
When asked if there was a chance Porter Jr. will play in the SEC tournament, Martin was as positive as ever.
"I think so," he said, adding that if it happens Porter Jr. won't be eased in.
To whatever extent Martin and others have been protective of Porter Jr., they should be complimented. But the expectation management of this should have been handled better.
If Porter Jr. does indeed play, and does indeed play well, none of that will matter as much.
But if Porter Jr. continues to sit, adults around him will have contributed to unnecessary drama piling onto an inevitable chunk of it. They will have allowed expectations that didn't need raising to be raised, and will have made it easier for some to blame the kid.