After a game in November, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was asked about the play of Missouri Tigers freshman Jontay Porter. The 6-11 forward finished with nine points and nine rebounds and nearly helped Mizzou pull off an upset win over the Mountaineers.
“He’s only 18?” Huggins said. “He’s pretty good.”
Huggins was just the first of many coaches, commentators and pundits this season to repeat some version of the same line: One of Missouri’s best players should still be in high school.
In the absence of his older brother Michael Porter Jr., who has missed all but two minutes of the regular season as he recovers from back surgery, Jontay Porter has taken up some of the spotlight.
Although Porter reclassified up a year to play with his brother and the season has not gone as planned, he has no regrets on his decision.
Why would he? He has proven he did not need that final season of high school ball.
Along the way, he has become more than Michael Porter’s Little Brother. Through 26 games, Jontay Porter is averaging 8.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He leads the team in blocks with 49 and is tied for second on the team with 22 steals and ranks third with 52 assists for the 18-8 Tigers.
“The learning curve, it’s been kind of the same the whole year,” Porter said. “Just kind of progressively getting better, the physicality side of the game. It’s obviously been tough, two games a week. But it’s been fun. It’s been a blast.”
As a high school freshman at Tolton Catholic in Columbia, when he played alongside his older brother for coach Jeremy Osborne, Porter stuffed the stat sheet just like he’s doing now.
Osborne said Porter could guard all five positions on the floor and handle the ball very well for a 6-foot-11 forward. Though he attempts about four three-pointers per game for Mizzou, Porter only began to show off a shooting touch during his sophomore year at Tolton.
“In high school he played a bit with his back to the basket but he could score, create and facilitate from just about everywhere on the floor,” Osborne said. “He was very versatile from day one. Defensively he was really special.”
But playing alongside his older brother blurred scouts opinions of Porter.
When he committed to Washington in August 2015, before the start of his sophomore year, Porter sat as low as No. 59 in the 247Sports rankings and wasn’t looked at as a big recruiting splash for then-Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, a close friend of the family. Fans and pundits figured the younger brother was simply a stepping stone toward acquiring Porter Jr., the eventual top recruit of the 2017 class.
“They were looking for maybe a younger Michael Porter,” Romar said. “They play nothing alike. They’re entirely different players. Early on it would throw people off.”
After the Porter brothers led Nathan Hale High School in Seattle to an undefeated season and state championship, Porter started to make a name for himself.
With his older brother’s AAU career over, last summer’s circuit marked the first time scouts and coaches got to see Jontay Porter lead a team on his own.
Porter carried MoKan Elite to a berth in Peach Jam, the finals for the Nike EYBL circuit. As the go-to threat on his team, his skills were on full display. He handled the ball, blocked shots, passed like a point guard and scored from all over the floor. Romar said Porter’s understanding of the game is comparable to a 25-year-old player.
“The passing and the skill and the very good positional defense for not being a freaky athlete has always stood out to me,” said Eric Bossi, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com who is based out of Kansas City. “The kid’s basketball IQ and feel for the game is off the charts. He’s like a throwback skilled big man.”
Romar said the idea of Jontay Porter reclassifying to play with his brother at Washington was discussed “a little bit,” but was never something really considered.
When Washington fired Romar, Michael Porter Sr. took a job on Cuonzo Martin’s staff. Michael Jr. committed shortly after, and Jontay followed a month later.
Porter had said last summer the argument for him going back to high school was to have a chance at the accolades his brother accumulated, such as becoming a McDonald’s All-American.
As soon as Porter decided to reclassify and join his brother and father at Missouri, he has been a crucial part to the team.
In Missouri’s 90-82 win over St. John’s in the semifinals of the Advocare Invitational, Porter had 16 points and four threes, including a bank shot late in the game that helped Missouri seal the win.
“Jontay likes taking big shots,” graduate transfer Kassius Robertson said at the time. “That’s what I like about him.”
Porter has been inconsistent at times, following up brilliant games with the occasional mystifying play. A week after putting up 18 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks against Mississippi on Feb. 6, Porter airballed a hook shot from the free-throw line and missed wide-open shots as Mizzou held on to beat No. 21 Texas A&M on Tuesday.
Throughout the season,, Porter said one of his biggest challenges has been his mindset, especially after his brother went down.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to be the main scorer or that role player or be The Man,” Porter said. “I just told myself, no matter how much you touch the ball, be aggressive. I was kind of lacking that the last five or six games.”
His older brother and father have been encouraging that aggression.
“I knew he was capable of this from the jump,” Michael Porter Jr. said. “I’ve played with him my whole life and I’ve told he has to stay aggressive. If we’re going to be as good as we can be you have to be a big part of this team. He’s really starting to understand that.”
Porter has scored at least 10 points in Mizzou’s past five games, all wins. In Missouri’s victory at Mississippi, Porter had a layup where he drove down the middle and drew the foul while he appeared to be going up for a dunk.
Osborne said that’s a play Porter might not have tried in high school. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy didn’t need the Osborne’s context to appreciate the play. After the game, Kennedy marveled at how Porter tore his team apart.
“My goodness,” Kennedy said. “Think about this now: this guy is a high school senior.”
Well, at least he should be. And Kennedy won’t be the last coach to be in awe of what the 18-year-old is doing at the college level.