Michael Porter Jr. is back.
After months of speculation, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said Wednesday that the star freshman will play for the Tigers on Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
It will be the former No. 1 overall recruit’s first game since Mizzou’s season opener against Iowa State, which he left after just playing two minutes. After having back surgery days later — a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs that addressed a lingering issue — the program announced Porter would “likely” miss the remainder of the season.
But Porter received full clearance to play again in late February, when Mizzou still had three regular-season games remaining. He warmed up with teammates before some of those games, but he only told Martin on Tuesday that he felt prepared to play again.
This return is unprecedented. The closest example is the 2010-11 Duke team, which added eventual No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Kyrie Irving for the NCAA Tournament after he missed much of the regular season. But Irving had played in eight regular-season games for the Blue Devils — far more than Porter’s two minutes.
“The mentality he had when he left, you want that same mentality,” Martin said of Porter. “The mentality to score, be aggressive. A competitive person. Because again, it’s not as if he’s coming in and is just a rebounder, just a defensive stopper. He’s a guy that has a presence on the floor.”
The addition of Porter, a 6-foot-10 forward who can score from anywhere, can significantly increase the absolute potential of a 20-11 Missouri team that likely has already secured a NCAA Tournament berth. Right now, the Tigers are a projected No. 8 or No. 9 seed in most projected brackets, and CBS Sports’ bracket analyst Jerry Palm recently told The Star that the addition of Porter could move Missouri up a seed.
Martin said Porter is “probably not” 100 percent back to being the player he was before the surgery, but the coach thinks whatever the forward needs to regain full form will only come in live game action.
There will be no minutes restriction on Porter, who Martin does not plan to start when the No. 5-seeded Tigers play No. 12 seed Georgia around 2:25 p.m. Thursday in the second round. The winner faces No. 4 seed Kentucky in the quarterfinals Friday.
Martin said he also is not worried that Porter is coming back during a conference tournament that could require the Tigers to play on four consecutive days. After all, even with the addition of Porter, Mizzou now has just eight healthy scholarship players.
“It’s just really about feel, flow of the game, situation, how he feels,” Martin said. “I don’t have nothing in my head to say, once we get to this many minutes, that’s it. … I’ll be surprised if he plays 25, 30-plus minutes, but then again, we’ll never know.”
When Porter spoke to reporters earlier this season, he said his explosiveness would take the most time to regain, and Martin has said that Porter’s defense might not immediately be at the level the coach demands. But the potential top-five NBA Draft pick will give the Tigers more length on the defensive end, and he is another ball handler for a Missouri team that has struggled with ball security, especially against full-court press defenses.
“He’d be fine with whatever Coach Martin wants us to do,” said Porter’s younger brother Jontay, a freshman forward for the Tigers. “He doesn’t want to come in, shoot 40 shots a game and take over the offense.”
Though Porter Jr. has said he could return to Mizzou for his sophomore season, that seems unlikely. He is almost certainly a lottery pick if he declares for the 2018 NBA Draft, and before this season he was a potential candidate to go No. 1 overall — so this postseason run with Missouri should be the only games he plays in a Tiger uniform.
ESPN reported last week that some NBA executives thought Porter Jr. should play if he was healthy in order to potentially improve his draft stock, which had dropped while he sat out much of this season.
Now that his return is official, Porter Jr. has a chance to move back up draft boards, and the fortunes of Mizzou's season might change.