On Thursday, before he had to make his way to the NBA Draft Combine and continue one of the busiest weeks of his life, Michael Porter Jr. took a moment to sit on his bed in his apartment in downtown Chicago. The city’s skyline was outside his window, and the highest-ranked Mizzou basketball recruit ever was unwinding by watching YouTube videos, including one about 10 unexplained mysteries in the sky that have been caught on camera.
The day before, multiple NBA teams — including the Phoenix Suns, possessors of the top pick in the draft — interviewed Porter Jr., who likely will be a lottery pick. The meetings ran together and took over eight hours, and he said it was the most he ever had to talk in his life.
His health was the main point of discussion. The 6-foot-10 forward missed Missouri’s entire regular season during his brief stint at MU, save for 2 minutes in the season opener, because of a back injury for which he had surgery. He finally rejoined the team for a game in the SEC tournament and then for a game in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers lost both of those games.
Porter said at the time that he was playing around only 60 percent of his capability, that his explosiveness had yet to return after undergoing back surgery. Now he says he’s back to where he should be and has no problem sharing his medical records with any team that wants them.
“As my body gets closer and closer to 100 percent, everything else takes care of itself,” Porter told The Star during an exclusive interview. “My mobility, my ball handling is better because I can get low to the ground. I’m way more athletic. Defense is better since I’m able to sit down more and explode off my feet better.”
Known for his vegan diet, Porter has been watching what he puts in his body as he prepares to work out for certain teams in the near future forward and show that he can handle a professional lifestyle. His kitchen counter is full of fruit baskets containing grapes, bananas and apples, among other options. He was drinking a smoothie as he left his apartment.
Porter admitted that after Missouri’s loss to Florida State in the NCAA Tournament, he was planning to announce a return for his sophomore year, but his father, Michael Sr., advised him to take some more time before making a decision.
The loss marked the first time since his junior year of high school at Columbia’s Father Tolton that he had lost two consecutive games. After winning a state title in his last two years of his prep career and a Peach Jam title — AAU basketball’s most prestigious championship — during the summer in between, he didn’t want the Florida State game to be the last thing Missouri fans saw of him.
“I just felt so helpless,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Nah I’m not going out like this.’”
But Porter said his health was the main reason he decided to turn professional. He wanted the ability to hire the best trainers, nutritionists and physical therapists to help him get healthy as soon as possible.
Porter said he knew back surgery was a possibility after he took a hard fall the summer before his senior year of high school and landed on his back, which is where the problem began. Porter said he only aggravated the issue by never properly stretching before playing.
“I was one of those kids sophomore year that I would just go in the gym, not even stretch and take off from the free throw line and dunk it,” he said.
Two days before Missouri tipped its season off against Iowa State, Porter began to think the injury was worse than he had realized. After taking off for a dunk in practice, he saw that he wasn’t getting the elevation that he usually did.
He said he noticed that his left leg was significantly smaller than his right. It was also twitching.
An MRI revealed that one of the discs in Porter’s back was pressing on the nerve that connected to his leg, which was causing a bodily malfunction. That revelation led him to undergo back surgery.
“It was a blessing because I knew I’d be pain free,” he said. “But it sucked to miss my freshman year.”
Porter said he has no regrets about how he handled his Mizzou career, from his decision to get surgery to his cryptic Instagram posts that had fans on their heels about a possible return. He thinks coming back to play at “50 percent” showed his character.
He once said he hoped to be remembered forever for choosing his hometown school. Now he knows “mixed feelings” make up his legacy.
"The great thing was having Michael Porter say, 'I’m going to Mizzou,' so you had momentum, you had fanfare, you had energy," Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin said earlier this month at a Coaches Caravan stop in St. Louis. "All those things are great for the program. It was three-plus years of tough times, so to have that momentum was great."
Porter didn’t participate in drills at the combine, after his agent, Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports, told him it wouldn't be beneficial, and he isn’t sure what workouts he has scheduled moving forward.
He thinks he would be the No. 1 overall selection had he played his entire freshman season at full health, and he still thinks he is the best player in the 2018 draft. He knows his back injury altered teams’ perceptions of him. Franchises “forgot about him a little bit.”
But a disappointing freshman season gave him a new perspective.
“Now I can see the situation,” he said. “If I don’t go No. 1, I can go to the right situation for me.”
He added: “It’s another step in the road.”