Missouri fans aren’t the only Southeastern Conference supporters celebrating the return of a talented basketball player.
Though Jontay Porter is the No. 11 overall pick in ESPN’s 2019 NBA mock draft, he is projected as the third SEC player to be selected, behind Arkansas rising sophomore center Daniel Gafford (No. 10) and Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland.
Gafford and Porter are just two of a number of talented players who opted to return to the SEC rather than jump to the NBA. There’s so many of them, in fact, that Mississippi State coach Ben Howland thinks they could “be a very good pro team.”
“Talk about Gafford, Porter, (Auburn’s Austin) Wiley up front,” Howland said. “All the outstanding players who had a chance to go and came back. That would be a very fun team to coach.”
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The point is, the Southeastern Conference, which sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament a season ago, could be even better this upcoming season. At least that’s what the league’s coaches who participated in a Thursday teleconference think.
Kentucky could be the preseason No. 1 team in the country, while Tennessee and Auburn could be preseason top-10 squads. Among the less-heralded, there’s Vanderbilt, which adds a loaded recruiting class; LSU, which returns star point guard Tremont Waters; and Mississippi State, which brings back the core of a team that made a deep NIT run this past season.
“This is going to be the most competitive year I can ever remember in SEC basketball, because the quality of the teams is going to be even stronger,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
Porter’s return is part of the reason for that. Without him, Mizzou’s upcoming season could have been a transition period while coach Cuonzo Martin recruited a talented set of local Class of 2019 recruits. But instead, Missouri should have a chance to make a second straight NCAA Tournament.
Like other talented rising sophomores, Porter should take on an even bigger role with his team next season. Martin has even mentioned having the 6-foot-11 Porter, with his adept passing skills, bring the ball upcourt to initiate offense. To adjust to the increased responsibilities coming his way, Porter — like other second-year players — will need to apply himself more in the weight room, according to Arkansas coach Mike Anderson.
“As they’ve gone out and played against seniors and juniors, they’ve proven themselves to be some of the better freshmen in the SEC — and guess what? The SEC is one of the better conferences in the country,” said Anderson, the former MU coach who has known Porter since he was a youth in Columbia. “Physically they’ve got to develop. … They’ve got a chance to see the strength, the quickness they’ve got to play with now. But now can we continue to get in that weight room? Can we continue to go against that competition? Experience is going to be your greatest teacher.”
Martin said last week that Porter — who spent much of the spring training with his older brother Michael Porter Jr. in Chicago — has displayed an impressive work ethic since returning to the Tigers. On Thursday, MU assistant coach Cornell Mann — filling in for Martin, who is in Italy for vacation — said Porter is “playing at a very high level right now.”
Perhaps following the lead of their new star player, the pass-first Porter, the Tigers are sharing the ball more now than they were a year ago, according to Mann.
“I don’t know if it’s (a matter of) running (offensive sets) for him, or him just having an opportunity to be more aggressive and assertive,” Mann said of how to increase Porter’s role in the offense. “Coach has put him everywhere on the floor.”
More Mizzou notes
- Just like a year ago, point guard Jordan Geist is in the gym more than any other Tiger, according to Mann, who called him the unquestioned leader of the team. “He deserves it,” the assistant coach said. “He deserves everything he gets.”
- Mann said that freshman Torrence Watson has displayed the necessary toughness and physicality during summer workouts to indicate that he will be an impactful scorer during his first collegiate season. Watson, a wing from St. Louis, told The Star in May that he knew getting to and finishing at the basket wouldn’t be as easy as it was in high school, and he planned to make his jump shot quicker.
- In addition to Michael Porter Jr. becoming a first-round pick of the Denver Nuggets, two other former Tigers have landed with professional teams. Jordan Barnett will play for the Milwaukee Bucks during the NBA’s summer league and attend the franchise’s training camp, and Kassius Robertson has signed with Medi Bayreuth, of Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga. Mann said all of the success of those players — especially the latter two — can help create recruiting momentum. The Tigers staff is able to pitch prospects on the statistical improvements Robertson and Barnett both made during their sole seasons playing under Martin. The program’s Twitter account has tweeted graphics promoting their improvements, too.