Jontay Porter at NBA Combine
Wearing a pink dress shirt and a blue tie dotted with flowers, Jontay Porter sunk into a seat at the Hilton Chicago, fresh off a round of interviews with teams at the NBA Draft Combine.
A year ago, Porter was one of the biggest names in the pre-draft process, an 18-year-old with first-round potential. If he stayed in the draft, a franchise likely would’ve picked him with visions of his shooting stroke and passing touch fitting perfectly in today’s NBA. If he elected to go back to Missouri for his sophomore year, the 6-foot-10 forward had the chance to become one of the SEC’s biggest stars.
But neither scenario turned out to be Porter’s fate. After two ligament tears in his right knee in the past seven months, Porter is arguably this draft class’ greatest unknown quantity.
He missed Missouri’s past season in rehab before deciding to forgo the remainder of his NCAA eligibility, and his status as a pro prospect has faded since he re-injured the knee in March. While Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, who used his performance in the NCAA Tournament to vault into the first round, entertained a crowd, Porter made his way through the lobby mostly unnoticed as NBA executives and agents mingled.
“The first was a freak accident,” Porter told The Star of his knee injuries. “The second one was an idiotic mistake.”
During his rehab from the first ACL tear, sustained during a closed Mizzou scrimmage in October, Porter often found himself shooting around at the Denver Nuggets practice facility with his older brother, Michael Porter Jr., the NBA team’s first-round draft choice in 2018 who has 24/7 access to the building.
In March, Jontay Porter was set for a doctor’s appointment to get cleared for running and jumping, but a snowstorm hit and the visit was rescheduled for the following week. A few days later, the brothers and a friend were at the Nuggets gym late one night. Michael was playing one-on-one with the friend while Jontay watched.
Jontay Porter decided to join in. He considered himself cleared to run and jump because he likely would have been had the snowstorm never canceled his appointment. For a while, the three played a pick-up game lightly. Then it picked up.
“I guess just competitive nature took over,” Porter said. “I wasn’t really thinking about my knee. I kind of went for it.
“I felt invincible.”
While playing against his brother, Jontay Porter felt a pop in his knee. He felt no pain, but he began to worry. The trio immediately stopped playing. Out of frustration, Jontay punched a wall, while Michael screamed “Why would you play?” at his younger brother.
Over the next week, Jontay Porter sought two doctors’ opinions on his knee. Both told him the ACL wasn’t torn and attributed the pop to scar tissue. When Porter met with his surgeon, that doctor quickly surmised that the ligament was definitely re-torn.
Porter underwent another surgery March 26 and is now seven weeks into a new rehab program. He just got off crutches. He said the time immediately after the second tear was the most depressing period of his life. With the Nuggets playoff run starting and his older brother out of their apartment more often, Jontay Porter had the place to himself, giving him more time to think about what he lost with no one to console him. He passed time at a coffee shop, reading and playing on his laptop.
He still plans to have a long NBA career, but he makes sure to tell himself there’s more to life than basketball. He’s long been a man of many interests. In his spare time, he’s read a lot of C.S. Lewis, and he continues to monitor his investments in cryptocurrency.
He credits his older brother for keeping him motivated and not letting him get too down on himself. Michael missed his rookie season as he recovered from back surgery, which gave the brothers another thing to bond over. Jontay Porter said splitting time between his parents in Columbia and his brother in Denver has helped prepare him for the NBA lifestyle.
“I’m only going to be out a year,” Porter said. “I have so much time to invest in other things. At the end of the day I can’t be upset about one year being taken away from me.”
Last fall, after pulling out of the draft and returning to Columbia, Porter ended the Tigers’ Mizzou Madness exhibition game with a putback dunk in what appeared at the time to be a sign of things to come. But a day later, his sophomore season was over.
With five minutes remaining in a closed scrimmage against Southern Illinois, Porter grabbed a rebound and threw an outlet pass to point guard Jordan Geist to start a fast break. Trailing behind Geist, Porter at first tried to get open for a pull-up three, but he elected to keep heading toward the basket after he saw his defender right behind him.
Geist threw the ball back to Porter, whose defender had caught him and somehow tangled one of his legs with Porter’s right one.
“I don’t know what he did, but I just pushed off my right and it gave in and collapsed,” Porter said. “When I tried to walk, it was impossible.”
Porter instantly thought his ACL or MCL was damaged based on the pain. But he thought his season was safe. The pain had significantly subsided, and as he lay on a table in the training room, he thought he’d come away with a sprain.
Then the team doctors gave him the news, and Porter burst into tears. As his teammates came into the room shortly after the end of the scrimmage, Porter tried to stop crying, but he couldn’t.
He had returned to college because he didn’t think he was ready for the NBA lifestyle. He figured Missouri could contend for a postseason bid, and a weaker draft class in 2019 coupled with a strong season could vault him into the top 10.
Those goals were lost.
Led by Geist, Missouri finished 15-17 without Porter, who struggled to watch at times, especially when the team was playing poorly. Coach Cuonzo Martin has said the Tigers’ power forward position is a game-changer. Without Porter, MU’s offense often fizzled. While the Tigers’ freshmen core developed and Jeremiah Tilmon worked on his foul troubles, Porter was in Denver rehabbing. He wondered what the Tigers would have looked like with him.
“It was always the what-if in my head,” he said. “I tried not to let those thoughts creep in.”
When he again declared for the draft this March, Porter left the door open to a possible return to Missouri, but he told The Star he didn’t heavily consider it. Martin will have his deepest team during his three-year tenure at MU next season, and Porter could have potentially returned at the start of conference play to key a run to the NCAA Tournament.
Porter said he would have loved to help Mizzou, but he leaned on the advice of his agent, Mark Bartelstein, who told him to stay in the draft, which Martin confirmed on Tuesday. Porter thinks he can make a quicker return to the court if he rehabs his knee with a professional team.
“We’re excited for him,” Martin said. “He made his own decision. I think it’s a great decision for him. No doubt in my mind he’ll be a part of a team whether he gets drafted or not. When he’s healthy, if he can play the way he was playing before he got injured, he has the ability to start for teams in the NBA. Biggest thing for him is getting healthy.”
Porter’s time at the combine has been limited to medical testing and team interviews. A year ago, he participated in most of the athletic testing while sitting out the five-on-five scrimmages.
His draft stock mainly hinges on his medical reports. In interviews, teams have asked him about his thought process when he re-tore his ACL. He said he has owned his mistake and promises to stick to doctors’ orders this time around.
“It’s been an unfortunate series of events for me,” Porter said. “But I think at the end of the day I’ll have a pretty unique story to tell when it’s all said and done.”