High School Sports

Only a junior, Columbia basketball star Michael Porter has Mizzou’s and KU’s attention

Michael Porter of the MOKAN Elite played in the Hardwood Classic AAU tournament on Friday at Shawnee Mission South High School.
Michael Porter of the MOKAN Elite played in the Hardwood Classic AAU tournament on Friday at Shawnee Mission South High School. Special to The Star

This is a Michael Porter moment. It is an early morning in late May, and you have stepped inside a large community center in suburban Minneapolis. Porter, a 16-year-old from Columbia, saunters through a side door, his lithe, 6-foot-9 frame drifting across the floor and sleepily finding its way to a layup line.

Just hours earlier, Porter awoke at the crack of dawn and caught a flight to Minneapolis, where his MOKAN Elite AAU team was scheduled to play in a prestigious Nike event. Porter is tired, operating on limited sleep, and there’s a weekend of basketball to be played. And then, in the opening minute of a game against a team from Mississippi, Porter glides in from the wing, rises into the air and throws down a vicious one-handed dunk. He finishes the game with 27 points and 12 rebounds.

“That’s Mike,” says teammate Trae Young.

On most summer nights in Columbia, you can find one of the best high school basketball players in the country tucked behind the counter of his family’s shaved-ice stand, his lanky frame maneuvering around the tight quarters. From 6 to 9 p.m. — his usual shift — Michael Porter serves up summer treats to a cadre of customers.

A few years ago, Porter says, his mother purchased the stand in an effort to give her eight kids some summer work. Lisa Porter believed it would teach responsibility and offer some spending cash. For Michael, the third oldest of eight children, it’s done both. But each night, he says, it also offers a three-hour respite from an intense summer of basketball — a chance to take a breath, mix some syrups and attempt to create the perfect snow cone.

“You got to have that soft ice,” Michael Porter says, smiling. “Put the right amount of flavor in. That’s really the key.”

Porter, if you’re just getting acquainted, is a small forward who ranks as the No. 2 overall basketball recruit in the class of 2017, according to a consensus of recruiting rankings. If you remove St. Louis from the equation, he is perhaps the best recruit from the state of Missouri since at least JaRon Rush in the late 1990s. Porter has earned the nicknamed “Baby Kevin Durant,” and his skill set borders on the absurd.

He is currently 6-9 — and maybe still growing — but can shoot from NBA three-point range and move with the graceful quickness of a guard. And for college coaches — from KU’s Bill Self to Kentucky’s John Calipari to Mizzou’s Kim Anderson — the most intriguing thing is not how good Porter is right now. It’s how good he could become.

“You could argue that his ceiling is as high as anybody that’s ever played the game,” says Matt Suther, the founder of Porter’s MOKAN AAU program.

Suther, who played basketball at UMKC, stops for a moment. Obviously, he says, Porter will not be a failure if he doesn’t become an NBA Hall of Famer. But really, how many 6-9 16-year-olds do you see with this combination of skills?

“He definitely has the potential to be an elite-level player,” Suther says, “not only at the college level, but the next level after that.”

In other words: Porter, who is entering his junior year at Tolton Catholic in Columbia, is a name basketball fans will soon know. But for now, the most intriguing question surrounding Porter is the one he will answer in the next 20 months: Where exactly will he play college basketball?

His father, Michael Sr., is an assistant women’s coach at Missouri, where he works for head coach Robin Pingeton, who is Lisa Porter’s sister and Michael’s aunt. Porter’s two older sisters, Bri and Cierra, are both members of the Mizzou women’s program. On most days, Porter works out at the Tigers’ basketball facilities.

Porter, though, has also grown fond of Bill Self and Kansas, and he plans to be at Allen Fieldhouse for KU’s “Late Night in the Phog” in October.

“I love Coach Self,” Michael says.

All of this is to say the obvious: When you combine a once-in-a-decade talent, a close-knit family and the Border War, you get one of the most interesting college basketball recruitment stories in recent memory — at least as far as Kansas City is concerned.

For now, it’s just beginning.

“It’s not really a factor,” Michael says, when asked about his family’s Missouri ties. “I’m not pressured to go to Mizzou or not go to Kansas. By my family, at least. By the people in the town, of course I am. But living near Mizzou doesn’t really affect going to Kansas.”

Here is a Michael Porter moment. It’s Thursday night at Shawnee Mission South High School, and Porter is playing in another summer event for MOKAN. He catches the ball at the left wing, turns to his left, and smoothly contorts his body through three defenders. He nails a running jumper from 8 feet out. Assistant coaches from KU and Mizzou watch closely. “Nice footwork, Mike,” yells Rodney Perry, his coach.

OK, question: How exactly did one of the best high school basketball players in the country wind up in Columbia? Well, you can start with the genes.

Porter’s father, Michael Sr., played college basketball at New Orleans, while his mother, Lisa, was a standout at Iowa. Both are close to 6 feet 4. So, yes, nature was definitely on Michael Porter’s side. But then again, so was nurture.

Porter’s first experiences on a basketball court came before he was old enough to form actual memories. As one of eight children, Michael says, there was always somebody to take on in the driveway or backyard. In recent years, that has meant daily games against little brother Jontay, who will be a sophomore in high school and already stands 6-9. Jontay, who is more of a classic big man, is projected to grow close to 7 feet and will be a coveted prospect in his own right.

“After those games,” Michael says. “We don’t talk to each other for the rest of the day. They’re that heated.”

The Porter family spent most of Michael’s childhood in Indiana, but they moved to Columbia in 2010, after Michael Sr. took a job working under Pingeton, his sister-in-law.

Porter, his AAU coaches say, is the byproduct of his family, an elite prospect grounded by a strong support system. Michael was home-schooled through the eighth grade, just like the rest of his siblings. Michael Sr. coached many of his kids’ teams through the years. And Lisa, Michael says, takes charge at home, emphasizing schoolwork and a vegetarian lifestyle.

Yes, one of the nation’s best high school basketball players is a vegetarian. Porter suspects that his father cheats a bit, sneaking in some meat while traveling with the Mizzou women’s team. But after doing his own research, he was fine to stay meatless.

“There are a lot of pro football players that are actually becoming vegetarians,” Michael says, “because it’s prolongs your body and how healthy you are. I’m cool with it.”

Here is another Michael Porter moment. It’s Friday evening back at Shawnee Mission South. Kentucky coach John Calipari has shown up to watch Porter play. Mizzou’s Kim Anderson is here, too. Porter is running in transition and catches a pass near mid-court. Without pausing, he palms the ball with his right hand and flings a 40-foot pass across the court, through traffic. It hits a teammate in the chest. The play results in a layup.

The first time Matt Suther saw Michael Porter, he was a skinny seventh grader with a combination of skills that seemed impossible for somebody his size and age.

“Off the charts,” Suther says.

He was the kind of kid, Suther thought, who would be perfect for MOKAN.

Eleven years ago, Suther was just a former college basketball player looking to dip his toe in the Kansas City grassroots basketball scene. He enjoyed working with kids, he says, and wanted a way to stay involved in the game. He called local AAU coach Shannon Spradling — the father of former K-State guard Will Spradling — seeking some advice. A short while later, he had his first summer team, which included future San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith and NBA big man Willie Reed.

“I thought I was going to teach them all this great basketball stuff,” Suther says. “But it quickly became more about the mentorship part of it — picking kids up, keeping up with their grades. That’s what gave me the passion to grow it.”

More than a decade later, MOKAN has grown into successful operation with a budget in the six figures, a Nike sponsorship and a youth program that stretches beyond its top high school teams. MOKAN, which competes in Nike’s prestigious Elite Youth Basketball League, has produced NBA players in Reed, Alec Burks and Willie Cauley-Stein. But for the next year, with Porter on the roster, MOKAN will be thrust into the spotlight like never before.

For Suther, that’s cool. He didn’t construct MOKAN with elite recruits in mind. He just wanted to prepare players for the rigors of college basketball.

“Everybody knows who Mike is,” Suther says. “For us, it’s about continuing to help him get better everyday.”

For Porter, that, too, is the immediate focus. In the next year, he will hear from million-dollar coaches, each one touting the strengths of their program. Missouri fans will wonder if Porter will stay home and lead the Tigers back to prominence. And Kansas fans will smile at the prospect of stealing a five-star recruit from Mizzou’s own turf.

For the moment, Porter is just enjoying the process, working on his game and savoring the last days of summer before the glare gets even brighter. On late Thursday night, he stood outside the gym at Shawnee Mission South, talking to a group of reporters about the future. The air was thick and humid. The night was dark. And a few beads of sweat were still present on Porter’s forehead.

“I’m just taking my time,” he said.

A moment later, a grown man approached with a basketball and a hat. He wanted two autographs.

“It’s a good thing,” Michael said, reflecting on the attention. “But it’s also something that you’ve got to learn how to handle.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.