Vahe Gregorian

What the return of Michael Porter Jr. means now and could mean soon

In the latest episode of “funny how things might end up if you let them play out before deciding what they mean” …

Giddy anticipation of the arrival of Michael Porter Jr. set up a spectacular emotional cave-in for fans and some media skepticism upon his nearly instantaneous injury, an apparently season-ending setback for both MPJ and the University of Missouri.

Getting the nation’s No. 1 recruit had been just too good to be true, a mirage that engaged in MU followers the default depression mode of past debacles.

But first-year MU coach Cuonzo Martin knew that other stuff was mere history, not a prologue, and that every story is its own unique tale.

So none of that infected Martin and a team that actually was galvanized by the circumstances and grew without Porter in ways they otherwise might not have before the electrifying news at last came Wednesday:

Porter indeed will play in Mizzou’s Southeastern Conference tournament opener on Thursday, Martin said, and now who’s to really say what the ceiling is on this season for the Tigers (20-11 overall, 10-8 SEC)?

“The possibilities are endless,” senior guard Kassius Robertson, who blossomed into an all-SEC talent in the wake of Porter’s absence, said recently. “I can’t exactly tell you how, but with a talent like that … the ways for him to help us are endless.”

Per Martin, that includes at minimum everything from “another guy who can make a shot, make a play, make a decision. Also, late in games, another 90 percent free-throw shooter. … He doesn’t get enough credit in my opinion as a defender. His length. His athleticism. His ability to cover ground defensively. He’s 6-10. Long.

“When you’ve got multiple guys with size and length, I think you can cover multiple guys defensively. … He could go outside, go inside. He brings a lot of dimension to you. He’s a presence on the floor, so you have to identify him.”

For that matter, 6-10 or not, he actually could help alleviate one of MU’s glaring vulnerabilities: handling pressure that has flustered the Tigers.

Honest.

“You might even see him at the ‘two’ (guard position). You might even see him bring it up some,” Martin said, smiling to an amused media audience.

As MPJ gets his legs, and there’s no way to know what that will look like the first time out against Georgia on Thursday afternoon, his return creates a seldom-seen-before scenario in more ways than one.

Mizzou is a team suddenly adding an extraordinary talent on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and just as the Division I men’s basketball committee begins its bracketing and seeding deliberations for the tournament field to be announced Sunday.

Porter's return from back surgery could bolster MU’s seeding prospects, particularly if it leads to a run in the SEC Tournament, and one way or another will make for an intriguing topic for the committee.

The announcement delivers something else significant for MU: clarity after weeks and weeks of conjecture about him that came to dominate the thoughts of fans and media and clearly grew tiresome for a team whose achievements almost were being overlooked in the process.

It’s testimony to Martin’s coaching acumen, character and grip on his team that he was able to fend off the noise and stay cognizant of his team’s needs to concentrate on the tasks at hand and his own obligation not to pressure Porter in any way.

“I got to lock in on what’s in front of me,” he said. “That’s what helps me. I just assumed he wasn’t coming back.”

Even amid all the buzz.

With Porter’s cryptic social media hints (and deletions), with murmurs around the team, with widely dismissed optimism from a St. Louis doctor who wasn’t treating Porter and even after MPJ was cleared to return to practice Feb. 23, the notion that he could return this season became an at-times tedious soap opera of rumor wrapped within conjecture inside a vacuum.

It was hard to discern the truth, hard to understand who knew what, hard to know how decisions were being made.

In fact, it all might have just been wishful thinking about the 19-year-old whose considerations absolutely had to include how his choices might affect his capacity to earn multi-generational wealth for his family.

The suspense ended on Tuesday, when Porter approached Martin after MU’s practice in Columbia and said, “I’m ready to go, Coach.”

Then came what Martin demonstrated as a subtle fist-bump, a casual “OK, let’s roll” …

And that was that for a team that was down to seven scholarship players after Cullen VanLeer’s season-ending knee injury.

Alertly, Martin remains committed to keeping this on an even-keel, surely conscious both of not insulting a team that has achieved so much and not casting on Porter the burden of being a savior after not playing since his two-minute stint in the Tigers' season opener Nov. 10 against Iowa State.

As he spoke to the media Wednesday, Martin said he hadn’t even so much as told the team yet.

“We’ll talk about what we need to talk about. It won’t be anything big,” he said. “We’ll say, ‘Guys, we’re rolling.’ ”

With endless possibilities after all the doom and gloom, a story with more twists ahead.

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