As Jontay Porter was being probed by NBA teams this spring, he fielded some memorable questions in pursuit of his psychological profile.
Like this one: When you see a traffic light turn yellow, are you the type of person to go or stop?
“It depends,” he recalled saying, “on what type of car I’m driving.”
The answer may or may not have been what the inquiring team (Porter said he didn’t remember which one asked) had hoped to hear.
But it sure reflected the fact that he’s not bound by conventional choices and might be apt to chart his own course.
Which is what he did last week when he withdrew his name from the NBA Draft to return to Missouri for his sophomore season — despite the apparent likelihood he’d be a first-round pick and that every team he met with "seemed to like me, I hope."
Mock drafts by the likes of Sports Illustrated and ESPN projected him anywhere from 18th to 34th overall, and league feedback made Porter believe he would have been in that range.
“That wouldn’t really have been in question,” he said Wednesday at Mizzou Arena, where he spoke to the media for the first time since making his decision.
Left somewhat to question was exactly why he chose to come back, a move that has tremendous implications for a Mizzou team that made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years and won more Southeastern Conference games (10) than in the previous three years combined, but lost its top two scorers.
“The ultimate goal is just to get better at basketball, and I thought this was the best decision toward accomplishing that goal, so that was basically it,” said Porter, adding that he “just woke up one day (and realized), ‘I’m going back.’ But I don’t remember what day that was.”
Perhaps it came down to a gut feeling, something he hinted at when he said he “realized that I didn’t want to take that leap quite yet” — a statement consistent with a point his father and MU assistant Michael Porter Sr. told Mizzou voice Mike Kelly on KMOX’s “Sports On A Sunday Morning.”
Only a year removed from being a 17-year-old who reclassified to forego his senior year of high school and join older brother Michael Jr. at MU, another quantum jump so soon seemed daunting and maybe counter-productive in his overall development.
“At the end of the day, Jontay just felt like his life is moving so fast,” his father said, adding, “I think he just wanted to slow things down a little bit.”
The result is as win-win as it could get for Porter, Mizzou and second-year coach Cuonzo Martin, who admirably pushed Porter to put his best foot forward toward the NBA so that he could make a lasting first impression for whenever he leaves ... and so he could have a true sense of where he stood.
“You would rather have him with you than not, but when you have an opportunity to reach your dreams to play in the NBA … you want that for him; you can’t be selfish as a coach,” Martin said in his office Wednesday.
At a news conference later, he added, “My thing (is) I want what he wants. … It was never a case of (saying), ‘I’d love to have you back.’ Of course we wanted him back. I thought it would be great, but that was never the conversation.”
The way Martin handled this situation, which included frequent encouragement of Porter in workouts with the NBA, enhances the respect and trust he’s earning with his team.
His players can see more than ever that he is about the program but about them, too, and that those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Meanwhile, Porter’s return helps MU in infinite ways.
It lends continuity to a program in its early stages despite a 20-win first season. It bolsters chemistry. It soothes some of the anguish of the injury-sabotaged MU career of his brother — not to mention giving Jontay a chance to perform outside his brother's considerable shadow.
And it brings back a 6-foot-11 player with a vast skill-set and selfless mindset.
Porter can influence games with everything from scoring to rebounding to passing to defense to shot-blocking to steals to creating mismatches to ball handling to sheer smarts.
“That is value,” said Martin, who wants to see Porter “tighten the screws” and improve in every aspect, to help MU and prepare himself for what Martin believes should be a 12- to 15-year NBA career.
Oh, and in the process of immersion in NBA workouts this spring, Porter firmly believes he increased his three-point shooting range and accuracy.
“I’m comfortable from half-court,” he said, laughing, more seriously adding, “Now a normal college three feels like mid-range. That doesn’t mean … I’m going to be Steph Curry this year or anything, but more comfortable.”
All of that will make everyone around him more comfortable, too, something already evident in his re-entry from orbit.
“We definitely missed his presence around the locker room, his jokes and all that other stuff,” said senior-to-be Kevin Puryear, who calls Porter one of the best teammates he’s ever had. “As far as his talent, it definitely speaks for itself, especially since he was working out with his pre-draft guys and stuff.
“He’s gotten a lot better, just shooting the ball. The NBA three is a lot easier for him to shoot now, he says. That’s scary. That’s scary for everybody we’re playing this year.
“He’s honestly just a joy to play with, the way he passes the ball and rebounds, he is a complete package. I think everybody in Columbia is excited about him returning for his sophomore season.”
Then presumably being ready for the NBA, where he hopes to be a factor immediately — “not that I’m going to be an All-Star right away,” he added — but first knows he needs “to be a man.”
Which should come after being the man for Mizzou this year.
“I know I can be; I’m ready for it,” he said. “But that’s up to Coach Martin.”
Even so, as an innately unselfish player, you can also figure that Porter won’t step out of character even as he tries to expand his game in ways that will augment his draft standing.
What’s good for his NBA aspirations is good for Mizzou, too.
“As we all know,” his father told KMOX, “Jontay does have some room to grow in terms of his body and his strength and just, honestly, edge — playing with edge.”
All of which means an edge MU certainly couldn’t count on as Porter was getting input that he’d be a first-round pick … but giving answers suggesting he was going to do this on his terms.