It took less than a minute for Michael Porter Jr. to remind Missouri fans of what they’d been missing. With just under three minutes elapsed in the Tigers’ first SEC tournament game against Georgia, the former no. 2 overall recruit took the floor to a standing ovation. He immediately showed off his skill set, pulling down a rebound on one of his first defensive possessions and finishing with a layup on the other end just seconds later.
He finished with 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting—including a clutch 3-pointer with just under a minute left to pull the Tigers within one—and added eight rebounds, a block, and an assist in 23 minutes. But the Bulldogs beat Missouri 62-60, and the fifth-seeded Tigers made an early exit from the SEC tournament.
It’d been 118 days since Porter had played in a college basketball game. His last appearance—a two-point, two-rebound performance in as many minutes against Iowa State in November—was the sole glimpse of his magic Missouri fans had all year. The forward left that game with what was originally called a hip injury. He later underwent “a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs,” which kept him out for four months. Porter was initially thought to be out for the season, but he was medically cleared in late February and returned on Thursday.
Porter’s comeback had its risks. The freshman phenom was the 2017 McDonald’s All-American Game MVP and the SEC’s Preseason Co-Player of the Year. Pundits and GMs have known about his talent for years, and if he’d decided to stay off the floor until his pre-draft workouts, he could have limited what NBA teams knew about him and forced them to draft based on old videos and hype. On the flip side, if he were able to pick up where he left off, his case to be selected in the top five of this summer’s NBA draft would have only gotten stronger.
There’s been one notable example of a player that successfully returned from an early-season injury in recent years: Kyrie Irving in 2011. Irving returned for Duke after missing more than three months with a broken toe and averaged nearly 18 points per game for the season. But for every Irving, there are a dozen players that have attempted to come back from an early-season injury only to look like shells of themselves.
After a rough first half, it looked as though Porter had made the wrong choice. The 6-foot-10 forward shot 2-of-10 from the field, scored five points, and added four rebounds, a block, and an assist before the break. But while he showed his rust at times—like when he airballed a catch-and-shoot 3 from the top of the arc midway through the first half—his aggression on both ends of the floor was promising.
Porter struggled to shake off a slow start and added just seven points in the second half. While it wasn’t the performance he and the Missouri faithful were likely hoping for, he likely played well enough to buoy his draft stock. He showed glimpses of the dynamic scorer that’s able to sink jumpers from deep as well as finish at the rim. He’s long enough to play multiple positions at the next level, and though he hasn’t been a standout defender up to this point, he has the size to develop into an impact player on that end of the floor.
For Missouri, losing this game was a disappointment, especially in a year that has mostly been defined by what was missing. Porter is undoubtedly the best prospect the Tigers have ever landed, but he played just two minutes in the regular season. Even with his younger brother, Jontay—a five-star forward in his own right—and a bevy of upperclassmen leading the charge, the team managed only a fifth-place finish in the SEC, and its 20-11 record going into Thursday projected them as an eight seed in the Big Dance. The Tigers haven’t been bad without Porter. They just haven’t been able to match what they could have been with him.
Looking forward, Missouri fans have a reason to be excited. If the Tigers can continue to integrate Porter into the game plan and use the next week of practice to ready him for the intensity of March Madness, they could have the pieces to make a deep tournament run. Eight-seeds have taken down top teams before, as Wisconsin did to Villanova just last spring. With Porter in the mix, there’s no reason the Tigers can’t do the same.
The more time that passes, the closer Porter will be to the player that fans clamored for before the year. And for Missouri fans desperate for some hoops success after months of disappointing injury reports and years of below-average teams, that can only sound like good news.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred mistakenly referred to Porter’s microdiscectomy as his diagnosis, not the surgery he underwent.