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My Brother’s Screener: Jontay Porter’s Quest to Carve Out His Own Path

The former Missouri basketball player has long been overshadowed by his brother, Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. But now, Jontay is looking to surpass his brother’s benchmarks while overcoming his own major injury—a journey that starts with this week’s NBA draft.

Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

“How tall are you?!”

That’s the first question Jontay Porter gets asked as we walk up to the front desk at the Aqua Golf facility in Denver. “I’m 6-10—you?” Porter responds. The wide-eyed clerk says he’s 6-foot-5 himself; he has never felt this small.

As we make our way past the desk and toward the first hole, we notice that there’s a driving range to our left, with golfers trying to hit floating targets on a small lake. Porter looks at the scene longingly—if he wasn’t hurt, he’d want to be out there. But he’s recovering from the two ACL surgeries he’s had since last October. Two weeks before he hopes to hear his name called in the 2019 NBA draft, he has not yet been cleared to pivot off his right knee. So instead of the driving range, the 19-year-old former Missouri basketball player and I are here to stroll through 18 holes of mini golf. There are only two sizes of putters available, small and large, and even the large one looks toothbrush-sized in Porter’s hands.

Porter first injured his right knee during a closed scrimmage in October of last year, and then re-injured it this March. A black plastic brace barely hides his two long surgical scars. When he’s not doing rehab or upper-body workouts, he scooters around downtown Denver, reads novels—he is planning on finally starting the Harry Potter series—and jots his thoughts down in journals at different coffee shops around the city.

Porter’s only competition lately has been with himself, so even mini golf gets his competitive juices going. By the fifth hole, he’s down three strokes and he’s getting into it. He talks to himself before putts, uttering “golly” and “fudge” when a shot doesn’t go in, and lightly trash-talks to me. “You’re choking now,” he says as I miss a couple of putts. But he laughs, just to make sure I knows he’s joking.

Later, he explains: “I’m more comfortable speaking trash when it’s with him.”

Him, of course, is Michael Porter Jr., the Denver Nuggets rookie and Jontay’s older brother. The two are separated by 16 months and couldn’t be closer—or more different. Michael is the more vocal of the two—he’s the one in the bright-pink designer hoodie, the one who embraces the spotlight. Jontay is soft-spoken, comfortable in dark athletic gear, and doesn’t crave attention. The only things that come between them are a living room on the top floor of the high-rise Denver apartment they share and their competitiveness.

Between Jontay’s knee injuries and the back problems that kept Michael out for his first NBA season, the brothers haven’t been able to share the court lately, but their one-on-one battles go as far back as they can remember. The last memorable time, Jontay recalls, was in high school when they faced off in a friendly scrimmage and Jontay dunked on Michael. Jontay says Michael was so upset that he ran Jontay down and threw the ball at him. “He’s dunked on me a million times,” Jontay says. “I was ready to throw hands.” Michael says they stopped playing in part because the games got too competitive. “And [Jontay] hated losing,” Michael says with a laugh. “You can put that in there.”

Michael is Jontay’s biggest rival and his best friend. The Porters come from a basketball family—their father is an assistant coach at Missouri, their eldest sisters played at Mizzou until injuries ended their careers, and their four youngest siblings play too. Until Jontay was in fifth grade, Michael Sr. would wake him and Michael up at 5 a.m. and bring them to a basketball complex that the owner of the facility would leave unlocked—most of the time. Michael loved the workouts, Jontay says. The younger brother did not. “I would be celebrating inside if they were locked because it meant I could go back to bed,” he says.

At that point, Jontay’s primary motivation for playing basketball was to fit in with his older siblings. He even suited his game to fit next to his brother—becoming what Michael calls a “superstar role player” to pair with the star who was already getting autograph requests in eighth grade. “If they would have played baseball, Michael would have probably been the shortstop and then Jontay maybe would have ended up in right field,” says Cuonzo Martin, who coached both at Missouri.

Michael was the athletic phenom. He was a top-two recruit in the 2017 high school recruiting class, and, before the back troubles, a projected top pick—if not the top pick—in the NBA draft.

Jontay was the ground-bound fundamentalist—a player with good skills for his size but not a lot of flash. High school teammates and coaches were wowed by his timing on defense, but they were also perplexed by his unwillingness to throw his body around. “He’d apologize if he hit you too hard,” says Josh Boyer, who was a senior on the Tolton Catholic High School team in Missouri when Jontay was a freshman. “I was like, ‘Dude. Absolutely not. You need to try ripping my head off and dunk it on me every position.’ He’d be the one to get a huge dunk on somebody and then help them up.” Once he finally did it, Boyer remembers the smile on Jontay’s face as he ran back on defense. He just needed a push.

A similar thing happened with Jontay’s shot. His shooting motion was a two-handed mess that he refused to fix, despite his dad’s urging. It took someone outside of the Porter family to open his eyes. While in high school, he and Michael got the chance to shoot around inside Mizzou’s practice gym, when their father was then an assistant for the women’s team. Then-Missouri player Laurence Bowers was shooting on the court, saw Jontay’s shooting motion, and called it ugly. Jontay was offended. Not long after, he asked his dad to get in the gym and help him fix it. It took an entire year. “Now I can shoot better than Michael,” he says. When I told Michael this, he offered up a compliment—“He’s a really good shooter”—but not a concession.

By his junior year in high school, Jontay was holding his own on the AAU circuit against the likes of Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., and Deandre Ayton. After Michael left for college at Mizzou, and before Jontay reclassified to join him, Jontay spent a summer with Mokan Elite, a Kansas City–based AAU team. With Michael and Trae Young no longer on the team, Jontay averaged 18.5 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks per game and won MVP at the EYBL tournament in Indianapolis.

“I think people, because he was Michael’s younger brother, were looking for a junior Michael,” Lorenzo Romar, who recruited both Porters to Washington before he was let go in 2017, says. “And when they saw someone that was a skilled guy but big and not as slim, they just thought, ‘Oh, maybe he’s a little behind.’ But you had to continue to watch him just to see how skilled he was.”

Jontay was supposed to play off Michael again at Missouri, after Michael Sr. took a job on Martin’s coaching staff. But Michael aggravated a back injury minutes into Mizzou’s opening game. As Michael sat, Jontay’s profile grew. Though he didn’t start, his efficiency was great for a big man—50 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from 3. And though he finished the season averaging a modest 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in 24.5 minutes a game, his per-minute production was impressive—16 points, 11 rebounds, and nearly three blocks per 40 minutes. He decided to test the draft waters by going to the NBA combine without officially hiring an agent. There, teams pointed out things he needed to work on—mainly his physique. But Jontay didn’t want to take the leap until his basketball skills were up to par.

Michael was supposed to be the no. 1 player, a one-and-doner, a top pick. Jontay had no expectations to live up to—only the benchmarks set by his older brother. “I want to be the best and he’s always been that golden standard for me. So I’m just trying to chase him at this point,” Jontay says. “I’m not going to be satisfied [until] I pass him, which I will.”

Jontay Porter’s knee didn’t hurt, but the pop he heard during one-on-one matchups among him, Michael, and a friend this past March worried him. A Nuggets doctor and another physician in Denver didn’t see anything wrong in the days after, he says. But he still traveled to nearby Vail to see the specialist that had operated on his knee the first time, and there he was delivered the crushing news: Just five months after he had undergone surgery for a torn ACL, he had torn it again.

Jontay drove back to Denver alone, spending an hour and a half navigating a winding road in snowy conditions with no cell phone service and nothing but his thoughts. “I thought my career was over,” he says. “I was angry at myself, angry at the world, angry at God, angry at my brother for letting me play even though I pushed it on him.”

SEC Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

He sunk even deeper into his emotions when he arrived in Denver. The way he saw it, he wasn’t ever going to play basketball again. So the recommendation NBA teams made to him to slim down and lower his body fat didn’t matter. He wanted doughnuts. Not one or two—a dozen. “I was in eff-it mode,” Jontay says. He ate three before going to bed, had a couple more for breakfast, and by lunch the next day he was about halfway through the box. That’s when he stopped.

“I realized I had given up on myself,” Jontay says now. “That’s not who I’ve been my whole life. I’ve always found another way to do stuff, whether that be breaking my iPad and finding a way to fix it, or losing to my brother 10 times and finally beating him once.”

Jontay never told anyone about the doughnuts or the self-doubt. When Chris Neff, who coaches Mokan Elite, the AAU team both brothers played for, called him to check in, they barely talked about the injury. “Within a few minutes, he turned the conversation and said he was moving forward, asked me about work and how my family was doing,” Neff said.

While Jontay refuses to dwell on the past, Neff wonders how different things might have been for the younger Porter. Last year, there was buzz that Jontay would be a first-round pick; this year, The Ringer’s latest mock draft projects him to be selected no. 56 overall, by the Los Angeles Clippers. “He’d probably be highly considered for the high picks,” Neff said. “That’s the only pitfall with him—the health.”

Jeremy Osborne relied on Jontay’s skills, both on and off the court. If Osborne, the basketball coach at Tolton Catholic High School in Columbia, Missouri, ever needed a stop in the paint, Jontay was his guy. And if he ever needed someone to fix his broken phone, Jontay was his guy too.

“I told ‘Tay all the time, if this basketball thing doesn’t work out you’ll be fine,” Osborne said. “You’ll probably end up in Silicon Valley or something.”

Before he wanted to play basketball professionally, Jontay made money off his tech skills. In seventh grade, he kept breaking his iPhone screen. He couldn’t afford to keep repairing it, so he looked up instructional videos on YouTube, bought a cheap part, and fixed it himself. He did the same thing when the screen of his iPad mini shattered. Soon, word of his skills got around and classmates began flocking to him for repairs.

Jontay would buy a screen for $30 and then charge anywhere from $70 to $100 to fix it. He also learned how to unscrew the back of the then-popular iPhone 4S and insert a customized back panel. He bought the panels online for $5 and offered to swap them for $25 or $30. “I had my own little business,” he says. “Every kid in the school had my back on their phones.”

The entrepreneurship didn’t stop there. Early on in high school, Jontay invested in bitcoin after he saw a famous YouTuber tweet about it. When bitcoin first blew up, he says he took out half the money he’d earned and bought a new iMac and his first car. He got into stocks, researching trends and strategies before investing in Roku and Apple, both of which have made him money. He says he wants to get to a point where he can manage his own finances, even after he enters the NBA.

With Jontay, minor interests quickly turn into obsessions. During rehab for his first knee injury, he decided he liked how it sounded when his older sister Bri played the piano, so he taught himself during his free time. “I’m not as good as her yet,” he says, “but I will be.”

The second injury gave way to a focus on nutrition. After the combine, Jontay realized that being a lifelong vegetarian didn’t necessarily mean he was eating healthily. So he started tracking calories, reading up on macronutrients, listening to podcasts on nutrition, and working out almost every day. He says he has lost 25 pounds since the end of his freshman year, and that he plans to rebuild with muscle. He also wants to go back to school to finish his degree, perhaps to study nutrition.

Living in Denver has also given Jontay a front-row seat to watch Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, the high-water mark for his own game. From the day he moved to Denver in January through the end of the NBA season, he didn’t miss a Nuggets home game, or a Jokic play. Michael Messer, a personal skills trainer and family friend who works with the Porters, sends Jontay narrated film of his own highlights next to some of Jokic’s moves, pointing out connections and things that Jontay can apply on the court when he’s healthy. Jontay may be out until the end of next season; until then, the tapes are the closest he can get to NBA-level competition.

Michael, who has spent the past year around Jokic, sees some of the parallels. “Jokic is a little taller than him, but Jontay is more athletic and quicker,” he says. “They both have a high IQ for passing, and they both just make the game easy for people around them.”

Jontay says he has met with about 15 different teams over his two pre-draft opportunities, most of them via Skype as his rehab has made it difficult to travel. Without being able to demonstrate his skills on the court, he’s attempting to sell teams on the way he sees and thinks the game, and the congeniality that many who know him say sets him apart. “I think the biggest problem with people with injuries like I have is how [people] come back, their mentality, their confidence,” Jontay says. “So, I try my best to portray how confident I am that I will be better than I was before, and that I’m itching to learn from the pros.”

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Nashville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Back on the mini golf course, Jontay has made a comeback. He’s figured out that the greens run fast, so he’s started using a softer touch. Meanwhile, I am choking. The score is tied heading to the 18th hole, and after Jontay makes birdie, my putt to match lips out. Jontay raises his putter in the air in celebration. He is too kind to really rub it in, but I know that if I were Michael, I would never hear the end of it.

The following day, at the Porters’ apartment, Michael and Jontay are arguing. Game 5 of the NBA Finals is on TV, and the brothers are going back and forth about whether a 3-1 series comeback would make Kevin Durant the best player in the league.

When Durant, in his first game back from a calf injury, makes his first few shots, Michael yells, “Best player in the world!” Michael has long been a KD fan—he used to call out “easy money,” in reference to Durant’s alias, after every shot he took in their backyard; when Michael’s first mixtape came out and referred to him as “Baby KD,” he watched it nearly every day. Jontay is more of a LeBron guy—he roots for whatever team he’s on and paid close attention to how Kevin Love, another skilled, big-body player, played off LeBron. “LeBron did that already,” Jontay says, referring to the Cavaliers’ 2016 comeback. Michael disagrees. “It was 3-2!” It wasn’t. “That’s a perfect example of how neither of us backs down,” Jontay said later. “Even though he was being an idiot.”

Throughout the game, Jontay commends Draymond Green’s defensive rotations, Andre Iguodala’s hockey assists, and Marc Gasol’s screens. He watches the game the way he plays it—with an eye toward overlooked contributions. “I have the shooting down,” he says, “but I want to be that guy, the Draymond of the world where I can guard every position.”

Durant tears his Achilles in the second quarter, and the moment casts a shadow over the rest of the game. The injury, and Durant’s reaction, hits a little too close to home for Jontay. “That’s just so unfortunate,” he says. “I can’t afford to do that after two surgeries. I want to take it slow.”

Patience comes naturally to Jontay on the court—he’s never been fleet of foot, so he’s always had to think one step ahead. But the waiting game he’s played for half a year, and will play for even longer, is trying. He’s confident he can play in the NBA; he just needs a chance to prove it to the league, to his brother, and to himself.

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