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2018 NBA Draft

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I don’t feel entitled to this’

A huge weight is lifted as the once-projected No. 1 pick finally goes to Nuggets at No. 14

BROOKLYN, New York — Michael Porter Sr. looked at the pin on his suit that read “Faith” and it brought him to tears as he thought about his stressed-out son before the 2018 NBA draft.

No one wants to see his child in mental and physical pain. But that’s been the case as Michael Porter Jr. went from the projected No. 1 pick in the draft a year ago to falling dramatically after a back injury sidelined him for most of his freshman season at Missouri. The Christian-faith, 10-member Porter family bonded as Porter’s draft stock fell before he eventually was chosen 14th overall by the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.

“The right things have been poured in him. You get twisted sometimes in this environment. And he’s human, just like all of us. But I think, at the end of the day, he’ll always come back at some point to who he is, who he was raised to be,” Porter Sr. said.

Just how heralded was Porter Jr. a year ago?

He was ESPN’s No. 1-ranked high school basketball player in the Class of 2017. Several NBA scouts told The Undefeated that the 2017 Citizen Naismith Trophy winner would have been the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft if he had been eligible to enter the draft. The 6-foot-10 forward could shoot, pass, rebound, block shots, dribble the ball up the court and make others better. The only thing truly tested about the teenager was maturity.

Porter Jr.’s draft stock began crashing, however, after he injured his back during his first game for Missouri. The Columbia, Missouri, native was sidelined for most of the season after having back surgery, an L3-L4 microdiscectomy, to treat herniated disks.

Suddenly, the spotlight was gone. Friends and followers departed. Porter Jr. grew closer to his family and tightened his inner circle. He kept at bay those who left after he got hurt and then tried to return after he entered the draft.

Porter Sr. believes his son has matured from this experience.

“It’s been a humbling thing for him,” Porter Sr., a Missouri assistant coach, said. “When we made the decision to go back to Missouri, he got a lot of love from fans. And when he got hurt and wasn’t playing, he got a lot of hate from some of those people who were jocking him.

“When you’re a young guy and you start to hit the scene nationally and you get all of this [attention], you think everybody is your friend. It was great that he went through that because once he got to this [draft] stage, he understands that everybody that smiles in your face is not necessarily in your corner.”

Porter Jr. returned to play in Missouri’s final two games, averaging 14 points and nine rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game. While those numbers would be great for most collegians, he ran gingerly and lacked his superior athleticism, and his jumper was short and rusty. Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said Porter Jr. proved a lot about his will to compete by playing while NBA scouts watched skeptically.

“Mike is one of the best that I’ve been around in terms of the ability to make shots,” Martin told The Undefeated. “He’s a shot-maker. He is 6-10 legit. Can make plays off the dribble. He can shoot it. He has a competitive spirit to him. Loves to work on his game. And I think he will be special at that [NBA] level.

“It was tough. But he is one of those guys, since he was young, who has been programmed to do this and be this. He put the work in. The training and rehab of the body. The cold tub, hot tub. All those things you’ve seen these guys doing, he has been doing it for years. It was tough and I applaud him, because late in the year he wanted to play.

“I tried to hold him and settle him down. A lot of people [asked], ‘Why would you play?’ He wanted to play and didn’t care about anything else but competing. And that is something that has separated him from a lot of guys.”

Porter Jr. canceled a workout in front of lottery teams because of muscle spasms days before the draft. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported that Porter Jr. was expected to drop in the draft because of back and hip issues. Three officials from teams with top-10 picks told The Undefeated they were highly concerned about Porter Jr.’s health.

Porter Jr. said the day before the draft that it was possible he could miss summer league action through injury. He also noted that Sacramento Kings center Harry Giles missed his rookie season while recovering from knee injuries. The Kings seriously considered Porter Jr. with the second overall selection, sources told The Undefeated. Porter Jr. also said the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks, owners of the third and fifth selections, respectively, seriously considered selecting him as well.

But deep down, Porter Jr. and his family prepared themselves for a slide.

“It was tough, man,” Porter Sr. said. “At the same time, though, I lived long enough to know that if you go through adversity with the right attitude, you get the right heart, many times you emerge better on the other side.”

Duke center Wendell Carter Jr. had an outfit that was a combination of Gucci and Wakanda. Former Oklahoma guard Trae Young wore a sport coat and shorts. There were a lot of memorable draft suits. Porter was more conservative, wearing a light blue suit with a floral vest and tie.

Michael Porter Jr.’s suit jacket had inspirational words on the inside lining.

Marc J. Spears/The Undefeated

Porter Jr. made a statement on the inside of his jacket with capitalized inspirational words: Family, Love, Joy, Different, Faith, Patience, Relentless, Greatness, Gratitude, Christ, Goodness, Self-Control, Unity, Kindness, Peace, Strength, Growth and Hope. It also had the names of his dad and mom, Lisa, and his seven siblings: Jontay, Bri, Jevon, Izaak, Cierra, Jayda and Coban.

“These are all words that mean something to me,” Porter Jr. said. “These are all inspirational. It’s words that have meant something to me throughout my life and words that I am striving to be better at. Basically, everything that meant something to me is in the jacket.

“Honestly, for me this whole thing is bigger than basketball. It’s all words that mean something to me. I just had the idea and felt like I should go with it.”

The family members wore pins with motivational words. Porter Jr.’s pin read “Strength.”

“Man, God has been good to us,” Porter Sr. said before succumbing to emotion. “Lisa and I base everything we do with raising our kids on it. I get emotional because God has been there for us in so many different ways. He has answered so many different prayers. He has protected us from so much. He has brought people around us to help us, that truly want to help us.

“I have never been in this environment. Wisdom and knowledge only goes so far. But he brought the right people around and pointed us in the right direction. I have a whole lot of appreciation for it.”

The family certainly needed strength as the draft started, with Porter Jr., his parents, Jontay, Martin and agent Mark Bartelstein sitting at the table in the green room.

The No. 1 pick dreams were officially dashed after Deandre Ayton went first to the Phoenix Suns. As names that were not Porter Jr.’s were called through the first 10 selections, his parents and Bartelstein constantly stayed in the 19-year-old’s ear, offering positive thoughts. After Trae Young was selected with the fifth pick by the Dallas Mavericks, Porter Jr. departed from the scene momentarily to go to the restroom.

“[Bartelstein] told me, ‘Mike, Mike, you’re going to go to the situation for you,’ ” Porter Jr. said. “ ’Once you’re in the NBA, people will know and find out who the best players are. It’s not about a number.’ Don’t make it about ego. [Everyone] just kept me positive.

“It’s hard sitting at that table as picks go by. But they just kept me positive.”

While Porter Jr. was overcome with stress of the unknown during the draft, his parents kept it all in perspective.

“We don’t care where he is drafted,” Porter Sr. said before the draft. “Draft position doesn’t mean a lot to us. What makes a difference to us is that he gets to a place where people he surrounds himself with in this organization off the bat are people thinking right, true professionals who understand right from wrong and help him put his feet on that path.”

After the Los Angeles Clippers passed on Porter Jr. twice, at Nos. 12 and 13, Bartelstein consoled him. The Nuggets had a conversation with Porter Jr. earlier in the day and said they would be interested if he was available. NBA commissioner Adam Silver walked up to the draft podium and said, “With the 14th pick in the 2018 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets select Michael Porter Jr. from the University of Missouri.”

Suddenly, there were smiles and hugs all around the table.

“It was all excitement,” Porter Jr. said. “All that stress and wondering what city I was going to land in. … It wasn’t about the [draft] number. It was about the city I was going to. All of that was overcome by joy. I don’t feel entitled to this.”

Porter Jr. proudly put the Nuggets hat on his head and walked to the stage to shake Silver’s hand. Porter may very well be the biggest-named prospect Denver has drafted since selecting Carmelo Anthony with the third overall pick in 2003. With all due respect to Nikola Jokic, if Porter Jr. is healthy, he can be the best player to wear a Nuggets uniform since Anthony, who led the franchise to eight postseason appearances and one Western Conference finals appearance from 2003-11 and became the franchise’s third all-time leading scorer. A healthy Porter Jr. can be Anthony great and make Jokic better.

The questions have not ended for Porter Jr.

Will he play next season? If so, when? Will he ever truly be healthy? Nuggets president Josh Kroenke told The Undefeated he was uncertain about whether Porter Jr. would play in summer league or during the 2018-19 season. Before his post-draft news conference, Porter Jr. walked around with a slight limp as he took a congratulatory phone call from Kroenke and head coach Michael Malone.

Kroenke, an ex-Missouri guard, was ecstatic to land Porter Jr.

“Michael is an incredible talent and we were surprised to see him available at No. 14,” Kroenke told The Undefeated via text message. “We know the risks associated with him due to his recent back injury at Missouri, but he’s an incredibly hard worker, is an outstanding young man and we think he will fit in well with our up-and-coming group in Denver.”

Porter Jr. got the answer he has been yearning for as he is going to Denver. He is playing for a patient franchise that wants him.

Time will tell how Porter Jr.’s story unfolds. But the way he sees it, he gets the last laugh in the final chapter.

“All of this is a blessing. I can’t wait to prove a lot of people wrong,” he said.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.