March 7, 2018 at 4:30 PM
The Michael Porter Jr. era at Missouri began suddenly, then whimpered to a halt. Now, things are roaring again in Columbia.
Porter Jr., the nation’s top recruit from the class of 2017, has been cleared to play after a back injury held him out since November. He will rejoin the Tigers in the Southeastern Conference tournament this week in St. Louis, the team announced Wednesday.
With a smooth jump shot and lanky 6-foot-10 frame, Porter Jr. has drawn comparisons to Kevin Durant. Before his injury, some professional scouts considered him to be worthy of the top pick in the NBA draft.
“Is he 100 percent? Probably not. … But he’s game ready,” Tigers Coach Cuonzo Martin told the Kansas City Star.
Exactly how much better are the Tigers with Porter Jr. in the lineup?
Missouri lost to Kansas (likely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament), 93-87, in a preseason scrimmage with a healthy Porter Jr. in the lineup. He scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 19 minutes.
Porter Jr. was the first recruit landed by Missouri after Martin, formerly at the University of California, took over the program in March 2017.
Martin immediately hired a little-known assistant named Michael Porter Sr. to his coaching staff.
Days later, Michael Porter Jr., the assistant’s son, swung his commitment from Washington to Missouri. His younger brother Jontay, also considered a standout recruit, reclassified to graduate high school early and joined the team, too.
After the Tigers went 8-24 in the 2016-17 season, the momentum swing for the school helped Martin land the fourth best recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports. Missouri began the season sitting just outside the Associated Press’s top 25.
And then Michael Porter Jr. took the floor. And then he left it.
Two minutes into his first NCAA basketball game, the likely one-and-done player aggravated a back injury he suffered during high school at Columbia’s Tolton Catholic. The Trailblazers survived without for a spell as he recovered. The Tigers took the loss much harder.
Missouri hung on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble until a five-game win streak at the beginning of February that included victories over Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Texas A&M;, all likely tournament teams.
Then the only question that remained was whether Porter Jr. would return to action in time for conference and NCAA tournament play.
NBA scouts told ESPN playing would help his draft stock, and the Tigers desperately needed him. After a spate of injuries and suspensions, Missouri was left with only eight scholarship players.
But questions remained about Porter Jr.’s health. He was spotted in the middle of the season playing pickup games at the campus recreation center at the same time he was held out of practice.
Now Martin said his star player will play, but won’t start, when the Tigers face the winner of Georgia-Vanderbilt on Thursday.
More college basketball: