COLUMBIA, Mo. – As a scholarship athlete on Missouri’s men’s basketball team, Michael Porter Jr. will receive the cost-of-attendance aid stipend that Power 5 universities began issuing to athletes in 2015.
The stipend doesn’t go unappreciated by Porter.
“He’s extremely excited about that,” said junior forward Kevin Puryear, Porter’s teammate and a Blue Springs South High School graduate. “I’m like, ‘Dude, c’mon. A year from now, things may be a little bit different.’ ”
Puryear chuckled as he told the story.
The joke, of course, is that this time next summer, many people expect Porter to be preparing for his first NBA season, having signed a multimillion-dollar contract that will make his stipend look like chump change. Porter is projected to be the No. 1 draft pick in 2018 by several mock drafts.
Porter, for his part, says he’s living in the moment and not thinking about what might be around the corner.
The most ballyhooed freshman in program history wants to bring the good times back to Mizzou Arena.
Porter and his family moved to Columbia in 2010, when wins weren’t scarce at Missouri. The Tigers were in the midst of a five-year stretch in which they reached the NCAA Tournament each season. His favorite players were Kim English and Marcus Denmon, seniors on the 2011-12 team that went 30-5.
“I was here when Mizzou was packed every game out there,” Porter said. “I was sitting at the very top, and I saw the Mizzou atmosphere. There’s a lot of expectations for us to get that back going. I see it as an opportunity. I think we have great players coming in and great players coming back. I feel like we’ve got the team to do something special.”
That’s Porter’s goal for the season – to do something special with his teammates, end Missouri’s four-year NCAA Tournament drought and breathe life into a program that went 27-67 during the three-year Kim Anderson era.
Porter claims he doesn’t feel pressure, because he doesn’t feel like the task resides squarely on his shoulders. He bragged about the talent of the other freshmen – Jeremiah Tilmon, Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts – and the work ethic of the team’s returners.
Roberts already was signed with Missouri before Washington released Porter from his letter of intent and Porter committed to MU following the firing of UW coach Lorenzo Romar, Porter’s godfather. Porter was then instrumental to bringing aboard Harris, another former UW signee, and Tilmon, who had signed with Illinois but was released from his letter of intent following the firing of John Groce.
“I just knew I was going to need some guys around me to really make this team what I thought it could be, so I was really texting Blake every day, texting (Tilmon) every day, just trying to get both of them here,” Porter said.
Tilmon said he was disappointed when Illinois parted with Groce, and Tilmon decided to go back to the drawing board. Porter started in with the Missouri sales pitch. Tilmon met Porter a few years ago when they started playing AAU ball together.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then after I talked to Mike and C.J. and Blake all the time, I just knew this was the best fit for me,” Tilmon said.
The 6-foot-10 Tilmon offers Missouri a more traditional center and frees up Puryear for more time playing face-up to the basket.
“He’s so hard to get off the glass,” forward Jordan Barnett said of Tilmon. “When a rebound goes up, he’s so hard to box out. He’s a bull down there. That’s the biggest thing that’s shocked me, honestly. I didn’t think he’d be that strong.”
But Tilmon’s game isn’t confined to rebounding and defense, Puryear said.
“His footwork around the basket is something I’ve overlooked,” Puryear said. “I didn’t know he had that great of footwork around the basket, but he has great moves and can finish with both hands.”
As for Porter?
“He’s, offensively, probably the best player I’ve ever matched up against,” Puryear said. … “He’s definitely a bona fide pro, without a doubt. I’m excited to see how he tears dudes up this year.”
Porter is friends with the two previous No. 1 NBA draft picks – Markelle Fultz, who went No. 1 to the Philadelphia 76ers in June out of Washington, and Ben Simmons, who went No. 1 in 2016 to the 76ers out of LSU.
As good as Fultz and Simmons were in their lone seasons of college ball, neither helped their team to an NCAA Tournament appearance, and Fultz’s Huskies won just nine games last season, resulting in Romar’s ouster.
“I get asked that question a lot, about Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz and if it’s going to be the same thing with me,” Porter said. “But my decision is not about either of those guys, and also, they didn’t have the players coming in with them that I have coming in with me. It’s not all on my shoulders.”