2018 NBA Draft: Michael Porter Jr.'s fall to Nuggets at No. 14 sets up a potentially remarkable origin story
Porter endured one of the most surprising slides in lottery history; it might wind up as the biggest mistake in years
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Thursday night provided one of the all-time slides in NBA Draft history, a turn of events practically nobody predicted to such a steep degree.
It made for compelling theater, albeit coming at the expense of Michael Porter Jr.'s frequently criticized ego.
No matter which path his career takes from here, the image of Porter waiting 13 picks before finally being able to stand up is the wickedly crooked start of his NBA story. Going forward, how the tale weaves is going to be fascinating; Porter's fall projects as a cautionary account of how injury and ego concerns can overthrow potential generational talent.
"Before that two-day hip episode, I was at the very top of the draft and that's how I envisioned this night going," Porter said, sporting a glittery, whitish-blue suit with a silver pin on his left breast shirt pocket that read "Greatness."
The biggest day of Porter's life became a test in personal yet public stress management. Porter, his family, his former coach (Missouri's Cuonzo Martin) and his agent, Mark Bartelstein, sat at a small round table at the back of the green room and watched as the Kings, then the Hawks, then the Grizzlies, Mavericks and Magic all took other prospects, many of them skilled big men like Porter.
When Porter walked into Barclays Center hours earlier, his expectation was to be a top-five pick. Things went awry in a hurry, and yet it was all going so slowly. What must it be like to sit in a room with thousands and thousands of eyes watching you, to see how you'll handle yourself amid the most uncomfortable wait of your life?
"Obviously you want to get drafted as high as you can, I'm not going to lie," Porter said. "But I was hopeful [about] Sacramento because that was one of the teams that was like -- Memphis, Dallas, they were all really, really interested. I was hopeful that they would still not worry about [my] back. I understand that's going to get right and this is about the long-term. I had no expectations. But then when you're sitting there at your table and another pick goes by and another pick goes by and you start seeing all your friends going, you start getting a little anxious."
The onetime poster boy of the high school class of 2017 and projected No. 1 pick as recently as last fall found himself clutching to the edge of the lottery. Even if scuttlebutt had Porter slipping out of the top half, nobody expected him to be available at No. 14 -- Denver most of all.
The team that drafted him and finally saved him from his Aaron Rodgers moment did so through the back door. The Nuggets hadn't prepared as though Porter would be there for them at 14, and Porter barely knew anything about the franchise before he donned a Denver cap and finally got to walk across the stage to shake commissioner Adam Silver's hand after waiting nearly an hour and a half for his closeup.
"The first time I talked to them was [Thursday]," Porter said. "They didn't even consider me dropping to them."
Five picks before Denver pulled the trigger, Porter quickly became the local favorite. When the Knicks were up at No. 9, the loyal and rowdy New York fan base in attendance rose to its feet and began chanting "MY-KUL POR-TER!" These poor saps were about to be robbed of their most joyous Knicks-affiliated moment in years. New York of course picked Kentucky's Kevin Knox, and the arena instantly infused with gaseous boos. The only man who might have felt more uncomfortable than Porter on Thursday night was Knox, who did nothing to deserve such a vicious Bronx cheer.
Moments later, a teenage Knicks fan five rows up and about 50 feet to Porter's left was apologetically screaming Porter's way about how he wished the Knicks had drafted him. It was the only time Porter smiled in the hour before he was selected.
But on and on on it went. Well after Sacramento, Memphis, Dallas and Chicago said thanks but no thanks, the 76ers, Hornets and Clippers breezed by Porter as well. Jerome Robinson, the Boston College shooting guard who was ranked 308th in the Class of 2015, was picked before Porter.
Lottery drops are seldom this drastic. Usually if a player falls in the lottery it amounts to bumping from third to fifth, or seventh to 10th. Porter plunged. He was mostly projected anywhere between fourth and 10th heading into Thursday night, and it only got worse from there.
"Yeah, honestly, the teams at the very, very top of the draft told me last week I was their guy, they were going to take me," Porter said. "Then the hip episode happened, and then doctors got involved and they got scared. So once one team gets scared, a lot of them get scared. And that's what caused the drop."
As the picks continued to roll in, and Porter continued to sit, his parents could only affirm and console him. After Philadelphia passed at No. 10, a bout of stoic quietness hovered over his table. Bartelstein broke the tension with a soft-eyed look and asked Porter, "You doing all right?"
Porter kept glancing at his phone. His best friend, Trae Young, watched his dream come true by getting picked fifth overall in a trade to the Atlanta Hawks.
"I'm not going to lie, it was tense and I was down," Porter said. "This isn't how I envisioned this night going, being this late, but it's still the best night of my life. I wasn't going to let anything change that."
That's how this story changes. You aren't reading about Porter's bad behavior or chesty disappointment.
As Porter made his hour-plus media tour after Denver saved him, he saved face. Instead of taking an unexpected and embarrassing situation and turning it into an opportunity for vengeance disguised as confidence, Porter got on the high road. The 19-year-old kid who had been knocked for being selfish and a locker room enigma was insistent in his thankfulness and humility. He was as self-aware and gracious as any other player I spoke with Thursday night.
And despite losing millions of dollars and waiting at least an hour longer than he was expecting, he didn't call out anybody. There was no talk of how 12 teams (the Clippers had picks 12 and 13) made a mistake or anything like that.
Be it the hip issue, the lingering wonders about Porter's back injury from his lone season or inflamed concerns about his ego (no player's character was more publicly put on trial in the days leading up to the draft than Porter), all those factors led to a conspiracy of doubt from 12 franchises that could have taken him.
As he waited and waited and waited, his parents told him "it's not about a number" and "don't make it about ego." They knew this could be a positive. Right now, he enters the league in an interesting situation. It can be a positive, yes. And yet, because he fell so far there's likely be an expectation on him much higher than if he had been picked sixth, seventh or eighth.
Plus, there's still no certainty about when he'll play. Reports before the draft had Porter potentiallyas a precautionary measure. When I asked him late Thursday night about his health, he was optimistic but didn't definitively say he'll be playing in the coming weeks.
As for the hip, Porter told CBS Sports he is pain-free. This is welcome news, as a source outside Porter's camp told CBS Sports that the pain was significant a week and a half ago. That, in addition to skepticism over his medical report on the whole, clearly factored into general managers balking at a player who once lorded atop mock drafts across the internet.
"My hip doesn't hurt and I feel pretty good and I feel like I'm getting better every single day," Porter said.
Maybe this is the continuation of a mercurial career of fits and starts, which effectively began when Porter was sidelined last November after his much-anticipated debut at Missouri was ruined thanks to a back injury. Maybe it's perfect fodder for a sneaker commercial a couple of years from now. Either way, it's good for the NBA and good for the Denver market.
"I don't feel entitled to this," Porter said. "All of this is a blessing."
Years from now, we might come to find it's one of the all-time gaffes in draft history. If Porter goes on to be a 10-time All-Star and Hall of Fame-caliber player, his entry point to the league will be referenced as the moment that put him on the path of legends. If he winds up being just a guy in the NBA, then what transpired Thursday night will be part of his story as one of the all-time great high school prospects who was robbed of a better future.
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