On Sunday afternoon, Missouri notched a 14-point victory over Southern Illinois, but in the process suffered a far more significant blow to their chances this season.
Jontay Porter is lost for the year.
The supremely talented sophomore went down with a non-contact knee injury, tearing the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee, according to a source. Missouri athletics also confirmed the news in a short statement released to reporters.
Just yesterday, Porter told scribes at Mizzou Madness that the tendinitis in his right knee had finally abated. “I still have days where I have to sit out some drills in practice because my knees are killing me,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “but today they felt good and I guess the adrenaline was pumping and I got up a little bit.”
The sequence of events is eerily for Mizzou and for the Porter family. Last season, Michael Porter Jr. was sidelined for all but 53 minutes after he underwent back surgery — a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs — to repair an injury he suffered while in high school. When Porter Jr. spoke to reporters, he said the procedure alleviated the discomfort that had nagged at him for years.
Meanwhile, Bri Porter endured five ACL tears during his playing career at Rock Bridge High School and at Mizzou, ailments that forced her medical retirement. Cierra Porter, who had one year of eligibility left at Mizzou, also opted for a medical retirement in June.
Once again, a lingering health issue has become painfully acute, this time torpedoing the campaign for the younger Porter, a former five-star recruit who was tabbed as a preseason second-team All-SEC pick.
There’s also the matter of the combo forward’s professional stock. Projected as a late first-round pick in this June’s NBA draft, Porter pulled his name from consideration after participating in the NBA scouting combine. While his skillset met the league’s growing demand for Stretch 5s, Porter’s struggles in physical testing, which included finishing last in the standing vertical jump, raised questions about whether he might be a defensive liability at the next level.
By all accounts, Porter had slimmed down this summer and improved his agility and explosiveness — gains that would improve his ability to play in space and hold his own if switched onto a guard. A cursory look at draft boards also backed up Porter’s rationale, with the crop of big men vying to be picked in 2019 considered weaker than those taken this the group just starting their rookie seasons. Instead of showcasing his wares front offices, Porter might now confront questions about the injury and the tendinitis that preceded it.
Losing Porter, who averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds last season, again puts Cuonzo Martin in the position of adapting his offense on the fly.
The injury not only takes away an interior scoring presence but Porter’s ability to play on the perimeter — whether in pick-and-pops or spaced to an opposite wing — could constrain how the Tigers space the floor. Even when the Tigers feed Porter in the post, his stellar vision and anticipation made the block into a playmaking hub, one where Porter could survey the floor and zip passes to spot-up shooters.
Inverting the floor and pulling Porter out of the post also carved out operating room for Jeremiah Tilmon to bully bigs on the block or to snag dumpoffs in the short corner. Without his frontcourt partner, there’s the possibility Tilmon confronts more opponents applying pressure through hard double teams, whether it’s a big helping across the lane or a guard digging down from the wing.
Surveying the Tigers’ roster in search of stopgap solutions only raises more questions.
Senior Kevin Puryear is the first logical candidate. The Blue Springs native has the size at 6-foot-8 to play on the interior and the perimeter, and he posses enough skill to be a workable option in actions that rely on drag screens, dribble handoffs or ask him to make plays at the elbow. However, Puryear would need to improve dramatically from 3-point range, where he shot just 26.4 percent a year ago, to pull opposing bigs off the baseline. Providing efficient scoring in the lane is also a concern, considering Puryear only shot 39.5 percent on post-ups last season, according Synergy Sports.
Redshirt sophomore Mitchell Smith, who missed last season recovering from his own ACL tear, is back in the fold. However, it’s unclear what role or production he could offer. UIC transfer K.J. Santos, who is 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, is another possible option, but he profiles more as a 3-and-D wing and is currently sidelined with a fracture on the top of his left foot.
A healthy Porter would have also eased the strain on backcourt where Jordan Geist is the sole returner. Serving as a magnet for opposing defenses and holding them in tension would have created open looks and wider gaps for newcomers in Santos, Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett and Christian Guess. Porter’s ability to knock in 3-pointers — he shot 36.4 percent last season — would have also lifted weight off young shoulders.
A source of relief could also come if the NCAA approves waiver requests granting immediate eligibility to Dru Smith and Mark Smith, who transferred to Missouri this spring.
For now, the solace at the moment rests in recent history. A year ago, Martin and MU banded together and clawed their way to the NCAA tournament, ending the program’s four-year drought. Unfortunately, the Tigers, who currently project as a bubble team, will have their tenacity put to a similar test.