BROOKLYN – Pick after pick, Michael Porter Jr. sat and waited – and waited – as other players’ names got called in the 2018 NBA Draft Thursday night at Barclays Center.
Teams are given five minutes to make their selections in the first round, and as one after another sent NBA commissioner Adam Silver out to the lectern to announce their decision, those intervals got longer and longer for Porter.
The applause he offered up for each of his peers, as their dreams came true while his just laid there, shortened to a few claps. The smiles he had for their good fortune flattened out ever so slightly.
An evening meant to be celebrated stretched on and, if it wasn’t exactly a root canal, it got uncomfortable as Porter grew ever more self-conscious.
Remarkably skilled and worthy – if healthy – of being taken with the No. 1 pick overall, the 6-foot-10 Porter slid all the way to No. 14, the final lottery slot, before landing with the Denver Nuggets.
For Deandre Ayton, the Arizona center who seemingly is NBA ready and actually was the first player selected, the night went almost as if scripted, delivering him close to home to the Phoenix Suns.
For fellows such as Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, young EuroLeague star Luka Doncic, Oklahoma scorer Trae Young and so many of the other talented prospects in the Class of 2018, it was a basketball graduation ceremony of sorts and the start of some notable careers.
For Porter, though, it was a wild, frustrating, emotional thrill ride he wanted to stop. His value had been driven down by back surgery that wiped out most of his lone college season at Missouri, followed by an abruptly cancelled workout last week and rumors of a freshly ominous doctor’s report.
The risk vs. reward scale tipped against Porter in the final few days before the Draft. And so he sat.
“I’m not going to lie to you – I was stressed out,” Porter said after Denver ended his ordeal. “All that stress was overcome by joy the moment I got called, no matter what the number was.
“At the end of the day, the draft is a number and I wasn’t going to let an ego get in the way of my joy.”
Joy is what the Draft typically is about. It’s a talent distribution system for the league’s 30 teams, first and foremost. It’s a rite of passage into pro basketball life for the young players.
It’s also an opportunity for those guys to recognize and thank the families, friends, amateur coaches and close allies who helped them get so far. The NBA even made a point this year, before the ESPN telecast began, of introducing each prospect with his parents or relatives in tow on the stage.
It’s not supposed to be an endurance test or a medical diagnosis conducted in the public square, though that’s how it went for Porter.
“Honestly, through those dark times I’ve had – I don’t want to say ‘dark,’ those harder times for me to stay positive – it’s been my family, my agent who keep making me believe the right things,” he said.
“They all know I’m going to do great in this league and I’m going to have a long, successful career. Their whole message to me was, you want to be with the organization that believes that as well. That happens to be the Denver Nuggets.”
Porter’ agent, Mark Bartelstein, had to pat his client on the back a couple times and, more than once, reassure him. Turns out, Porter did talk by phone to a Nuggets representative Thursday afternoon, so he had some confidence he would not slide beyond No. 14.
Getting there was the unpleasant part.
Porter, who will turn 20 on June 29, suffered a back injury two minutes into his University of Missouri debut and underwent a microdiscectomy procedure on two spinal disks. He played limited minutes in only three games, too small a sample size for some teams to take a gamble.
He had one solid “pro” day, working out for scouts this spring. But he abruptly cancelled a second workout day last week, citing a sore hip. That scared off more of the top pick-holders.
“Obviously it was difficult,” Bartelstein said. “Here’s a kid who, in our opinion, probably was the most talented player in the draft. … We understand the concerns teams have. But we’re confident he’s going to have an unbelievable career. The doctors we’ve talked to have given him an excellent prognosis.
“The Nuggets got themselves the steal of the draft.”
In a perfect world, that’s how every franchise and fan base would feel – or 28 anyway, with Toronto and Miami not holding picks this year. Certainly the expectations were high for those choosing earliest, synched up with a talent crop that some insiders felt went six, seven or eight players deep before a noticeable step down.
Ayton, the 7-foot-1 center picked by Phoenix, was a near-consensus choice to go first after averaging 20.1 points on 61.2 percent shooting, with 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots for the Wildcats. He represented a first and a second in draft history: the Suns never had picked No. 1 in their 50-year history, and he joined Mychal Thompson (1978) as the only Bahamian players selected first overall. Ayton, 19, never played basketball until he was 12 years old.
Sacramento picked Bagley at No. 2, choosing a relative known commodity who averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds at Duke and earned raves for his finesse and footwork.
That served up Slovenian star Doncic for Atlanta at No. 3. The youngest MVP ever in the EuroLeague while playing for Real Madrid (Spain) last season, Doncic is considered a wing with point guard skills but more of a project.
With that in mind, the Hawks subsequently shipped Doncic’s rights to Dallas in return for a future first-rounder and the rights to Young, selected at No. 5. Young, the first player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in both scoring (27.4 ppg) and assists (8.7 apg), gives the Hawks a player with formidable offensive capabilities and considerable defensive liabilities.
In between Doncic and Young, Memphis – despite multiple rumors that the Grizzlies preferred to deal the No. 4 pick – used it on Michigan State center Jaren Jackson, Jr. In a Draft class with a half-dozen solid big men, Jackson is rated as perhaps the best two-way player among them.
Mo Bamba, the Texas big man who had charmed every team and media gaggle with whom he met this spring, was taken with the No. 6 pick by Orlando. Bamba’s outrageous 7-foot-1 wingspan and raw potential was an understandable draw for Magic GM John Hammond, the man who drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo to Milwaukee in 2013. Orlando’s new coach, Steve Clifford, has a strong reputation for developing top big men, too.
Big man Wendell Carter Jr., who teamed with Bagley at Duke, went to Chicago with the No. 7 pick. Next was Alabama guard Collin Sexton, to Cleveland at No. 8 as the last vestige of value from the Cavaliers’ reluctant trade last summer of All-Star guard Kyrie Irving.
Silver’s announcement of Sexton brought a roar from the New York Knicks fans in the crowd and a funny/awkward moment for Porter and his guests at their table near the stage. Delighted to see a potential star still on the board at No. 9, the fans began their chant: “Mic-hael Por-ter!” [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap] “Mic-hael Por-ter!”
Only the Knicks opted for Kentucky combo forward Kevin Knox. Instantly, the fans who had been excitedly chanting, cut loose with a chorus of boos. Even Porter, his parents Michael Sr. and Lisa; his brother Jontay and the others smiled and clapped at that head-snapping shift in moods.
At No. 10, Philadelphia took Villanova forward Mikal Bridges, whose party was seated one table over from Porter’s. At No. 11, Charlotte grabbed Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (trading his rights to the L.A. Clippers moments later for two future second-rounders and the rights to the No. 12 picks, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges.
That’s when Bartelstein leaned over, patted Porter on the back and offered some encouragement.
The Clippers still were in play at No. 13, their second lottery pick. Silver announced that pick and, again, it wasn’t Porter. They chose Boston College guard Jerome Robinson, a lottery longshot whose party was seated at a table adjacent to Porter’s.
That’s when a pair of video cameras descended on Porter’s group, one leaving after about a minute but the other lingering through the whole five minutes before Denver picked at No. 14.
This time, finally, the news was good. Bartelstein knew what was up even before the commissioner emerged from backstage.
The silver script lapel pin on Michael Porter Sr.’s suit coat – “Faith” – came through.
“I was never anxious,” said the elder Porter, an assistant coach at Missouri. “This doesn’t define who you are as a player. What defines you is what you do once you get there.”
Bartelstein neither confirmed nor dismissed reports floating around Thursday that Porter might “redshirt” his first NBA season as a precaution to allow his back – and anything else – to completely heal before facing the rigors of an 82-game season.
“We’re not thinking about that right now,” the agent said. “We just want to get him completely healthy and eliminate the issues that have been there. He’s 19 years old and his body responds very quickly.”
Porter’s father has the same long view: “We don’t have any expectation other than, at some point, he’s going to be healthy and he’s going to show who he is as a player.”
At which point it will have been worth the wait.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980.