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Chicago Bulls 2018 Draft Preview: the Michael Porter option

If Michael Porter Jr. is on the Board, the Bulls Must Pick Him

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most perplexing riddle in this draft comes in the form of a former high school phenom that played merely 53 total minutes of college basketball: Michael Porter Jr.

Once the No. 1 overall ranked recruit by Rivals, Porter Jr. fell out of the scouting spotlight this past year when he injured his back in his first game with the Missouri Tigers, then attempted to come back before he was ready for one SEC and NCAA Tournament game apiece. Readers can probably imagine how frustrating it is to attempt to analyze an NBA draft prospect with these circumstances. Porter Jr.’s college stats are essentially worthless, so the only thing a scout can rely on in this scenario is their own eyes.

I had fun with Fran Fraschilla investigating and exploring 2016’s notorious draft conundrum in Thon Maker, and when jumped at the opportunity to tackle this new mystery myself. Not just because I enjoy a challenge, but because I also believe Michael Porter Jr. has far more star potential than any other prospect the Bulls are going to have an opportunity to draft in 2018.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Michael Porter Jr. is a very incomplete player, but I mean that in the best way possible. The most common trend I kept noticing when reviewing the limited film available of him—regardless of what component of his game I focused on—was that no element of his play is perfect. However, these holes shouldn’t necessarily turn NBA teams off from the immense promise he possesses on raw talent alone.

Scoring forwards that stand a legitimate 6’10” don’t grace the NBA lottery very often, much less ones with the bounce and quickness off their feet that Porter Jr. has. His ability to accelerate is far from lethal, but his top speed in transition when he pushes the ball inspires a great deal of optimism about what he can help teams accomplish on the break:

What makes MPJ such a potential offensive juggernaut, however, is the sheer amount of skill he already possesses when it comes to creating his own shot. His first step to the basket is lethal for someone of his size. Though he is clearly most comfortable at this stage with line-drive attacks from the perimeter, he’s already quite good at utilizing hesitation dribbles to set himself up for pull-up jumpers.

He also has to be one of the few 6’10”+ basketball players alive that can successfully execute a stepback that creates a useful shot opportunity. Watching Porter Jr. do stuff like this makes it easy to understand why so many people gravitate towards comparing him to Kevin Durant:

MPJ has both a fluid and very high release on his jumper, which at a couple inches short of 7’0” is almost unfair. He doesn’t necessarily get his shot off quick, but the ball is so far up in the air on its release that closeouts aren’t nearly as effective against him as they are versus other wings. Porter Jr. will have to work to get more comfortable from NBA range, but the potential to become a league-average threat from distance is certainly feasible.

There’s a lot to love offensively, but also a lot of adjustments he needs to make in order to realize the full scope of his potential. He relies a lot on his right hand when on the move, and it’s rare to see him go left by choice because he’s clearly not as comfortable with his opposite palm. As former Bulls buckets-enthusiast Jimmy Butler once said when it came to defending this type of player, “the dude may go right every single time. But it’s going to happen, whenever I’m guarding him, the motherf***er is going to go left.”

Defensively, there is plenty left open to interpretation, but one thing I like about Porter Jr. already is his ability to switch with poise. Porter’s a smart player that does a good job of examining the bigger picture defensively rather than zeroing in on his matchup, and that’s a key attribute for modern NBA perimeter defenders. He doesn’t have a particularly impressive wingspan for how tall he is (measured 7’0” wide at the NBA combine), but his standing reach (9’0.5”) is surprisingly only an inch and a half shorter than Durant’s (9’2”). At the very least, MPJ certainly has the look of a player that’s contributing a lot more on both ends of the court than you tend to expect from scoring forwards slotted for the lottery:

Injuries & Intangibles

When it comes to players of great size, the two types of injuries that tend to be the largest long-term concerns are either foot or back-related. Porter Jr. was quick to proclaim at the NBA Combine that not only is he now healthy; he’s actually healthier than he has been at any point in the last three years. While that’s obviously a no-brainer answer for someone to give that’s trying to improve their waning draft stock, I did find this bit on the subject interesting from a piece Matt Ellentuck did for SB Nation:

A study done by two orthopedic surgeons from NYU’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, and one from Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Northwestern, compared those who had surgery after disc herniation (like Porter did) and those who chose rehab.

Using PER as a baseline, the study found that in a small, 61-person sample size, those who had surgery had a decline in games played and in PER in the year after their surgery, but showed no difference in the years following. Those who did not choose surgery saw no change in PER or games played, but had shorter careers.

So Porter, who won’t even be a year removed from surgery by the time next season starts, could be a step slow coming out of the gate, and his mind could be ahead of his body at times as he works his way back into shape. For teams that can afford to wait, he’s worth it.

In addition, MPJ’s already average frame is sitting on some rail-thin legs. Squint while watching him shoot, and it almost looks like he’s half pogo stick. Porter Jr.’s done a good job of filling out his upper body the last couple of years, but teams are almost certainly going to want him to get stronger from the waist down. Until he does, him getting knocked off balance by physical players with some sort of post game is going to diminish his value as a small-ball four. In fact, coaches would be wise to keep him out of the paint on defense for purposes other than rebounding and weak-side shot-blocking at this stage.

My biggest concern personally is how upright Porter Jr. plays on both ends of the floor. Offensively, it causes him to get knocked off balance when finishing around the basket. He isn’t a guy that shys away from contact, which is encouraging, but he’s just not quite strong enough yet to finish through challenges at the rim comfortably. I also can’t help wondering how other-wordly his first step would be if he could play with even a slightly-lower center of gravity than what he has now. Defensively, his stance understandably concerning. Even when he’s directly engaged with a ball-handler on the perimeter, he won’t bend his knees at an angle that inspires confidence with guarding NBA athletes. These are symptoms of a player that doesn’t trust their own lower-body strength, and if MPJ is to become an NBA superstar, he is going to need to build a much more stable base for himself. If he does, he’s going to alleviate a lot of his shortcomings while sharpening a lot of his other already-present skills.

Despite the back issues that he claims date back to high school that finally required surgery, MPJ’s body fat percentage (6.4% at the NBA combine) indicates he’s done a remarkable job of keeping himself in shape. It make me want to mention that Michael Porter Jr. appears to have a personality and work ethic rooted in family and faith. He worked a shaved ice stand with his family out of a grocery store parking lot during summers in high school, even while he was garnering hype as the #1 overall recruit in his class. His parents—both former ballers in college- raised him (and his eight siblings who also are as his best friends) to say whatever they do in basketball is only a vehicle for accomplishing greater things in life.

Why He Makes Sense For the Bulls

The case here is fairly simple: the NBA belongs to the stars. MPJ has easily the highest ceiling out of anyone within the Bulls’ draft range, and Chicago needs all the talent it can get at this stage to bring itself back into basketball relevancy. As good as Bulls fans think Lauri Markkanen is going to be, even with him there’s really no way to tell at this time if he’s more of a primary or secondary option on a championship-contending team.

If Michael Porter Jr. commits to hitting the squat racks and the ball racks in the Advocate Center with regularity—and stays healthy—the Bulls’ future will look exponentially more intriguing in a couple years. His quick decisiveness with the ball in the halfcourt coupled with his ability to apply significant pressure in transition speaks to a player that Fred Hoiberg would fall in love with offensively in no time at all. If he does acquire that lower center of gravity and beefs up his base, the MPJ/Markkanen combo figures to be a particularly devastating small-ball frontcourt. Just picture how much more open the Bulls’ offense would look with a 6’10” field-goal factory on the perimeter as opposed to Justin Holiday, David Nwaba, or Paul Zipser.

I am not saying taking Michael Porter Jr. makes the Bulls playoff players in the Eastern Conference again off the bat, but there isn’t another player in their draft range that has a shot of improving the team more. When I first started studying his game, I found the recurring Kevin Durant comparison initially annoying, but over time I grew to understand it goes further than, “they’re both oversized for their position and shoot off the dribble!” I sincerely doubt Porter Jr. will ever have as good of a handle or perimeter jumper as Kevin Durant, but I am very confident that he can become the same type of player that can easily manufacture offense for his team regardless of who he’s matched up against. There are glaring fundamental and injury concerns, but also a tremendous amount of reason to be optimistic that he can overcome them.

[Previously in this series: Wendell Carter, Trae Young, Mo Bamba]