Why Michael Porter Jr. Fell in the Draft

By Dr. Ankur Verma

 

Michael Porter Jr. (TonyTheTiger).

In the hours leading up to the 2018 NBA Draft, that sound you heard was the rush of NBA writers everywhere updating their mock drafts.  According to various sources, a recent medical report caused enough concern among teams that Porter—once a candidate for the top overall pick and, more recently, a candidate to go #2 to the Kings or #4 to Memphis—was now projected to drop out of the top half of the lottery.  Some draftniks even had him out of the top 10.

The heresy proved to be more than correct: Porter fell all the way to pick #14, where the Denver Nuggets scooped him up.

We previously wrote about Porter’s back injury and how it may impact his pro career, but teams were well aware of this issue heading into draft season.  Porter had missed nearly the whole college season, after all.

So why did Porter suffer a nearly Aaron Rodgers-like fall?

Porter’s Potential

As Ben Falk at CleaningTheGlass explains, it is important to view prospects as having a wide range of possibilities.  Hence, it is important to understand what a player’s floor is and what his ceiling is, and the probabilities of that player falling anywhere in that range of outcomes.

First then, to understand how drastic a fall this is, it is important to understand what the ceiling is for a player like Porter.

He was the second-highest recruit in ESPN’s Top 100 coming out of high school.

Due to Porter’s lumbar herniation and subsequent surgery, he missed most of the college season at Missouri; therefore, most of the film and information we have on him is when he was in high school and in the AAU circuit.

The size, fluidity, athleticism, and handle he kplayed led many to believe that he would excel not only as a one-on-one scorer, but would be able to play off of his teammates at an All-Star level if his shot ever developed more.

Let’s focus on one of those traits: athleticism.

At the 0:13 mark of the video below, you can see Porter’s easy hops as he finished off the basket in transition.  However, no defenders are around so woop-de-doo, right?  Well, fast forward to the 1:58 mark and you can see him explode vertically to the rim in traffic as he finishes a pass from Collin Sexton.

 

Now combine that with elite handle in transition, great size, and shooting ability.  That’s what NBA teams were looking forward to.

Porter’s Injuries

Unfortunately, as is well-documented, Porter exited mere minutes into his first college game at Missouri and later had an L3-L4 microdiscectomy.  We detailed the specifics of this injury in depth in the injury preview.  He would later return at the end of the season.

So remember the display of athleticism that Porter showed above?

Well, upon his return, Porter displayed the following level of explosiveness (go to approximately 1:12):

 

There is a stark contrast in the way he finishes that basket compared to the high school video.  The explosion just doesn’t pop off the screen.  The last minute of that video shows some highlights of Missouri’s only NCAA tournament game and displays some of that lack of explosiveness, as well.

Whether this is directly due to the back injury or Porter was just protecting himself or getting back in shape is only speculation.  But some information is speculative to an extent and this is what NBA teams have to incorporate into their draft evaluations when deciding whether to take a prospect.

Unfortunately, like I mentioned in my draft preview, Porter’s back injury does not pair itself well with his deficiencies.  He displayed an egregious level of defensive of effort on several plays in his high school career; there were several times when he simply stood around or displayed a shocking lack of effort on close-outs.  Take a look as Porter (Jersey number 9) gets back on defense and how he plays (or lack thereof) the ball-handlers (just watch that one series, no need to watch the rest of the game).

 

It is highly unlikely his mobility will improve after back surgery if it was already lacking when he was healthy.  If it is merely a matter of effort, then perhaps the effects won’t be as pronounced if he worked really hard at defense now, but if his tendencies were already poor to begin with, then that belief would be putting a supreme amount of faith in his ability to overcome a mental hurdle in addition to his physical one.

In addition, as mentioned in the injury preview, Porter could stand to put on some weight to deal with the physicality of the NBA.  Unfortunately, there is an association between BMI and disc herniation.  Even though it is unlikely that Porter will gain enough weight to significantly alter his risk for a subsequent disc herniation, it certainly will not help matters, especially since he already has one to begin with.  And he needs to gain weight to help him reach his potential.

In light of this new information a team may adjust their range of outcomes for Porter if they believe this data is Porter’s new normal (and seeing what happened in the draft, they likely believe it is).  So, instead of a possible ceiling of Kevin Durant, we are now looking at a best-case scenario of defensively-indifferent iso-players Michael Beasley, Jabari Parker and Carmelo Anthony.

Porter’s new ceiling? (Keith Allison).

That’s not all: a few days before the draft, Porter canceled a workout for NBA lottery teams due to what was described as “hip pain”.  There were reports that an MRI was done that same day with a “positive review” and Porter was cleared.

Let’s examine the last two sentences.  First, lumbar back pain can take on many forms.  As mentioned in Porter’s injury preview, his head coach at Missouri, Cuonzo Martin, initially stated he left his first collegiate game due to “leg pain”.  Given the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see now that Porter’s disc herniation was the cause of this leg pain.  However, back pain can also manifest itself as “hip pain”; therefore, there is a possibility that, despite having hip pain, Porter’s issue was not necessarily related to an injury to the hip joint itself and could instead have been related to his back.

Second, there is no indication what kind of MRI was done.  This kind of feeds itself to the above paragraph.  We don’t know whether there was an MRI of his hip or back; if it was his hip, Porter has no publicly known hip issues, so I would expect that to come back clean.  However, as one may be inclined to suspect, the issue could well be his back, and not his hip, in which case an MRI of his back would likely be not as favorable.  Indeed, the wording of “positive review” rather than “negative” or even “clean” lends itself significantly open to interpretation and could mean anything.  So if it actually was an MRI of his back, well, that’s not promising.

NBA Draft Medical Process

As part of their draft evaluation, players invited to the NBA Combine in Chicago undergo physicals, lab tests, and imaging.  Each NBA team also has their team physician examine players.  The findings are then discussed with the rest of management.

However, Porter did not appear at the combine and only allowed select teams access to his medical information.

As CleaningtheGlass notes, NBA teams tend to value medical information for the draft so heavily that it could lead them to taking a player off their board entirely.

There are times when you are watching the draft in any sport and there will be a player mysteriously sliding for one reason or another and you’ll hear the commentators say that, according to sources, “several teams have taken Player X off their board for Reason Y”.  However, it is worth questioning whether this is a reasonable practice.

The Bulls selected Wendell Carter despite being one of the few teams to have access to Porter’s medical information. (TonyTheTiger).

As my NBA Draft Injury Series has detailed, it is important to think about the value of each pick and the type of player you could be expected to get based on history.  Therefore, when evaluating a prospect’s strengths and weaknesses, you could determine whether he has a chance at reaching the median outcome.  For example, Kevin Hervey is another prospect that fell in the draft reportedly due to concern of his history of bilateral ACL tears.  He fell all the way to the near the end of the second round; instead, I had pegged him as decent value as a late first-rounder for a contender, given the outcomes of previous late first rounders.  Therefore, such a draft day slide for me seems to be extreme.

There has to be some point in the draft where the risk has to outweigh the reward.  Just read the list of the 60th (last) pick in each draft for the last five years: Janis Timma, Cory Jefferson, Luka Mitrovic, Tyrone Wallace, Alpha Kaba.  Wallace has emerged as a useful NBA player, but that’s not exactly a murderer’s row.  At the very least, it indicates that someone of Porter’s upside should be drafted at the very least, which would point to the fallacy of leaving someone off a board entirely.  The cost-benefit tilts in a team’s favor at some point.

Thus, it appears dangerous to apply such an extreme (and in some cases, absolute) weight to medical evaluation (as it would be for any other factor).  Just like any other factor, medical evaluation should be incorporated into the entire profile of a player, with that player’s probabilistic range of outcomes then adjusted.

Teams that understand this could potentially exploit a market inefficiency and take advantage of obtaining high-upside prospects on the cheap.  One prospect’s undue sliding in the draft could be one team’s boon.

Synthesis of Information

Jeremy Lamb. (Keith Allison).

Porter reportedly fell because teams were worried about “a recent medical report that had teams worried about his long-term health.”

Considering this broke just before the draft, it is unclear why teams would throw out years of careful, deliberate prospect evaluation at the last moment.  After meticulously weighing the strengths and weakness of each draft prospect, some very smart people decided to suddenly weigh a last-second piece of information so much more than everything else to the point it significantly altered their draft boards.

Naturally, that would lead me to think that, on aggregate, NBA teams seem to overvalue medical issues, or at least overvalue them selectively depending on the prospect.  A player’s health is certainly important, but it would be an extremely rare case where one piece of information is weighed so heavily to have such an influence on a draft board.  Yes, Porter is risky, but it comes down to cost-benefit analysis.

Therefore it is very important to synthesize all information with appropriate weights to come to a conclusion.  By synthesizing strengths, weaknesses, analytics, effort, psychological, and medical information, one can appropriately assign a prospect a probalistic range of outcomes.

As CleaningTheGlass points out, the median-type of player at the #10 to 12 pick is someone like Gerald Henderson or Jeremy Lamb.

Even though the heights of Kevin Durant are likely to allude Porter now given what we know, an NBA team must decide whether the upside of a Carmelo Anthony is worth it at that point.

Or to look at it another way: even with the back issues, does Porter have a 50/50 shot at being as valuable as Jeremy Lamb?