Jontay Porter: ‘I would have been a first-round pick’

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COLUMBIA, MO. • For the first time since taking himself out of the NBA draft last week, Missouri’s Jontay Portertalked about the decision publicly with reporters Wednesday. It was a decision, Porter said, that he made before taking part in the NBA draft combine last month in Chicago.

Porter made it clear he was all but assured he’d be a first-round pick in the June 21 draft.

“When I did decide to go back to school, it didn’t matter where I was going to be picked,” he said. “I was going back to school because I realized I didn’t want to take that leap quite yet. I can confidently say — I know the draft isn’t until the 21st — but I’m pretty confident I would have been a first-round pick. That really wouldn’t have been a question. Whether I was top 10 or top 30 I was pretty set on coming back.”

Porter insisted his decision hinged on basketball factors — improving his skills and building his body to compete with grown men in the NBA. It was widely publicized that Porter had the highest body fat percentage at the combine and was among the field’s least explosive jumpers.

“When I do make the NBA I want to be a factor right away,” he said. “Not that I’m going to be an All-Star or anything like that. And the G-League isn’t necessarily a bad thing or anything like that, but I realize I do have development to do before I’m ready to make the impact I envision on an NBA team. Coming back getting better, stronger, more mentally tough, getting ready to take that step and be a man in the NBA, I think coming back one more year is necessary.”

Porter’s father, Mizzou assistant Michael Porter Sr., wasn’t made available to reporters, but in an KMOX interview with Mike Kelly that aired Sunday, he said one team was particularly smitten with the 6-11 forward: the San Antonio Spurs, who own the No. 18 pick in the first round of the draft.

“San Antonio loved him,” Porter Sr. said. “He’s cut from that kind of cloth, a big man that can shoot and pass. They do a great job of developing players. Just look at what they’ve done with Dejounte Murray. He got great feedback. When he was doing the interview with (San Antonio), he told me he said he was testing the waters and they just kind of scoffed at him. They assumed and just took for granted that he was going to stay in the draft. That was the impression he made on him and several other teams.

“In that sense it was a tough decision for him. But at the end of the day, Jontay felt like his life was moving so fast. He skipped his senior year of high school and now he’s talking about after his freshman year of high school skipping to the NBA. I think he just wanted to slow things down a little bit. I respect that decision. I really do. I could have gone either way with him.”

Here’s something else Jontay revealed Thursday: He kept in regular contact with Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin the last few months. While older brother Michael Porter Jr. made a clean break from Mizzou when he declared for the draft, signed with an agent and moved to Chicago, Jontay called Martin “a mentor” and valued his advice during his decision-making process. While preparing for the combine in Chicago, Jontay returned to Columbia three or four times and always met with Martin.

“Even if he’s not my coach he’s still a mentor for me,” he said. “I respect his opinion a lot. He didn’t try to push me one way or another. He wasn’t saying, ‘Let’s get back to school and get you ready for next year.’ He was just saying, ‘Whatever you want to do, make sure it’s the right decision. Make sure you weigh out the pros and cons.’ And he was trying to help me see the pros and cons.”

Said Martin: “Often times as coaches I’ve heard stories about (coaches) holding guys back. But my thing is I want what he wants. He wants to be an NBA player and he’s smart enough to understand I want to do it when it’s right and when I feel it’s right. I was just calling, texting, sending him different stuff: ‘These are the things to look for. Focus on this in the workouts.’ … Not putting pressure on him but things to be aware of in your workouts. Resting your body, rehabbing, ice, cold tub. All that stuff you have to do that becomes a lifestyle for the next 10-15 years as long as you’re playing. … It was never a case of, ‘I’d love to have you back.’ Of course we wanted him back. I thought that would be great. But that was never the conversation. It was, ‘We have to make this work. Let’s try to make it work.’”

Look for more on Porter’s decision and Martin’s vision for him next season in Thursday’s print edition.

• A quick note on Porter Jr. In the KMOX interview, Porter Sr. said his oldest son has not yet released his medical information to NBA teams but underwent a physical by the Chicago Bulls medical team last Thursday. He’ll host a pro day this Friday in Chicago that’s open to any team that’s interested in watching him work out. The following week the teams drafting in the top 10 will have another day to see him up close and inspect his surgically repaired back. The Porters will share the Bulls’ medical report with every other NBA team, Porter Sr. said. The Bulls have the seventh overall pick.

“In terms of where he might go, all I’m hearing is top 10,” Porter Sr. said. “I’ve had conversations with teams at the very top end of the lottery who say they like him a lot, but that stuff changes every day. I have absolutely no idea where he’s going to go.”

More from Wednesday’s interviews at Mizzou …

• Fans might worry about Missouri’s point guard situation, but you don’t get that sense from Martin and his players. Porter and senior forward Kevin Puryear went out of their way to praise the work senior Jordan Geist has done this offseason establishing himself as the team’s new vocal leader. Geist made strides as a shooter last year but is focused this summer on his ball-handling and leadership. Teammates are bought in.

“A lot of people talk about the mistakes he’s made and all that other stuff and beat him up on social media, but that’s my guy,” Puryear said. “He’s always going to be my guy. I have the utmost confidence in him. He’s easily the toughest player on our team. He’s willing to guard anyone on the floor. He’s shown flashes of great play over the course of his career. I’m definitely excited about his future.”

Freshman Xavier Pinson is the only other natural point guard on the roster, but Martin said freshmen Torrence Watson and Javon Pickett can help with the ball-handling, along with Porter.

• Puryear talked about three main goals this offseason: get in the best shape of his career, improve his ball-handling and improve his perimeter shooting. That doesn’t sound like the ambitions of a low-post player. The 6-8 senior said he’s confident he can play the three position (wing/small forward) and log more minutes on the perimeter as a defender and shooter. Puryear has played mostly at the four position, but with Porter back, along with center Jeremiah Tilmon, Puryear could help his cause if he’s more versatile this season.

• Speaking of versatile, Martin is intrigued by redshirt sophomore Mitchell Smith, a 6-10 big man who could figure into the rotation at the three position. Yes, on the perimeter.

“He’s long enough to play the three,” Martin said. “He’s a solid ball-handler and continues to improve in that area. I think he has a chance to be a good defender with his length. He showed more toughness than I anticipated. … The area for him is to continue working on the 3-point shot. He’s making it now but it’s a different level when you’re playing with the lights on to be able to make that shot. If we can play him at the three that would be great.”

• Incoming walk-on freshman Parker Braun will join the team in July, maybe sooner, Martin said. MU’s other newcomers are on campus and began workouts Monday.

• Martin said MU continues to consider options open for senior guard Cullen VanLeer, who is recovering from major knee surgery. Martin earlier left open the possibility that VanLeer could medically retire, which would keep him on scholarship status but free up a scholarship for the team to use for another player.

• Finally, in the last few weeks, Martin has been named to the NCAA Division I Basketball Oversight Committee and joined the National Association of Basketball Coaches board of directors. Why the sudden increased involvement in the game?

“I’ve had older guys, meaning coaches in our profession probably in the last four or five years say I need to get involved more. It takes so much time, and I enjoy what I do, but it takes so much time when you balance this and then family. Something has to give. That’s already consuming most of your time and then you’re trying to get as much sleep as possible. One of the guy who used to beat me up on it always was (Central Florida coach) Johnny Dawkins. I just felt like it was important. He saw me at the Final Four and said, ‘We’re waiting on you.’ It was just time. We complain about certain things, how the game can change, how the game can be better, but if you’re not part of it then what are you really doing? So I felt like I needed to be part of it, with my wife’s blessing and my daughter, too. She’s only 10, but though she doesn’t care about it I need to make sure I give her the time she deserves.”