Charlotte Hornets

If this highly skilled player is there, Hornets face NBA draft gut check at No. 11

Michael Porter Jr. of Missouri told reporters during the NBA draft basketball combine in Chicago that he's the best player in the 2018 NBA draft. But he might be available to the Hornets at No. 11 because of a back injury.
Michael Porter Jr. of Missouri told reporters during the NBA draft basketball combine in Chicago that he's the best player in the 2018 NBA draft. But he might be available to the Hornets at No. 11 because of a back injury. AP Photo

Michael Porter Jr. is meeting with a bunch of teams at this week’s NBA draft combine, including the Charlotte Hornets. That’s wise marketing. It’s also implicit acknowledgment things didn’t go as anticipated in his only college season.

Porter, a 6-10 player with small-forward skills, was mentioned a year ago as the possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, before a back injury derailed his lone season at Missouri. He played just three games, never got in a real rhythm, and now is turning pro based on his reputation entering college basketball.

It was probably the right call. Barring terrible signals from his medical reviews, Porter should still be a top-10 pick. As he proclaimed during a media session Thursday, "I’m the best player in this draft."

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Maybe so, if healthy. Porter had surgery on two spinal disks. He describes that procedure now as minimally invasive, and he has no physical restrictions. Still, no one has seen Porter be the player who so intrigued NBA scouts for a year, so both his medical reviews and workouts could be key in the risk-reward balance teams must assess in considering him.

You have to go back considerably in time, but Charlotte NBA fans have seen how devastating a back injury can be to an elite player. When then-Hornets general manager Alan Bristow chose Larry Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick in 1991, it was a controversial decision. Bristow passed on Dikembe Mutombo and Kenny Anderson to pick Johnson.

But it was also the right call at the time; Johnson was a rugged, highly skilled player who became Rookie of the Year and a future All-Star.

But all that came apart when Johnson hurt his back. He stopped being the player who justified the Hornets signing him to what was then an NBA-record $84 million contract in 1993.

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That’s not to parallel Porter’s back to the one that so changed Johnson’s impact. But back injuries are always a big deal to athletes in general and players of Porter’s size and athleticism in particular.

If Porter isn’t long gone when the Hornets pick 11th, it will probably be about his medical projection. At some point, betting on Porter’s talent will outweigh any concern about his back. Those gut-check decisions are why new Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak got so much power when he took over in April.

Shot-blocking still matters

While it’s true that players such as New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns have the NBA intrigued by more versatile big men, that doesn’t mean the conventional things they do no longer matter.

Case in point: Shot-blocking. The ability to protect the rim counts for a lot, as illustrated by center Rudy Gobert’s value to the Utah Jazz in the playoffs.

This draft’s Gobert is Texas freshman Mo Bamba. Unlike Gobert, a Frenchman who was drafted 27th in 2013, Bamba figures to go quickly in the June 21 draft.

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Bamba’s 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan was a record at the combine, and he used that length well at Texas, averaging 3.7 blocks and 10.5 rebounds in his single college season.

Bamba didn’t get as much attention as Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, but he sure believes he belongs in the same strata.

“I feel I should be the No. 1 pick,” said Bamba, who showed up for his media interview Thursday in a tailored suit.

Asked about the Gobert comparison, Bamba offered specifics.

“I think what people see when they compare me to Rudy is presence,” Bamba said. “It’s a very similar effect: Our switch-ability (defensively), the way I protect the rim.”

Bamba believes he will immediately be one of the NBA’s top rim-protectors, and that wouldn’t be a shocker: Shot-blocking is obviously about length, but it’s also about quickness and anticipation. Bamba has it all that way.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell
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