COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. has spent the past couple of months watching fellow freshmen Trae Young at Oklahoma and Marvin Bagley III at Duke dominate the early stages of the college basketball season. Both are Porter's close friends. Both are national player of the year candidates.
Porter, the nation's most celebrated freshman when the year began, can barely jump.The preseason All-American is six weeks removed from lower back surgery. He has started running on a treadmill and shooting lightly but hasn't been cleared to rejoin his teammates for practice.
While Young and Bagley have their teams ranked in the top 10, Porter isn't jealous of their health or success.
"To see them succeed, it's awesome," Porter said Tuesday. "At the same time I know I could be doing the same exact things they're doing. It's tough. I just have to be patient. My time is coming. I just can't rush it."
Meeting with reporters for the first time since the season began, Porter urged caution about his return to the court. Porter, who hasn't played since the opening minutes of Mizzou's opener Nov. 10, said he first suffered his back injury two years ago during a summer practice with his AAU team MO-KAN Elite. He called it "a trauma incident."
"I went up for a dunk and got hit really high in the air," he said. "I came flat down on my back."
Porter said the injury "progressed" in the weeks leading up to MU's first regular-season game against Iowa State. He had played in Mizzou's exhibition games against Kansas, Wisconsin and Missouri State, but it was shortly before tipoff Nov. 10 when Porter told Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin he was in too much pain to play. Martin took Porter off the floor in the game's third minute.
"My parents got multiple opinions, and they kind of decided surgery was the best (option)," Porter said. "It's a good thing I did it. I feel a lot better now."
On Nov. 22, Porter underwent a procedure called a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs, performed by Dallas spinal surgeon Andrew Dossett. At the time, the team announced Porter would face a recovery time of three to four months and probably miss the rest of the season. Porter said he's unsure when he'll return to the court.
"Rehab is going great," he said. "I'm getting stronger every day. Right now it's too early to tell."
Porter is scheduled to visit Dallas on Thursday for a follow-up visit with Dossett. The Tigers (10-3) play their first Southeastern Conference game Wednesday at South Carolina (9-4, 0-1 SEC).
"Everybody's different with this injury, their recovery time," Porter said. "So I'm doing everything I can to recover as quick as I can. I'll feel 100 percent before my back really is 100 percent. Eventually I'll be 150 percent because I'll be playing without the pain and limitations I had before."
Martin wasn't familiar with the extent of Porter's initial injury until the freshman got to campus this summer. Martin barely spent any time recruiting Porter before he orally committed to join the Tigers in March, just nine days after Martin left Cal-Berkeley to take over Mizzou's program. Porter had signed to play at the University of Washington but asked out of his national letter of intent when the coaching staff was fired, including his father, assistant coach Michael Porter Sr., who later joined Martin's staff.
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"It was not as if (the injury) was something I read about or anything like that," Martin said. "To his credit he practiced and played and didn't complain about it and did normal rehab."
Porter said he planned to play through his back pain this season and would manage the condition after his freshman year.
"But then it got worse to where I couldn't play anymore," he said. "I didn't feel like I'd be helpful to the team in the state I was in."
After watching a few home games from the team locker room, Porter was back on the bench for MU's last several games, including the team's loss Dec. 23 to Illinois in St. Louis.
"It was tough early on because part of my physical therapy I'm not supposed to be sitting for long periods of time," Porter said. "That's why I wasn't on the bench for those few games, even though I really wanted to be. So that was tough. Being able to be at practice and sit now, I'm just trying to be a good teammate. It gets tough sometimes because you just want to be out there so bad and help the team. But I can still help in other ways."
Porter believes he might have avoided surgery had he not rushed into playing after the fall that caused the back injury.
"It (stinks) because two years ago when it happened, knowing me, I rushed back into playing as soon as I could," he said. "That's when my body started compensating for the pain. If I would have sat out when this initially happened there's a chance all of this could have been avoidable. But we had a big tournament that weekend and I just wanted to play."
Martin, who needed several knee operations during his playing career, can sympathize with Porter's plight but promised to leave the freshman's playing status in the hands of the medical experts.
"I've never asked the question, 'When is Mike coming back?'" Martin said. "I don't ask him that because I never want a young man to feel like, man, Coach is pressuring me to come back. The health is the biggest concern."
As for this summer's NBA draft, Porter said he's not worried about how his injury might impact his stock as a prospect. He's still consistently projected as a top-five selection.
"I know when I'm healthy people will see what I'm capable of and it will all take care of itself," he said. "It's something I don't stress about it. Even if I get drafted fifth or sixth, it's what I do in the NBA that determines my legacy. I'm still going to become the best player I'm going to become."
This article is written by Dave Matter from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.