MU's Porter, KU's Preston are the NBA Draft's mystery prospects. Is that good or bad?

By Aaron Reiss

Michael Porter Jr. is still destined for the NBA and the millions of dollars that come with it, but after a disappointing season at Missouri that included just three games, he is no longer a contender to be the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft on Thursday in Brooklyn.

Which is why, last month, as Porter prepared to leave his Chicago apartment and head to the NBA Draft Combine — where he’d tell reporters that he was the best player in this year’s field of prospects — the 6-foot-10 forward shared a wish.

“If a kid is ready to go to the NBA out of high school, let him go,” Porter said in reference to the league’s rule that draft-eligible prospects be a year removed from their prep career. “There’s so many things that can happen to you in college.”

Such as a flare up in pain from a lingering back injury, which led to surgery, which led to the blue-chip prospect sitting out most of the season. Porter, a former All-American and top recruit, is now the latest great mystery in the NBA’s annual selection of prospects. Will he reach the potential he seemed destined for in high school, or will he continue to fight back problems?

Porter believes the injury concerns surrounding him have hurt his draft stock, which had nowhere to go other than down. But being a mystery is rarely a significant blow to a prospect. Often, it benefits players who aren’t as highly regarded as Porter. History has shown that teams would rather take a risk on the unknown.

“If you are rumored to have amazing potential but there is a limited sample size, then some will choose you much higher than others,” one NBA scout told The Star. “It's like, why take someone we know has limited upside when we can take a risk on someone who could be really spectacular?”

Darko Milicic, an unproven Serbian forward, dodged workouts with teams ahead of the 2003 draft, and he went No. 2 overall, behind LeBron James and ahead of future all-stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

Milicic is now one of the NBA’s greatest busts, but he helped pave the path of least resistance up draft boards. There has been a new class of workout dodgers and mystery prospects every year since.

Czech forward Jan Vesely went sixth overall in 2011 and lasted just four seasons. Dante Exum was billed as the Australian Dwyane Wade in 2014, but instead he has struggled with the Utah Jazz after going fifth overall in the draft. And perhaps most infamously, there’s Bruno Caboclo, who ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said was “two years away from being two years away” after the Toronto Raptors picked him 20th overall in 2014. The Raptors have since traded the Brazilian forward who played in 25 games for them across four seasons.

Of course, there are also success stories: Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo — young, foreign-born players who were unproven when they entered the draft — have become two of the league’s stars.

In addition to Porter, this year’s class of mysteries includes Billy Preston, who never played a regular-season game for Kansas because of eligibility issues; Mitchell Robinson, a high school All-American who briefly enrolled at Western Kentucky before withdrawing to train for the draft full-time; and Anfernee Simons, who decommitted from Louisville after coach Rick Pitino was fired and played a postgraduate season at IMG Academy.

Like Porter, all of these men chose not to participate in scrimmage sessions at the NBA Combine.

“People don’t know who I am, haven’t seen my play that much,” Simons said. “I guess that’s the good side about it of coming in early.”

And the bad side to entering the draft without playing a collegiate season?

“It could be the same thing,” Simons said. “... They have no idea who I am.”

Scouts watch high school players at showcase camps and All-American games, so NBA franchises don’t need a collegiate season to know how a player plays. But a prospect’s performance in college provides a clearer picture of how effective that player is against more talented, more mature competition.

When interviewing players such as Porter and Preston at the combine, teams spent their limited time with the prospects asking about the most important topics: How does Porter’s back feel? What can Preston say about the car that led to his eligibility issues at KU and his brief stint playing in Bosnia?

“It’s really no ‘You need to work on this or that,’” Preston said when asked to describe his combine interviews with teams. “It’s basically, they just want to know my background, about everything that happened. Most of the interviews I did, throughout my time in the Chicago, are basically wanting to know what happened at Kansas, about the overseas things.”

Still, beyond the injury concerns, there are other questions about the 6-foot-10 Porter’s skillset. He struggles to dribble in traffic, and he has displayed a willingness to settle for threes rather than attack the rim.

Perhaps he could have addressed these concerns if he had played a full season for Mizzou. But there’s also a chance these issues could have become more pronounced.

NBA evaluators have not had many recent chances to examine these holes in Porter’s game, as his agency has limited his exposure to teams. He has not participated an individual workout for any franchise. Instead, he has held just one pro day, and he later invited teams with lottery picks to a medical evaluation session.

History has proven that this should be enough to maintain, if not grow, Porter’s allure.

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