One of the biggest stories of Thursday’s 2018 NBA draft was the surprising slide of Michael Porter Jr. A tantalizing (no Woj) prospect who had proven to be a dominant scorer in high school and international competition, Porter suffered a back injury two minutes into his first NCAA game for Missouri, necessitating surgery — a microdiscectomy procedure on the L3 and L4 discs in his spine — that would put him on the shelf for all but 53 minutes of the season. Concerns about the long-term prognosis of Porter’s surgically repaired back — and the hip that gave him problems in the run-up to the draft — led to a player once considered a favorite to go No. 1 overall dropping all the way down to the 14th pick in the draft, where the Denver Nuggets made him the final selection of the draft lottery.
“Coming into this process, we would’ve never thought that Michael would have been there at that point in the draft,” Nuggets assistant general manager Calvin Booth said on Thursday night, according to Nick Kosmider of The Athletic. “To come up with him is just unbelievable.”
It was a trying night for Porter and his family, one that unfolded in a way none of them could have imagined this time a year ago. (Or, really, even just a day earlier, when the former high school national player of the year was still being discussed as a potential option for several teams picking in the top five of the draft.) After it was over, though — after he’d donned the Nuggets cap, shook Adam Silver’s hand, and sat down to greet the media in the bowels of Barclays Center — Porter proclaimed it “the best night of my life,” expressing gratitude that he’d landed with a Nuggets team featuring a slew of exciting young talents (playmaking center Nikola Jokic, two-way stalwart Gary Harris, high-scoring guard Jamal Murray) and expectations of competing for postseason berths both now and in the years to come.
“My thing all along was being with the organization that believed in me,” Porter told reporters. “I heard [Denver] was a great city, a great organization. I can’t wait to grow with them.”
The question now: how long will he have to wait to grow with the Nuggets? Or, perhaps: how long should he wait?
Is Michael Porter Jr. healthy enough to play next season? The Nuggets aren’t sure yet
Porter said Thursday night that he plans to play in the Las Vegas Summer League in July, according to Harrison Wind of BSNDenver.com. Nuggets president Josh Kroenke, though, told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated that he’s “uncertain” about whether Porter would suit up in Summer League … or, for that matter, “during the 2018-19 season.”
Porter has played since undergoing his spinal surgery, returning for two games late in Missouri’s season, playing in the SEC conference and NCAA tournaments. He didn’t play particularly well in either, though, going 9-for-29 from the field, seeming to lack explosion on his forays to the basket, and looking rusty after four months on the shelf. A week removed from the hip spasms that scuttled his second pro day workout and evidently increased the brightness of the red flags attached to his medical file, Porter told Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com on Thursday night that he is “pain-free,” and that he feels like he is “getting better every single day.”
And yet, the rumblings leading into draft night suggesting that whichever team picked Porter might park him for a season …
Teams have been impressed with Porter in interviews. He was delightful with reporters on Wednesday.
But team that drafts him will be super cautious putting him on the court in live action. Sitting him for a majority, or all, of 2018-19 season is a real possibility. https://t.co/qKCSLE3cQC
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) June 21, 2018
… persisted after the Nuggets made their pick, with Kroenke’s comments — as well as those from Denver general manager Tim Connelly — suggesting that the Nuggets might well consider putting Porter on the Nerlens Noel/Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons plan by giving him an ostensible medical redshirt for his rookie season.
“We are going to be extremely patient,” Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly said Thursday, according to Gina Mizell of the Denver Post. “We’re going to take the long view for everything we do with him.”
I would not expect Michael Porter Jr. to play this season. It’s early in the process, but just based on what I’ve heard and how much Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly stressed patience, I don’t think he’ll play. Redshirt year.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) June 22, 2018
More Connelly on MPJ: "We are going to be extremely patient and
err on the side of caution to insure he has a long career and not just a productive summer league, but it
is a little premature to answer until our guys get our hands on him.”
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) June 22, 2018
Connelly also said it would be premature to put a timetable on MPJ before Denver’s staff has actually gotten to evaluate him off more than the written report.
Again, this is me reading tea leaves.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) June 22, 2018
Matt makes it clear that this is his read of the situation – not the Nuggets' official stance – but this is what the Kings were worried about. There were rumblings that he'd need a redshirt year, and they couldn't wait. https://t.co/AwVbUfGQvC
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) June 22, 2018
With herniated discs, it’s all about getting to Year 2 and Year 3
Taking a cautious approach with an injury like Porter’s seems like a prudent decision. Here’s how Dr. Charla Fischer, an orthopedic spine surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, explained the injury to Matt Ellentuck of SB Nation:
“One analogy we use a lot is when you poke a hole a jelly doughnut […] When you squeeze the jelly is gonna come out. If you don’t poke a hole, it’s going to be contained.”
Porter’s talent may have his injury in the spotlight, but herniated discs are not that unusual.
“That process of those small tears happens to everyone over time,“ Fischer says. “Genetics plays a small role, but over time everyone’s disks deflate like a tire getting worn down. In some athletes, if stress is being transferred to an area … it’s a repetitive stress injury. Over and over, jumping up to catch rebounds, you’re getting stress in one area. Then you get these micro tears and the nucleus pulposus [jelly] comes out.“
Once it’s out, it gets extremely painful, whether in the lower back, the legs or the hips, as Porter experienced, leading him to undergo the corrective surgery last fall.
Porter may be at elevated risk of suffering from back woes again. According to Fischer, between 10 percent and 12 percent of patients who undergo the same surgery Porter did have experience “re-herniation” over the next five to 10 years, though his age and relative health could help mitigate that risk.
The bigger question, though, is when Denver might be able to expect Porter to be able to get back to the sort of form he’d displayed as a monster on the prep and FIBA youth circuit. On that score, a study of the post-injury outcomes of 61 NBA players who’d experienced lumbar disc herniation (34 of whom underwent a discectomy, as Porter did, and 27 of whom didn’t) that was published in the January/February 2016 edition of the medical journal “Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach” might offer some support for the idea of Porter taking a medical redshirt.
Researchers Shobhit V. Minhas, Benjamin S. Kester and Wellington K. Hsu found that nearly 79 percent of those players with a confirmed herniation successfully returned to play the following season, but did note that “taller players and those who played center were significantly more likely not to RTP after management of LDH.” They also found that while players who underwent surgery to treat the injury “played significantly fewer games and had a lower [Player Efficiency Rating] than controls during the first postoperative season,” there was no such measurable difference in the second and third years after surgery — and “no difference in postoperative career length.”
So, the thinking goes: if taller players seem to be at greatest risk for not being able to successfully return to play in the first year after discectomy … and if players who went the surgical route to address the injury tend to see a substantive drop in performance in Year 1 that disappears come Year 2 … and if you’re a borderline playoff team anyway … then why not put your 6-foot-10 19-year-old on ice for the year, let him get no-doubt-about-it healthy while also reaping the benefits of an NBA strength-and-conditioning program and getting to practice, travel and prepare like a pro for a year, and then let him hit the ground running for the 2019-20 season?
Time’s on Denver’s side, but will Porter want to wait?
Denver enters the offseason with questions on the wing, with sixth man Will Barton headed to unrestricted free agency and longtime Nugget forward Wilson Chandler able to opt out of the final year of his contract to join him on the market. Bringing back one alongside the likes of recent first-round picks Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley would give the Nuggets the cover to bring Porter along slowly. Losing both without an attendant leap forward from one of the other young perimeter players could force the Nuggets’ hand a bit … especially if Porter, who maintains that he has “no reason not to believe that” he’ll play next season, presses for an immediate role.
“I feel good,” Porter said Thursday, according to Kosmider. “It depends. I’m going to go down there [Friday] and they’re going to put a plan together for me for what they want. Some teams, even if you feel good, they want to make you feel even better before they put you on the floor, so it’s all on what the team wants me to do. But I feel like I can play immediately.”
Maybe he can. But if Denver’s medical team, coaching staff and front office believes that doing so might endanger his long-term prospects more than it would tangibly benefit next year’s team or his development, then it might be a while before we find out whether or not Porter’s really the draft-night steal and potential franchise booster that he and the Nuggets believe he can be.
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