The Michael Porter Mystery

Michael Porter Jr. played only 53 minutes in college. Evaluating Porter's draft prospects requires digging into his play at other levels, and grappling with the right way to think about prospects like him.

The biggest question mark of the 2015 draft was Emmanuel Mudiay. The 6-foot-5 point guard was the No. 2 ranked player in his high school class, No. 1 at his position. Larry Brown, who recruited him to SMU, called him “the most special point guard I’ve ever seen at that age”. But Mudiay would never play for Brown. Worried about NCAA eligibility issues and NBA draft ineligible for another year, Mudiay signed a contract in China.

His season with the Guangdong Tigers did not go quite as planned, either. After 10 games, Mudiay hurt his ankle and remained sidelined for the rest of the regular season. Rumors swirled about whether there was a dispute with Guangdong about his health. It seemed the Tigers might cut him in the middle of the season, hoping to free up one of their international roster spots and sign another American in his stead for the playoffs. Eventually, and on short notice, Mudiay ended up playing in two playoff games.

This left NBA teams in a difficult position. Anyone who wanted to see him live had to have made a trip early or been willing to hop on a last-second plane to China for the playoffs. Good film on his games, meanwhile, was sparse. Synergy Sports only had one of his games logged; other video services were similarly lacking.

I worked for the 76ers at the time, and Mudiay was a high-priority target for us. After the trade of Michael Carter-Williams midway through that previous season, we had a hole at point guard. We needed to know as much as we could about Mudiay to make the most informed decision possible, but circumstances were making that complicated.

We did everything we could. We acquired the film of all of his games and watched them in painstaking detail. We recorded stats from that film. We compared his stats to other Americans who had played in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), to get some sense of how his play measured up.

And what we found concerned us. Mudiay seemed to be lacking a burst around the basket, so that even in the CBA, a league not known for its defense, he was not an efficient scorer. For a player with a shaky shot who had not displayed good touch away from the basket, poor finishing at the rim and a below-average rate of drawing fouls were major red flags. Further testing during his workouts only deepened those fears. Mudiay needed to be a rim attacker, but we feared he didn’t have the athleticism for it.

Through three full NBA seasons, that analysis seems to have been correct. Mudiay has been one of the least efficient players in the NBA in each of those seasons. In particular, although he does take a high rate of shots at the basket, he has been a dreadful finisher. This past year is the first in which he made more than 50% of his shots at the basket.

Other important observations from that study have also proved prescient. Mudiay’s defense was worrying: he was often out of place, did not play with high energy, and displayed poor technique. And Mudiay was turnover-prone, with a tendency for jump-passes and for trying to make the home-run play. Sure enough, Mudiay has been both turnover-prone and a very poor defender in his time in the NBA. It’s no wonder the seventh overall pick in the draft was traded for a second-round pick just two-and-a-half years after he was selected.

This is all easy to say in retrospect, of course. At the time, taking a position on Mudiay that was lower than the consensus still wasn’t predicting this level of performance. For all of his faults, he seemed to be a very good pick-and-roll passer, making the right reads in spread situations. And there were arguments to be made that there was still upside in his mental approach to the game and even to maximizing his athleticism. Perhaps, even if he had major flaws as an 18-year-old, those flaws could lessened with time and work, and the advantages he did have could be emphasized. Even with all of that research and digging, there was still plenty of uncertainty around Mudiay’s future.

Unknowns and uncertainty were the subject of a 2007 New Yorker article in which Malcolm Gladwell wrote:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information…

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much…

The distinction is not trivial. If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11th to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda. If you consider September 11th a mystery, though, you’d have to wonder whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You’d want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you’d want more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda…

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered.

We’ve long treated the draft like a puzzle, believing the answer is out there if only we could find the right information. We study film, fly to remote corners of the globe, talk to anyone we can who interacted with a prospect, and scrutinize medical reports. We gather as much information as possible because we believe the information holds the key to accurately determining a prospect’s future.

And that’s true, but only to a point. In our current era, where news travels as fast as bits through cables, where video is available on almost any prospect at any time, where teams hire private investigators to do background research and psychologists to assess players, lack of information is not the main problem. The problem is what to do with it. The draft is a lot less like a puzzle — it is much more like a mystery.

Except, it would seem, for some players. Some players are still puzzles, right?. Some players still put our information gathering skills to the test. Players like Emmanuel Mudiay. Players like Michael Porter Jr.

Michael Porter Jr. was also the No. 2 ranked player in his high school class. And, like Mudiay, we have been able to see next to nothing of him since the high school all-star games. Porter injured his back two minutes into his college career. He returned at the end of the season for two games, where he looked nothing like his high school self. Watch his easy athleticism as he showboated at the end of the Nike Hoop Summit:

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And compare that to these rim attacks in college, where he had no lift around the basket:

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There are some things we can learn from his 53 minutes at Missouri, but the conclusions have to be taken with a large heaping of salt given the reality that his health and conditioning were not up to par.

Instead, we have to dig deeper, and go back to his pre-injury tape. And luckily, in this day-and-age, that tape is not too hard to find. We can review multiple games from his time at Nathan Hale, watch the McDonalds All-American game or the Nike Hoop Summit, and see how he performed in over 100 minutes during the FIBA Americas U18 Championship.

All of these games have different contexts, and we need to judge them in that light. His play in high school is likely different from what it would be in college, when he’d be pushed by better competition, play against better athletes, and receive better coaching. All-Star competitions are less competitive. Playing with a slew of other top players on the FIBA U18 team no doubt changed his style of play.

But, as with Mudiay, there are still things we can learn from the film, even in these varying contexts.

First and foremost, his skill at his size is incredible. Porter measured at 6-foot-9 1/2 inches barefoot at the draft combine. He’s essentially 6-11 in shoes, yet handles and drives like a wing. How many 6-11 players can take the ball up full court with their off hand, pressured by a guard, and get to a pull-up three this easily?

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Watch this in-and-out dribble and clean beat of his man on a drive to the basket:

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Here he brings the ball up, gathers at the three-point line, hangs and glides into the help, still almost finishing through contact:

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That gather point is very impressive. His size and athleticism allows him to pick up the ball far from the hoop and still get all the way to the rim for a lay-in. Watch him navigate traffic in transition, gather at the three point line, launch from one step inside the foul line, and still scoop the ball into the cup:

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Porter’s jumper, while slightly unorthodox, is still good enough to make him a threat from beyond the arc. He’s shown the ability to make tough threes, like this one:

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And here he proves to Kevin Durant that he REALLY hoops with the three point hesi pull-up jimbo (aka hesitation pullup jumper):

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His shot, though, can go in-and-out. Sometimes it looks smooth…

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And sometimes not:

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He can shoot off the bounce well enough that he doesn’t think twice about those shots, but not so well that he should take all of the shots he does. He often made poor shot decisions, forcing tough looks or getting himself in trouble:

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He loves to iso, which can often lead to tunnel vision:

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His shot/pass decisions in general are frequently suspect:

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In some ways, then, Porter looks like an anachronism in the modern NBA: an iso-oriented, midrange scorer. But he has shown flashes of real passing vision and unselfishness as well, and averaged over 4 assists per 36 minutes in the FIBA Americas Championship:

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With some refinement, Porter has the potential to be an offensive superstar. Without it, he has the potential to be an inefficient, ball-stopping chucker.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, he’ll need a lot of work. He has size and mobility, but his effort leaves a lot to be desired in most instances. Watch him barely even move on this entire defensive possession:

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And make no effort to close out at all multiple times and in multiple contexts:

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Even when Porter has given effort, there are some fundamentals he is lacking — he’ll be in the wrong spot, or end up staring at the ball and losing his man. Not being held accountable on defense in high school and then missing an entire year of college coaching provides an excuse. But it also means he’s a year behind.

On one level, Porter seems to have the physical tools to be able to play both inside and out. On another level, though, a relatively short wingspan (less than 3 inches longer than his height) and some issues keeping smaller players in front may raise questions about his ability to defend in either location.

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I wrote last year in A Roll of the Dice, Part 3 about the concept of draft risk profiles: when forecasting a player for the draft, don’t project what you think he’ll be, project a range of potential outcomes and try to assign probabilities to them. Thinking this way lends some strategic insight to draft selections.

A player like Deandre Ayton has a very high floor. Barring injury, what is the chance that Ayton is not a starting center in the NBA in his prime? We’d say pretty low. A player like Mikal Bridges, meanwhile, has a lower ceiling. What would we say is the chance Bridges makes multiple All-Star teams? Bridges is a talented player, but given his body of work and raw tools we’d probably say significantly lower than Ayton’s chances.

Porter, though, has both a high ceiling and a low floor. In part, because we have less information on him than we would if he played a full season at Missouri, and in part simply because of who he is as a player. On the one hand, it’s entirely possible he’ll end up as an inefficient, iso scorer who doesn’t play defense: Jabari Parker if you’re lucky; Michael Beasley if you’re not.

On the other hand, Porter has the height, athleticism, handle, and touch that thinking he’ll make multiple All-Star teams is not crazy. And we don’t even have to go far back to find a highly touted high school scorer who played a one-on-one, midrange game but exceeded expectations in the NBA. Jayson Tatum’s career is just beginning, but despite those inefficient tendencies prior to his arrival in Boston, he’s off to a pretty good start.

If Porter’s shot develops like Tatum’s did (and Porter has a similarly good free throw stroke according to available statistics), and is coached properly, he has the length and athleticism to do what Tatum did so well this year: play off of others and in transition, attack closeouts, and eventually develop his own efficient offensive creation with height, fluidity and handle.

There’s another factor that makes Porter’s range of outcomes even wider: the injury concerns. It’s possible those are behind him, that the surgery fixed his back issues and Porter will be back to his former self (or even better, given that reports indicate his back had bothered him for a while). But it’s also possible this injury could linger, that Porter will take more time to recover, or that it is the symptom of more structural issues that could plague him down the line.

A player with such a wide range of outcomes is very risky. But risk is not only bad — it also provides an opportunity, a path to higher gains at lower cost. For a team in need of a star and with the coaching and culture to push Porter in the right direction, he might be the kind of swing that makes sense to take. The Dallas Mavericks, with the fifth overall selection, seem to fit that bill. A team like the Sixers, on the other hand, might want to be more cautious about selecting a player like Porter.1 They are not in need of star talent and this is likely to be their last lottery pick for a while. Missing out on the potential for a starter or high-level bench player on a rookie scale contract would be more costly.

Porter then, is not a complete unknown. The information is there. The task for teams is parsing and integrating all of that information properly. It requires understanding risk and the right strategies to employ given a franchise’s situation. And it requires an approach that acknowledges that the draft is not a puzzle. It is a mystery.

  1. Whether that means trading up to get him or taking him if he slips to them at #10. 
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