ST. LOUIS — Missouri freshman and potential NBA draft lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. made his long-awaited return to the court during Thursday’s 62-60 loss to Georgia, but neither he nor his coach thought he was quite the player he was before his back surgery.
Porter, who hadn’t played since the season opener against Iowa State in mid-November, took a game-high 17 shots but made only five for a total of 12 points. He also tied for a team-high eight rebounds.
Porter recognized his limitations coming back from surgery, estimating that he felt 65 percent of the way back to his old form.
“With this type of injury, the last thing to come back is your explosiveness, your pop,” Porter said. “I knew that wasn’t there yet, but I still thought with Cullen [VanLeer] tearing his ACL and other guys out, I thought I could help the team. I missed some shots I should have made, but at the end of the day, we lost as a team.”
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin described the difference in Porter’s game as such: “He’s a step slow. Maybe a 37-inch vertical instead of 40.”
Overall, Martin said that Porter did a “solid job” despite playing in a more expanded role than expected due to the rest of the team getting into foul trouble.
“We came up short,” Martin said, “but it’s not so much what Michael didn’t do. … Give Georgia credit for defending. That’s part of it.”
Porter, who didn’t start, received a standing ovation from the Scottrade Center crowd when he entered the game with 17:22 left in the first half. A minute later, he nabbed his first rebound and, after running the length of the court, got his first points on an layup.
The 6-foot-10 Columbia, Missouri, native showed signs of rust, however. He appeared hesitant at times and looked fatigued, sometimes putting his hands on his hips. After making his first shot, he missed his next six, including an air-balled 3-pointer and a layup.
Martin played Porter in bursts of a few minutes at a time, getting him plenty of rest on the bench. Porter’s father, Michael Sr., told ESPN a week ago that his son’s back is 100 percent healthy — and might even be better than before the surgery — but that it would take time for him to regain his burst. “He’ll definitely get it back, but it’s going to take a little bit,” he said.
Doctors cleared Porter to play in mid-February, and he practiced with the team a handful of times before feeling ready enough to play in a game again Thursday.
“The good thing is we have another game,” a dejected Porter said after the loss to Georgia. “There’s a whole other week and however much longer for all of us to get better and for me to get even more healthy. We’ll be all right.”
Said Martin: “I think we’ll be fine because now they’ve had a chance to play with them. … I’m glad we got it out of the way.”
Porter made a 3-pointer with 58.4 seconds left to bring Missouri to within one point, but he missed his next attempt from beyond the arc with 15 seconds left. The Tigers had one last shot at pulling off the come-from-behind win, but a Kassius Robertson 3-pointer fell short, allowing Georgia to advance.
Even with the loss, Martin says he believes that Missouri — with its 20-12 record — should make the NCAA tournament, which begins next week.