At the practices leading up to the McDonald's All-American Game—an annual showcase of the best high-school basketball players in the country—media and scouts are each given a sheet of paper with the faces of participating players, printed in color. During the actual game, which takes place at the United Center in Chicago, those sitting courtside can be seen squinting into it, trying to identify whoever last dunked all over his adolescent brethren. At this year's game, though, there was one face that everybody already recognized.
Michael Porter Jr., 18, is swiftly becoming famous. Last week, Porter made news when he decommitted from the University of Washington after the school fired head coach Lorenzo Romar. Porter then committed to the University of Missouri, becoming the best player the Tigers have ever recruited (sincerest apologies to Linas Kleiza, DeMarre Carroll, Kareem Rush, Jordan Clarkson, and Anthony Peeler).
Porter is a program-changing talent making the transition from exceptional young player to one-man industry. As soon as Washington fired Romar, who happened to be employing Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant, new Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin hired Porter Sr. to magnetize the No. 1 AAU prospect in the nation back to Columbia, where he spent most of his teenage years.
Porter Jr. speaks of the transition with Odyssean elation. "I can't wait to be back home, where I lived for so long," he said at the United Center the day before the game, surrounded by an endless mob of reporters. He then spoke about the rims in the local gyms with nostalgic fondness. The billowing crowd around him didn't seem to faze him. Of the many cliché adjectives ascribed to athletes as naturally excellent as Porter, "unflappable" certainly applies. Another word might be "monotone," or maybe "bored." Belying the lightning bolt etched into the side of his hair, at no point did he seem particularly energized as he fielded questions from his eager interlocutors.
After his West squad narrowly won 109-107—Porter represented Nathan Hale High School of Seattle—many of Porter's teammates and even opponents celebrated loudly outside the locker room. After all, this was a coming-of-age experience for all of them. Imagine, playing in the same arena where Michael Jordan once played. Porter, who has been doing Jordan-style dunks since he was 15, was hoisting the game's pyramidal MVP trophy at half-court. He cracked just a bit of a smile for the cameras before being ushered quickly away by p.r. people to a podium for formal interviews, which then gave way to a slew of informal ones. Those didn't stop until more p.r. people told the press that interview time was over. It was not like this for the other McDonald's players. In addition to being named the game's MVP, and the Naismith Player of the Year earlier this year, Porter is also the unofficial Player Least Likely to Be Left Alone. And yet, he seems numb to all of this attention.
No particular moment of Porter's 17-point, eight-rebound MVP performance stood out. None of Porter's aerial displays (the kind that make the lightning bolt in his hair seem more appropriate) or shooting seminars that you can watch online showed up in this exhibition. There is an algorithmic truth to the way he fills up the box score. Stats just pile up by his ability to edge out anyone guarding him. At six-foot-ten and with his level of handles, speed, marksmanship, and comfort with his feet off the ground, he's able to easily get his own shot off against the elite players in his age group. He projects to be this way in college, too. He called his inclusion in the All-American game "a dream" and "amazing" like anyone would, but you can tell that he's practiced these lines. In other words, it's not like he was surprised to be there. This was always the plan.
After all, Porter has been keeping some good company for a while now.
"I've been over to Steph's house a couple of times, so I'm real close with him," he said, meaning Steph Curry, the defending two-time NBA MVP. "He's super personable and doesn't try to big-time anybody." Porter met Curry at a camp two years ago. He explained that he "got on a roll during [one-on-one] King of the Hill" and stayed on the court for quite a while during Curry's camp, adding, matter of factly, that the six-foot-three Curry is "too little" to guard him.
"We talk on the phone sometimes," he said when asked about his connection with Curry's teammate Kevin Durant. "He's a great guy, very down to earth. I hope he's healthy for the playoffs." He also confessed to a starry romance: Porter is dating Disney Channel star and esteemed Barney & Friends alum Madison Pettis.
During the press conference, Porter and three other players were asked if they had ever received this kind of attention. The other three players laughed in delight, but not Porter. He was just matter of fact about the whole thing. As Chicago's own Kayne West once said, "It's hard to be humble when you're stunting on a jumbotron." Porter has definitely been stunting for a long time.
And why not? Porter is the latest "unicorn" player: young, mobile, highly versatile, and nearly seven feet tall. "There aren't a lot of fours [power forwards] who can guard me," he said, and then described himself as "positionless" when asked what position he'll play in college.
It will take more than just Porter to lift Mizzou to the top of the SEC, though. Head of the class Kentucky had four of this year's McDonald's players committed for next season. Porter has been trying to get six of the undecided McDonald All-Americans to join him at Missouri. Of those potential new recruits, beloved seven-footer Mohamed Bamba from Harlem is arguably the most intriguing—his seven-foot-eight wingspan would be larger than anyone's in NBA history, and he's a true student of the game. Bamba flew to the famed MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this year to hear a seminar on pick-and-roll defense, and he's heavily considering attending Harvard. But it wouldn't be a surprise if Porter were able to convince him to go to Missouri.
Throughout this whole process, it's become obvious that Porter's family plays an important part in his life. So while he says that spending his one year in college in familiar territory will be special, it's obvious that his father also has a large hand in some of the decision making. But Porter rejects the notion that he's been coerced into deciding where to play.
"People act like I was forced into this decision because of him," he said a bit defensively when asked about the 1:1 ratio of his college commitments and places where his dad is employed. "But this is what I want. He has the best interests for me in mind. He cares about me and the other players more than any coach, both on and off the court. It's a perfect situation." Porter also mentioned his mother, who has turned him into a vegetarian, and his sisters, both of whom are returning to the Mizzou women's squad next season.
Like recent UCLA superstar and soon-to-be NBA lottery selection Lonzo Ball, Porter is a generational talent who has benefited greatly from a father who spotted that talent early and cultivated it. But that's probably the only similarity between Michael Porter Sr. and LaVar Ball. "If I were Lonzo and my dad was doing that," Porter said, "I'd probably ask him to chill."
As America's multi-billion-dollar college sports industry continues to weather intense scrutiny in court and in the press, is paying players inevitable? Check out VICE's "End of Amateurism" documentary segment on HBO this Friday, March 31 at 7:30pm and 11pm.