At the 2018 NBA draft, no player's draft slot fell further below his talent level than Michael Porter Jr., the 6'10" phenom who left his senior year of high school as the prohibitive favorite to get selected first, but finished college with serious question marks.
Two back surgeries and 30 total points during three underwhelming games at the University of Missouri later, he's on the Denver Nuggets, facing tempered expectations and questions about his short and long-term health. We sat down with Porter Jr. to talk about his rehab, when he plans on getting back out there, the controversial player comparisons he made right before the draft, and much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE Sports: How did you spend your summer?
Michael Porter Jr.: Before the draft, I was in Chicago doing my pre-draft stuff. Then the draft happened and I came right out here to Denver and got right to work, rehabbing, you know, just trying to get healthy as quick as possible with these great physical therapists over here.
I assume you’re adjusted to the Mile High air?
Well, man, we’ve been traveling, so you get adjusted but then you go somewhere—we were in San Diego and then L.A. for ten days, so we came back here and you had to get used to it all over again.
How physically active are you right now, so far as the thin air can have an impact?
I’m doing a lot of cardio stuff. When I first got out here it was less, but as soon as I started doing the cardio stuff I felt it in the air. And now I’m doing a lot of cardio and you can definitely feel it but I’m definitely getting used to it. You just gotta drink a lot of water. Over time it gets easier.
I assume you don’t physically feel as you did before your surgeries, but can you tell me what you can’t do now that, say, three years ago you had no problem with?
Well like right now, feeling wise, I feel like I can do a lot of things that I used to be able to do. The thing is there’s a weird gap between when you feel good and when you are all the way healed, so I’m trying right now to let my body heal. They’re taking it really slow with me, but I’m feeling really good, I’m doing a lot of things, moving a lot. But right now they’re just being careful and making sure I don’t have to deal with anything like this ever again.
You recently said that there’s no timetable for your return. Is there any update on that?
It’s still pretty open-ended. I’m just taking it day-by-day and how I feel, but the good thing is every day we’re making progress and getting better.
The Nuggets are treating you with the long-term in mind. What specifically does that mean? What are they having you do on a day-in, day-out basis?
Well right now I’m progressing every week. I’m in the weight room, I’m doing a lot of cardio, a lot of lifting, you know I’m on the court doing my skill development in the morning. But right now it’s just taking it easy. Every week I’m progressing instead of just going 0 to 100. But I’m doing a lot of things, man! It’s just being smart with it and doing the right amount, and not doing too much.
Are there any weekly or monthly goals you’re trying to hit?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Every week we’re in the weight room doing more weight. I’m doing some running and jumping now, but [at the beginning] they’d say "next week we’re gonna do some jumping so get ready" or "next week we’re gonna do some jogging" so it was weekly goals like that.
Obviously you’ll never know what would’ve happened had any other team drafted you, but do you feel any benefit in knowing you're somewhere that doesn’t “need” you right away as opposed to a different organization that’s in an earlier stage of their rebuild. I’d imagine there’s less pressure?
Definitely. There’s definitely a lot less pressure and it’s just cool, like, being able to go to the games and being around a team that’s already winning, already doing really good. I really feel like there’s no better situation for me just because the team is young and we’re already a really good team so I feel like as I get healthier and as I get on the court we’ll be even better. I’m so happy to be here, and I think it all worked out for the best.
How would you describe your state of mind right now. Are you frustrated, calm, accepting of your situation?
It really just depends on the day. There are days where I’m super, super optimistic. Feeling up, attacking rehab. I attack rehab every day but there’s definitely those days where you’re like "man," you watch your guys, you watch them play in L.A. against LeBron and you wish you were out there. But it’s really just keeping a level head and know that I’m gonna be back. It’s just a matter of time. And just being patient. That’s really the main thing, patience.
I don’t want to get too dark here, but what was the low point for you, mentally over the past couple years?
I would definitely say that morning before my second pro day. I had my first pro day and I killed it. I got a lot of good feedback from a lot of teams. But then my second pro day, in front of the top ten teams, it was two days before that I woke up and my back wasn’t...it wasn’t even my back it was my hip wasn’t feeling right. And just knowing something was wrong and knowing I wouldn’t be able to perform. Because I knew as soon as I woke up that day that I wasn’t gonna be able to perform. That was definitely the low point, knowing that I was going to have to go through this whole thing. But everything worked out.
Did you know how serious things were that morning, physically?
I wouldn’t say like, I didn’t know if I would need surgery, but I did know...I didn’t know that it was this bad, but I just thought that after a couple days it might wear off.
Before the draft you compared yourself to Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Tracy McGrady. Did you pay attention to the public’s reaction after you made those comparisons?
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah I saw it. I mean I saw people, it was a wide range of stuff. But I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. I wasn’t really saying that, you know, I feel like I’m on that level right now, even though I do, I have a lot of confidence in myself and I’m not gonna say anybody’s better than me. I was just saying, the question asked was "who do people compare you to" and that’s what I said. People sometimes compare me to KD, they compare me to [Giannis], they compare me to Tracy McGrady. I wasn’t really trying to say I’m as good as those guys right now.
You mentioned LeBron and Denver going up against the Lakers recently. Is there a player in mind that you can’t wait to face?
I mean all of them. Really I just want to get back on the court. But I would probably say KD, just because I’ve been compared to him. Going up against him, he’s the best scorer in the NBA. You know I feel like I’m a pretty good scorer, so I’d like to see me matched up against him.
"I want us to win the whole thing."
What are your personal expectations for the season?
I would say my personal goals for the team is to win an NBA championship, and that’s just because I’ve never been one to shy away from having the biggest goals possible. I remember my high-school team was 3-21 the year before we came and the first day of practice I told the team our goal is to win a national championship and be the best team. Other people hearing that would’ve never thought that, but that’s just how I am. We went undefeated that year and so for this team I would say the goal is to definitely be a playoff team but taking it even further for me, I want us to win the whole thing. I don’t see...I mean everybody has to get on the basketball court and play, you know what I mean?
I respect how bold you are.
[laughs] I won’t say that I...I mean the odds obviously aren’t in our favor. The Golden State Warriors are an amazing team but I would say just having that in mind, the only thing you can do is, you know you have nothing to lose. Just go for it.
I got you. Are you expecting to be on the court at some point this season?
Really it’s just up to those guys. Obviously I want to and feel I’ll be able to, but it’s up to those guys and how they think I’m doing, and how I feel that I’m doing as time progresses.
And when you say "those guys" you mean Denver’s front office?
No not even the front office, just the guys I’m doing rehab with every day. The physical therapists, they kind of let everybody know how we’re doing. And it’s the same thing for Jarred [Vanderbilt] and [Isaiah Thomas]. Every week we try to get better and there’s not really a timetable for it.
How do you think your game fits in with Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and all the other members of Denver’s core who’re young and on your timeline?
I feel like it blends in perfectly and I feel like one thing we’re kind of missing is at the three position. I mean we have guys that can play the three, we don’t really have any natural small forwards. And so I think me, I’d be a big help for that, especially on the defensive side. I’m 6’10” and able to guard some guys. But I just feel like the unselfish nature of our team is perfect for me, and just the way they share the ball, get up and down and score the ball, it’s really the ideal fit for me, and how Coach Malone lets his guys play and trusts them on the floor, it’s perfect for me.
What advice has I.T. given you?
That’s my bro. We’ve gotten really close, just spending a lot of time together. We’re open about how we feel about stuff. There’s hard days and I love to talk to him during those days. He goes through the same kind of stuff that I do. And so that’s kind of what we talk about.
Have any other NBA players reached out, or have you reached out to anyone looking for advice?
Nah, I mean I talk to a lot of guys but I wouldn’t say that I necessarily take advice from them. The people that I take advice from are my parents, my family members, just staying close with them.
What was the biggest purchase you made after you signed your first NBA contract?
I’m a simple guy but I did buy my mom a car. That’s definitely the most money that I’ve spent on a single thing. Other than that I’ve just been chillin'. It was the newest version of a Ford Flex, which is what she had before and she loved it. I have seven siblings and we’re all tall and that car has a lot of space. It’s her favorite car. I got to surprise her with that.
Speaking of cars, what can you tell me about your Autotrader spot and how you got involved with them?
Well you know, me being a rookie car buyer, Autotrader has the largest variety of cars to choose from and they’re always looking to make the car buying process easier, so me being a rookie, not really knowing too much about cars, I just wanted to partner with them. They help you make the smartest decisions. I also did a video shoot with them because you know me being a rookie, not playing yet, I’m still doing other stuff. Contributing with the team, working on my game, and we did a little video that kind of put a funny spin on that, and the fans can check that out on my instagram.