If Michael Porter Jr. plays this season, it would be a risky yet refreshing decision

Michael Porter Jr. says he’ll play for Missouri this season if his doctors clear him

If Michael Porter Jr. merely sits out the rest of the college basketball season, he’s a likely top-seven pick in next June’s NBA draft with a chance to go even higher.

Therefore the prized Missouri freshman would be taking a significant risk if he rushes back from injury in time to rejoin the Tigers for the end of the regular season and the NCAA tournament.

Porter has been cleared to participate in all basketball activities, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports reported Thursday. The 6-foot-10 forward had been scheduled to fly to Dallas on Thursday in order to meet with the doctor who performed his November back surgery.

At a news conference earlier this month in Columbia, Porter said that he intends to play this season if cleared in time by his doctors. Porter insisted he’s not worried about damaging his NBA draft stock by either showing rust or aggravating his back injury. His only concern is whether he can help Missouri end its five-year NCAA tournament hiatus and make a deep run.

“If I could play today, I would play today,” Porter said on Feb. 9. “I’m not worried about reinjury. I’m not really worried about the risk. What I’m worried about is if it’s good for our team if I come back. If it’s tournament time and they said I’m ready to go, is that the best thing for our team?”

At a time when some elite prospects aren’t invested in college basketball and view it merely as a one-year stopover on the way to NBA riches, Porter’s attitude is admirable and even a little refreshing. Doing what’s best for his team clearly matters to him, as does the chance to support his family.

Porter’s father is an assistant coach at Missouri and his younger brother, Jontay, graduated from high school a year early to be able to play with him. Based on a tweet Jontay sent out Thursday afternoon, it’s clear he’s excited about the prospect of playing with his brother again soon.

Whether Porter’s family loyalty and devotion to his team are blinding him to the financial risks of returning this season is certainly a fair question to ask.

Porter Jr. has not practiced or played for Missouri since the opening two minutes of its season opener against Iowa State on Nov. 10. He underwent back surgery to repair damage to the L3-L4 spinal discs, a procedure that Missouri projected would require a recovery time of 3 to 4 months.

There’s a chance that Porter could returns in the next week or two, showcases the ability to score at all three levels that he was known for in high school and cements himself as a top-four pick in this year’s NBA draft. The long, athletic forward entered the season widely considered one of college basketball’s three top NBA prospects along with Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton.

There’s also a chance that Porter’s return plants seeds of doubt in the minds of NBA decision makers because he doesn’t instantly mesh seamlessly with his teammates, he lacks his prior explosiveness or his back injury flares up again. Think about what happened last season to ex-Duke forward Harry Giles, who never looked himself in his return from a third knee surgery last season and fell all the way to the late first round as a result.

Whatever choice Porter makes, hopefully it’s well-informed. He has the ability to ask his surgeon how great the risk of reinjury is, to consult with NBA executives about where he’d be drafted if he doesn’t play again this season and to evaluate whether he’s performing up to his former level when he returns to practice.

It’s safe to assume Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin would welcome Porter back if he decides to play. The crown jewel of the Tigers’ heralded 2017 recruiting class could be the difference between slipping into the NCAA tournament and being a threat to do some real damage there.

Missouri is 18-10 overall and 8-7 in the SEC and in solid position to secure an NCAA bid barring a total collapse down the stretch. The Tigers visit Kentucky on Saturday before closing the season with a road game at Vanderbilt and a home game against Arkansas.

How quickly would Porter return if he decides to play again this season? The SEC tournament would seem to be the most prudent choice, but he insisted earlier this month that he would only need a handful of practices before he felt game-ready.

“If it were up to me, I’d love to get a couple games under my belt before hopping into tournament play,” Porter said. “That’s how I’d love to do it. I’m doing everything I can. I’m working hard every day. I’m feeling better every day. I’m just hoping the doctors feel the same way.”

On Thursday, we learned they do.

Now it’s up to Porter whether to play it safe and sit out or take a gamble out of devotion to his family and his teammates.

– – – – – – –

Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!