NASHVILLE —Michael Porter Jr. watched closely as Markelle Fultz failed to resurrect Washington basketball last season. Fultz, a 5-star recruit who suffered through a 9-22 season, eventually became the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. But the lack of team success was painful.
“He was really frustrated, because that’s a dude who loves winning,” Porter said of Fultz. “He was really upset with how the season went, but when he signed up to go to Washington without really any other big names going with him … college basketball is hard. You need more than one player.”
Porter, considered by many to be the top high-school player in the country, de-committed from Washington and signed with Missouri, where new coach Cuonzo Martin hired Porter’s father, Michael Porter Sr., as an assistant coach.
Porter Jr.’s younger brother Jontay, a 5-star forward in the Class of 2018, reclassified to play for Mizzou. Then, in an effort to avoid a “Fultz” situation, the siblings began their quest to bring other top-rated recruits to the program.
“I figured Michael wasn’t where it was gonna end,” junior Kevin Puryear said. “We knew when Michael committed there was gonna be buzz.”
The result: a class of new recruits that is probably the most exciting in program history. There’s the 5-star Porters, 4-star power forward Jeremiah Tillman from East St. Louis, Ill., 4-star point guard Blake Harris from North Carolina, and 3-star point guard C.J. Roberts from Texas.
Per Porter Jr., Tillman is “a monster.”
“That dude is a certified pro,” Porter said. “A lot of people don’t know that. He will be an NBA player one day, for sure. And I don’t think it’ll be long before that happens.”
Porter also mentioned that his brother Jontay is “severely underrated,” and noted that Harris posted John Wall-esque numbers at the team’s pro day and “might be the fastest player I’ve seen in terms of point guards.”
The elite group of freshmen is sure to arouse suspicion during such a tumultuous time for compliance offices around the country, but this seems like the result of fateful circumstances, not illicit activity.
Porter Jr. spent many of his formative years in Columbia, starring for Father Tolton High School before moving to Seattle with his father and brother last year. His college commitment apparently hung on the fate of Porter Sr., a former Missouri women’s basketball assistant who spent last season on Lorenzo Romar’s staff at Washington. When Romar was fired and Porter Sr. was subsequently hired by Martin at Missouri, it paved the way for Junior to come to Columbia (where both of his sisters play for the Tigers’ women’s team, which his aunt coaches).
“Coming back to Missouri, it just felt like home automatically,” Porter said Wednesday. “That’s part of the reason I wanted to come back here. I’ve been around the program for so long. I know campus like the back of my hand. And my family’s all there.”
News of Porter’s signing reinvigorated a fan base that has been suffering through an unusually long drought. The Tigers have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2012, and have not won a tournament game since 2010.
Previous coach Kim Anderson went 27-68 from 2014-17 while struggling to overcome sanctions stemming primarily from previous coach Frank Haith’s tenure.
“I think there were some interesting circumstances, and those are circumstances that I’ve never discussed with anybody,” Anderson, a former Tigers star, said in April. “So, obviously, I won’t start discussing them today. But I thought we did a good job.”
Puryear is one of the holdovers from the Anderson era. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 11.8 points and 6 rebounds as a sophomore. Junior guards Terrence Phillips and Cullen VanLeer and senior forward Jordan Barnett are a few other notable returnees who should see plenty of minutes this season.
“I think there’s a lot of mismatch opportunities,” Puryear said. “Having JB and Michael on the wings [with Puryear at center], that’s crazy, because they both have 40-inch verticals.”
The spotlight will be directly on the Porter brothers this winter. Their presence singlehandedly turned Missouri from a projected SEC doormat to a credible Final Four threat, giving the struggling athletic department — not to mention the enrollment office — something to cheer about.
“It’s a huge deal,” Puryear said. “Anybody in Columbia knows that.”
Porter is not yet convinced.
“I still don’t think people think we’re gonna be good, and that’s fine,” he said. “That just means that we’re gonna surprise people. But we’re gonna be good … I have no doubts about that.”