While fans wait for Porter Jr., Jontay emerges at Mizzou

February 13, 2018 GMT

COLUMBIA, MO. • Michael Porter Jr. stood at midcourt and watched his Missouri teammates cruise through pregame shooting drills at Alabama on Jan. 31. Still nursing his surgically repaired lower back, Porter made eye contact with his younger brother, nodded his head and circled his index fingers around each other, the unofficial hand gesture for, “Pick up the pace, little brother!”

Mizzou’s healthy Porter had stalled in recent weeks, suffering through the worst three-game stretch of his otherwise promising freshman season. In losses to Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State, the just-turned-18 Jontay scored only 11 points, barely shot 25 percent from the floor, became a stranger to the free throw line and blocked just one shot. The rookie looked overwhelmed by opponents both bigger (A&M) and smaller (Auburn.)

With Michael sidelined indefinitely, Mizzou couldn’t afford empty boxscores from multiple Porters.

“My mentality going into games, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be the main scorer or a role player or be ‘the man,’” Jontay said a couple of hours later. “But I just told myself no matter how often you touch the ball just be aggressive. That doesn’t mean shoot the ball every time but be aggressive. I was lacking that the last five or six games.”

Not at Alabama — and not since.

Heading into Tuesday’s critical matchup with No. 21 Texas A&M, Mizzou’s resurgence can be directly tied to Porter’s awakening. The Tigers (17-8, 7-5 SEC) have won four straight games — tied with the Aggies (17-8, 6-6) for the SEC’s longest active winning streak — just as Porter has rediscovered his scoring touch. Since moving to the bench against Alabama, the 6-11 freshman has averaged 13.5 points the last four games while shooting 52.9 percent, including 50 percent (six of 12) from 3-point range. He’s reacquainted himself with the foul line (12 of 17) and blocked nine shots.

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Porter has played well enough that he’s no longer the only member of his family mentioned as a possible first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft. Sports Illustrated’s latest projection has the Memphis Grizzlies selecting Michael with the fifth overall choice and the San Antonio Spurs taking Jontay 21 picks later. The Tigers have produced multiple first-round picks in the same draft just once, in 1983, when Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sundvold were chosen at No. 2 and 16.

Whether both brothers will be one-and-done college players will be decided in the coming months, but while Mizzou fans wait for Michael’s next evaluation from his spinal surgeon — he’s hoping to get clearance to practice later this week — Jontay continues to emerge as one of the SEC’s most productive young players. He had his most complete game last Tuesday at Oxford, giving the Tigers 18 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots in just 23 minutes.

Perhaps most impressive, in the game’s final minutes Porter made two crucial blocks while playing with four fouls. Three months into his first college season, Porter has stopped worrying about the soundtrack of whistles that hasn’t stopped screeching in his shadow. He’s picked up at least four fouls in 11 games.

“Man, I don’t know at this point what I can do, what I can’t do, will it be a foul or won’t it be,” he said after the win. “Just being aggressive is when I’m at my best and help my team the most.”

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His older brother is the least surprised Jontay fan.

“I knew he was capable of this from the jump,” Michael said last week. “I played with him my whole life.”

Michael said he’s urged Jontay to “stay aggressive.”

“If we’re going to be as good as we can be, you have to be a big part of this team,” Michael recalled telling him. “He’s really starting to understand this and understand what he can do.”

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In Saturday’s overtime win over Mississippi State, the Tigers began to pull away six minutes into the second half on Jontay’s 3-pointer from the top of the key. He eventually fouled out and was credited for two turnovers on inbounds plays during MU’s collapse at the end of regulation, though Martin was more upset at his guards for not meeting those passes with more vigor. Still, Porter finished with 10 points as the Tigers improved to 12-0 in games he’s reached double figure points.

“They do some really smart things to take advantage of his skill level,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “He’s really coming on. He’s a great player.”