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Freshman Phenoms Have Universities Counting Their Basketball Blessings, Bounties

MU Athletics
Michael Porter Jr. watches a game this season from the bench after needing back surgery in November.

Mizzou’s Michael Porter Jr. is the type of player coaches build a team around, and many wanted to. Even Kansas.

“The things that people say about him being a potential top-3 pick or the No. 1 pick, totally accurate,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said last fall about Porter likely landing in the NBA. “I’d be shocked if he’s not. I think he’s every bit as good as advertised.”

Porter’s debut came in November in Kansas City, when Missouri and Kansas squared off in a charity basketball game, giving everyone a look at how Tigers’ first-year coach Cuonzo Martin would blend Porter with the rest of the team.

Sports psychologist Dr. Andrew Jacobs said it’s not an easy task. 

“One of the big issues I work on with players on is respect. A lot of guys who are the dynamic team-leader types of guys don’t understand, quite frankly, what the guys who are reserve players mindsets are because they’ve never been in that role before,” he said.

While Porter’s only basket this season took place on Nov. 10 in the season-opening win over Iowa State due to a back injury, the Columbia, Missouri, native’s arrival made an impact at the university. Senior Associate Athletic Director Jay Luksis said tickets to home games were on the verge of selling out when Martin was hired, but Porter’s commitment to Mizzou —bringing his brother Jontay along, too —put them over the top.

“People are calling. We need to do something. Right?” Luksis recalled. “We can’t miss the opportunity that we were given.”

Credit Ty Russell / University of Oklahoma
University of Oklahoma
Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young (left) plays against Kansas on Jan. 23. He has a chance to become the first player in men's college basketball to lead the nation in scoring and assists in the same season.

Star players like Porter and Oklahoma freshman Trae Young bring in the money. Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione is as frank as Luksis: “Let’s not be naïve. We have business elements to what we do. It’s obvious.”

Those business considerations have come into question, with the FBI looking into whether schools are illegally paying big-time recruits and players. Mizzou and Oklahoma haven’t been publicly tied to the investigation, but it’s in the early stages.

Credit MU Athletics
Michael Porter Jr. (center) says he's taking notes as he watches the Mizzou men's basketball team from the bench.

Meanwhile, Porter, who has been sidelined after back surgery, will soon find out if he’ll be medically cleared to play again this season. He said he’s figuring out how he can mix in with a team that’s moved on without him.

“I’m sitting on the bench watching our team do amazing things,” he said. “But for me, I’m taking mental notes. Looking at the plays that we run, looking at how we play on defense, looking at how hard we play.”

Oklahoma’s Young has been healthy, and despite a losing streak and some not-so-great games, the freshman could make history by becoming the first player to lead the nation in scoring and assists in the same season.

Sooners coach Lon Kruger knows he has an impact player — one who understands the team dynamic.

“He’s a guy who could go off individually and hasn’t done that,” Kruger said. “He’s smart with regard to the value of doing things as a group. He knows he needs his teammates to play well.”

Credit Ty Russell / University of Oklahoma
University of Oklahoma
Oklahoma coach Lon Krueger says Trae Young (right) "knows he needs his teammates to play well."

Jacobs believes impact players like Young and Porter need something besides physical talent to get through losing streaks and injuries.

“I think the ones that succeed and last the longest are grounded people,” Jacobs said. “They may be physically talented. I always like to say you can have two athletes that are physically the same, but the one with the stronger mind will be the one to come out on top.”

Mizzou is in contention for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2013, and Porter said he wants to play if he can. It’ll be up to Martin to figure out how to work him in at a time when there’s a lot at stake and little margin for error.

Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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