Heading into his freshman season at the University of Missouri, Michael Porter Jr. was a consensus top-five pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, with some experts pegging him somewhere in the top three. But his college career was essentially cut short after a bulging disc in his back required a microdiscectomy procedure that limited him to just three games: One at the beginning of the season in which he played for two minutes, then losses in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
Despite his enormous talent and potential, it was inevitable that some teams would be wary of drafting him amid his health concerns. However, few expected him to fall all the way to No. 14 to the Denver Nuggets. A second surgery in July raised even more concerns, but Porter says he’s pain free and ready to start his NBA career on a talented young team that is a trendy pick to make some noise in the Western Conference.
We caught up with Porter, and the 20-year-old rookie told us about shooting his first commercial with Autotrader, what it felt like to be able to buy his mom a new car, his favorite books, and why he hasn’t modeled his game after any one specific NBA player.
DIME: To get us started, could you tell us a little bit about the Autotrader commercial you just finished shooting?
Michael Porter Jr.: Yeah, I’m not on the court yet, but I can still help contribute, help my teammates, work on my game at the same time, and you know me being a rookie, sometimes having to do rookie chores and stuff like that. So the commercial help put a spin on that, a funny spin on that.
Speaking of cars, I heard that you bought your mom a new car recently. What was that experience like for you?
Shout out to Autotrader, they kinda helped me with that process. They have a big variety of cars to choose from, and they always make the car buying process easier and more enjoyable. Accelerate is the new feature they have that helps you save time, so that when you go to the store it doesn’t take as much time, so that was cool for me. They kinda helped me with that process and getting a car for my mom, picking out the perfect car for her.
It was amazing to be able to bless her like that. It’s been a dream of mine to help buy my mom a car. Her last one was beat up. Our brother had crashed into the mailbox, and the windshield was cracked, so I wanted to buy a new one for her. So that was really cool for me.
Was it a total surprise or did she know it was coming?
She had no idea, bro. I didn’t want to tell my dad either, but I told him just so he could help me figure out how to give it to her.
Obviously, it’s been a big summer in your life, so how’s the move to Denver and that whole transition been for you so far? Have you had the chance to get familiar with the city and find good restaurants and hangout spots and things like that?
Yeah, I’ve had some time to explore a little bit around, I love everything about it so far. Denver is a really nice city, it’s perfect for me, so it’s kinda cool because you can find stuff to do, just relax and get around town easy, not much traffic. So it’s perfect for me, and I love it.
Were there any issues getting acclimated to the altitude?
No, no issues, but there’s definitely a difference, and you can feel it when you start conditioning. There’s definitely a difference you got to get used to, but after a few days, it’s pretty much good.
Back in August, after your second surgery, you said you were feeling “pain free” at the time, so where are you in your recovery now? What kind of work have you been putting in to get back to 100 percent?
Yeah, these guys have been real careful and patient with me, so every day we do a little more, but it’s not like we’re trying to go zero to 100. But I’m definitely improving every day and it’s been a process. Every week, we’re doing more — more stuff in the weight room, more stuff on the basketball court, and we’re getting really good at balancing all that as well.
I know that the goal has obviously been to be ready for the start of the season, so are you still on the track with that or has the timetable kind of shifted a little bit?
No, right now it’s actually no timetable, so that’s where I’m at right now. It’s day-to-day.
Going into your freshmen year of college, you were widely considered one of the top three picks in the draft, and some teams still had you pretty high on the board this summer. That photo of the Kings draft board that came out earlier this week, for instance, had you fourth on their list. Obviously, with the injury and the surgeries, that made some teams a little wary. Does that give you extra motivation as you’re going through the recovery process?
No, my only motivation is … I’m self motivated, so I’m not really motivated by other teams if they didn’t pick me or anything. It’s really just I haven’t played basketball for a while. I’m feeling great, I’m feeling like myself on the court, so my motivation is just trying to get back to the sport I love. That’s where my motivation comes from.
You’re joining, obviously, a very talented, young team there in Denver. They were right on the cusp last season, just narrowly missing the playoffs, so what do you see as the expectations for this team going into the new season?
Well, I mean, we obviously missed the playoffs the last two years by a slight margin, so we definitely want to make the playoffs. For us, it’s more than that. We don’t want to just play and dream small, so for me, what I hope and what I dream of, like what I want, is to win a championship, and that’ll be every year I play in the NBA. That’s always gonna be my goal, to win a championship, then I’d have that achievement — that I’m playing hard, no matter what other people think.
So that’s kinda what I like and that’s kinda what I tell some of the guys. I know I’m a rookie, but I still can say, “Bro, don’t even think about coming in here and not trying to win the whole thing.” Because then if you make the playoffs, that’s cool, but if you get swept in playoffs, what’s the point? The main goal is to win a championship, so that’s kinda what I envision.
As a player, you very much fit the mold of the modern big man in the NBA, someone who is versatile, can put the ball on the floor, shoot from the outside, etc. How do you see yourself fitting into the equation with this team or just in the league in general, with where you are as a player with your skill set?
With the team I feel like I fit in perfectly, just because one day I’m the machine who loves to be able to score the ball, which is great for me. That’s exactly what I love to do. I feel like I really bring this game to another level, being able to play the four or five, whatever position we really need, but the reason kinda why we’re laughing right now is we have centers, but we don’t really have guys who that’s their natural position. So for me, it will be cool to get some game time at different positions.
Is there a particular player who you watched a lot growing up or modeled your game after?
I don’t think I’ve had any players, but I’m not really trying to be like any player in the NBA. I kinda want to be my own player. But I love taking bits and pieces from a lot of different players in the league.
For fans who don’t know you yet, do you have any quirky hobbies or interests that we maybe wouldn’t expect from you, something that might surprise us or help us to get to know you a little bit better?
I mean it’s not really quirky, but a lot of people don’t think that a guy that looks like me would like to read, but I like to read a lot. When I was doing school, I tried to pay attention in school as best as I could, so stuff like that interests me. I love to learn.
Any reading recommendations?
Yeah, I read a really good one called The Alchemist, a book I recommend for everybody. It kinda helped me. It was kinda cool for me. And then another book I recommend for everybody is the Bible. I read that every day. That’s my favorite book.
Making it to the NBA is a dream come true for any player. What are you most looking forward to in your rookie season?
For my rookie season, I’m mostly looking forward to just learning. Growing and learning how to look at the game and learning how to play the game at a different level. It’s different than college. The rules are different. Just learning how to be a pro.
You’ve had the chance to be around the team a little bit now, so is there anything during this process that’s been surprising or something that you didn’t expect up to this point as you’re making this transition?
No, not really. It’s been kind of what I expected. It’s been very exciting, but it’s amazing. One thing I didn’t know is that you got so much free time, so that was kind of a surprise for me. We get our work done in the morning and have the rest of the day to do as we want. A lot of guys come back at night, but you’re not really required to. You don’t really have school or anything. You have a lot of free time on your hands. It’s a different world with that.
When you need to get hyped for a workout or a game, what’s your go-to music?
Lecrae and Andy Mineo. They are Christian rappers. Those are my guys. I love listening to them. So those are my two favorite artists during workouts.