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VOL. 133 | NO. 100 | Friday, May 18, 2018

Drafting at No. 4, the Grizzlies will look at Michael Porter Jr. with reservations about his health

By Don Wade

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If the Grizzlies had landed in the top three of the NBA Draft Lottery, it’s pretty clear they would have been choosing from among DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic and Marvin Bagley. But even with the second-worst record last season, the Grizzlies fell to No. 4. And that could change the conversation in a major way.

Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, those three players are off the board when the Grizzlies pick and that they have decided not to trade back in the draft.

If that’s the case, here’s the first thing you need to know, courtesy of spine-health.com: “A microdisectomy procedure uses minimally invasive techniques to provide relief from pain caused by a lumbar herniated disc.”

We bring this up because this is the type of back surgery that Michael Porter Jr. had. His freshman season at Missouri just started when he injured his back and he had a microdisectomy. He came back for the SEC Tournament, but wasn’t exactly himself and unable to show his tremendous upside (hey, if we’re going to write about the draft, let’s use the lingo).

Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. brings the ball down the court during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Georgia at the 2018 Southeastern Conference tournament in St. Louis.  (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Before his freshman season, Porter was considered the potential No. 1 pick in this draft. Yes, that’s how talented Porter might be

“When I look at him play, I see myself,” Tracy McGrady told ESPN.

But back surgery is a flashing neon warning sign. Maybe not as serious as a running back having reconstructive knee surgery, but more severe than your car’s “check engine” light.

Case in point: Tiger Woods has had four back surgeries and the first two were microdisectomy procedures.

So the Grizzlies, at No. 4, stand at an especially muddied crossroads. Porter’s potential as a long, athletic 6-10 forward makes him more than a little tempting.

Even before the draft lottery was 24 hours old many NBA analysts were suggesting that if Porter were to go in the top five, Memphis was the best fit because he could play alongside Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.

It’s not a wrong idea. Jay Bilas of ESPN also finds Porter intriguing, saying, “If the doctors say (there) are no red flags on his medical, he’s a top-3 talent that could wind up going 8, 9, 10.”

But the fact is right now Porter does carry heightened medical risk and the only thing as bad as the Grizzlies’ draft history is their track record with medical issues (see Parsons, Chandler and that four-year $94 million contract).

And Porter’s college sample size is all of three games (53 minutes) in which he averaged 10 points, 6.7 rebounds and made 3-of-10 attempts from 3-point range. That’s about as unreliable as data gets.

In speaking about the draft, general manager Chris Wallace has said any franchise has to learn from the past, inspect its mistakes and discover how to avoid repeating them. The same, it should be said, is true when vetting injuries and projecting future player health.

In this instance, it’s possible the player with the most raw talent could be Porter (not certain, but possible) and he could be there at No. 4. But for that pick to be the right one, the Grizzlies have to be sure he’s a superior talent to Oklahoma guard Trae Young, Duke big man Wendell Carter and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., who in some mock drafts is going as high as No. 3 to Atlanta.

Texas big man Mo Bamba is a popular pick to go to Dallas at No. 5, but seemingly is the one guy Memphis would shun because of stylistic similarities to draft bust Hasheem Thabeet, whom the Grizzlies took No. 2 overall in 2009 when James Harden and Stephen Curry were still on the board.

So what the Grizzlies do at No. 4 could come down to how they answer the following questions:

Do they believe Porter is the best player available?

If the answer is yes, do the medical experts give him a clean a bill of health?

If the medical staff does give the all-clear, do the Grizzlies trust that judgment enough to pull the trigger?

And then how much fear would Wallace & Co. have in not picking Porter if they believe he was the best talent available and he was cleared medically? In other words, would they take him more out of the fear that he could become a superstar elsewhere than out of a certainty that he would become a star here?

It’s a tough spot. The Grizzlies haven’t had a draft pick this high since taking Mike Conley at No. 4 in 2007. That worked out pretty well, even though Conley now has persistent injury issues.

Truth is, the NBA draft in any year that doesn’t have a LeBron James-level talent is a mix of art, science, and guesswork. For but one example, consider the 1998 NBA draft.

Future NBA Hall-of-Famer Vince Carter didn’t go until fourth overall, overlooked by the then-Vancouver Grizzlies, among others, when they took guard Mike Bibby at No. 2.

Future Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki lasted until No. 9 overall, teams perhaps scared off by the Euro-factor much the way some fans here shudder at the prospect of drafting Luca Doncic.

The No. 1 overall pick in 1998? The immortal Michael Olowokandi out of the University of Pacific by the Los Angeles Clippers.

So no, this isn’t an easy process.

Hasheem Thabeet gave the Grizzlies’ front office one reputation.

Their pick this year will either cement it or prove it’s never too late for a comeback and to start building a brighter future.

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