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Tod Palmer: Missouri’s long-term rebuild hinges on more than Michael Porter Jr.

In this March 4, 2017, file photo, Nathan Hale forward Michael Porter Jr. dribbles downcourt against Garfield in the first half of the Washington state boys 3A high school basketball championship in Tacoma. Porter is widely regarded as the top high school senior in the country. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
In this March 4, 2017, file photo, Nathan Hale forward Michael Porter Jr. dribbles downcourt against Garfield in the first half of the Washington state boys 3A high school basketball championship in Tacoma. Porter is widely regarded as the top high school senior in the country. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Signing Michael Porter Jr. was a transcendent moment for Missouri men’s basketball.

The Tigers built the best recruiting class in program history around Porter, the nation’s top recruit, which reinvigorated a passionate fan base and drove improved season-ticket sales. But for new MU coach Cuonzo Martin, it’s imperative Mizzou carries the momentum to the court after a 27-68 record the past three seasons.

That makes the other incoming freshmen – Richland (Texas) Hills combo guard C.J. Roberts, Word of God Christian Academy (Chapel Hill, North Carolina) point guard Blake Harris, and East St. Louis (Illinois) center Jeremiah Tilmon – as important as Porter, and perhaps more important for the Tigers’ long-term health.

Porter is widely projected as a top 2018 NBA draft pick and might only stick around Columbia, Missouri, for one season. Whereas Roberts, Harris and Tilmon could form the backbone of Mizzou’s rebuilding effort for several years.

“I’m not rushing anything,” Harris said. “When I think I’m ready (to play professionally), I’ll be gone. But if it takes me four years, I’ll be there for four years.”

Roberts is taking a similar approach.

“It would be great to go one-and-done,” he said. “That’s every kid’s dream, but I just want to be ready for the next level and not rush into it.”

Martin isn’t unfamiliar with the one-and-done phenomenon, having coached Jaylen Brown at Cal, but Martin doesn’t view such players any different.

“The first thing we do is we don’t say, ‘OK, let’s go out and try to find a one-and-done guy,’ ” Martin said. “We go out and find the best players that fit what we’re trying to do. If a guy is a part of our program, whether he’s a walk-on status or the leading scorer on the team, they’re all the same to me.”

Tilmon, Harris and Roberts fill important needs for Mizzou along with Canisus graduate transfer Kassius Robertson (a 40 percent 3-point shooter with one year of eligibility remaining), but it’s the incoming freshman trio, who are expected to stick around beyond 2017-18 and who thus might hold the key for returning to prominence within the Southeastern Conference.

Tilmon is a potential two-way star after averaging 15.3 points with 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game for the East St. Louis Flyers last season and possesses the most upside of MU’s post players.

Sophomore Reed Nikko provides depth inside along with Mitchell Smith, who is recovering from a torn ACL and might fit better at forward with his slender frame. But Tilmon brings a rim-protecting presence the Tigers have lacked. Tilmon should provide more scoring punch than recent graduate Russell Woods, which would help balance the Tigers’ offense, and Tilmon could develop into dominant paint presence.

Mizzou’s situation at point guard, with returning starter Terrence Phillips and a capable backup in Jordan Geist, isn’t as desperate, but ball handlers are at a premium in the college game.

Phillips has improved dramatically as a scorer and 3-point shooter during his two seasons with the Tigers, but he’s more of a natural distributor. Geist is best deployed as a tenacious and energetic role player off the bench.

Harris and Roberts, who both averaged more than 20 points per game in high school, pack more scoring punch and can take over a game in more ways from the perimeter than Mizzou’s current guards.

With veterans on the roster, there’s no need to rush the development of Roberts and Harris, who could emerge as a formidable backcourt pairing as they gain experience.

If Mizzou fans really want to dream, it’s possible – though seemingly unlikely barring injury – Porter won’t be one-and-done.

“He’s talked about wanting to be one-and-done in the past, but, as he’s gotten older and matured some and has seen what he was able to do at Tolton (High School in Columbia) and the legacy that’s left there, that’s become really important to him,” said Michael Porter Sr., who is Porter Jr.’s father and was hired on Martin’s staff in March.

Porter Jr. also allows for the possibility, especially if younger brother Jontay Porter – one of the rising stars in the 2018 recruiting class – opts to stay in high school.

“I’m not sure what the factors would have to be (to play two years in college), but I would love to play with my brother,” Porter Jr. said at the McDonald’s All-American Game. “If he stays in high school, that would play a big part in it.”

Jontay – who is expected to announce in July if he’ll graduate early, reclassify and enroll at Mizzou next fall – is skeptical, but he’d welcome the chance to suit with Porter Jr. in black and gold.

“It’s really his choice,” Jontay said. “He says (he might stay two years) now, but, when the money’s at the front door calling his name, I don’t know if he could resist it, especially if he’s projected No. 1. We’ll see. It would be cool, but I wouldn’t hold onto that hope.”

For Porter Jr., though, his brother’s status isn’t the only factor.

“I hate losing, so if I went to a losing school or we lost most of our games, I’d probably come back a second year to try to win,” Porter Jr. said. “The money will be there, but I want to leave a legacy in college. I don’t know what I’ll do yet, but that’s some of the factors.”

Just by choosing Mizzou, Porter Jr.’s legacy in Columbia, which he considers his hometown, probably is safe, but the work to ensure it is only beginning.

“I feel pretty good about the guys, I feel good about how they look and what we think they can become, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” Martin said. “Before we get to playing games in November, we have to have a tremendous amount of chemistry and passion for each other. Those things have to work as well as implementing a system and style.”


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