Monday, January 3, 2011
By Dave Telep ESPN Recruiting
If we're lucky, just about this exact time every season a player raises his game and begins an unlikely ascension. Those who follow recruiting with diligence recall Russell Westbrook's dramatic climb through the ranks in Los Angeles high school hoops. Windy City observers can draw on Patrick Beverly's senior season in Chicago as his tipping point into the world of high major basketball.
Both of those guys hail from major cities. Small forward Otto Porter (Sikeston, Mo./Scott County Central) doesn't. His hometown has a population of 17,059 and is tucked away off the beaten path. Despite his location and lack of media attention, Porter's father, Otto Sr., held true to a belief that word would eventually surface about his son.
"If you're a ballplayer and you're good enough, they're going to find you," Porter Sr. said. "Now, with my son, little by little they've found out about him."
Some scouts saw him last year and passed the word on. Most figured they'd catch up with him in the summer and guys like myself wanted to see exactly what a forward who pulled down 35 rebounds in a state championship (he broke his father's state title game record) game looked like. Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy.
Otto Porter is pretty much guaranteed to be part of the latest ESPNU 100.
To understand Porter Jr., you have to fully grasp a few intrinsic aspects of his upbringing and genealogy. Basketball in the Porter family is serious business. At Scott County Central, the division may be low -- Missouri's I-A classification -- but the results are big time. The school owns 13 state titles and Porter Sr. was part of the first one and Porter Jr. hoisted the trophy as a sophomore and junior. Even mom, Eleanor, was part of a title on the girls' side. The same high school coach that stalked the sideline for dad coached Otto his first two years at Scott County Central.
Porter Sr. also took a circuitous route to college basketball. First, there was Three Rivers Junior College and then a small Catholic school in Kansas, which didn't work for him. Finally, Otto Sr. settled in at Southeast Missouri State. Despite a playing career which included one season for a program that was on probation, he led the nation in scoring and managed to become the program's all-time leading scorer. Porter Sr., 52, says he still plays basketball with his son and you sense the games get competitive.
Spend time speaking with the Porters and you feel a blue-collar aspect of their family. There isn't your typical thirst for attention that comes with the recruitment of a big-time player. In fact, it's just the opposite with Porter. There's a small town innocence surrounding him, yet his father knows all about the game and its pitfalls. He also knows home is where his son's personality, character and game were forged. He's a big prospect with small town values.
"He's almost too much of a home body. He seems to think he's going to do fine but [college will be] a learning experience for him. Here, we all may go to the [movies] together. We're in a small community. There's not a lot for a teenager to do."
Instead of broadening his horizons on the national AAU circuit, Porter worked a summer job, advanced his individual game under dad's watchful eye and played in select events with his high school team. Every AAU coach that reached out received the same answer: No thanks. Porter camped at Saint Louis and Missouri.
Dad's vision for his son's summer was to continue the theme of playing hard and learning the values of carrying a team. All of Porter Jr.'s young life he's been the man, delivering in the win column, and he probably is ready to continue the same kind of path in college. Porter Sr. saw no need to taint his son's development and like Marcus Taylor (Michigan State) once did, the 6-foot-8 small forward skipped the circuit.
"I played college ball and my take on the AAU ball is that they put a bunch of gifted ballplayers together and you shuffle them in and out," Otto Sr. said. "It depends on who you're playing with how you do. The other thing is you throw these kids out there and coach them and some of them shine and some don't. Some pick up bad habits. I didn't want my son exposed to that kind of game. He's down to earth, he's unselfish and I didn't want him exposed to that. Of course, they want you to travel all over the place. We're family oriented and of course, I played, so I have a good feel for what's important for him."
Tigers pounce first
Coach Mike Anderson and the Missouri Tigers were the first to offer Otto Porter.
While Porter Jr. dominated with his high school team, and despite hauling in rebounds at an incredible rate, very few programs noticed and according to him no one actually offered him a scholarship last summer.
"That's not entirely true," Porter Sr. countered. "We went to a couple of shootouts, small shootouts. One happened to be in St. Louis and the coaches saw him play and [Missouri] did offer him a scholarship. If a person sees him play, they know right off he's got what it takes."
Porter attended Missouri's elite camp in June and despite an initial miscommunication was offered a full ride by Tigers coach Mike Anderson.
After working out all summer, not playing AAU ball and being seen by only a smattering of colleges, Porter Jr. had a grand total of zero home visits scheduled for the fall. Seriously. Nobody did a home visit with him and it wasn't until November that he went on his first official visit. The Missouri Tigers hosted him and it's been his lone trip.
Back in his day, Missouri expressed a degree of interest in Porter Sr., but that was it. Now the Tigers are in the driver's seat for his son.
"Missouri leads. Right now, it's where I can fit in with the program and they play how I play," said Porter Jr.
Porter Jr. is certainly familiar with the Tigers' surroundings. He's won state championships in their building and likely will return in March with the vision of capturing his third state title in Columbia. The Tigers are the in-state school with the pop and power to land him, but they aren't the program closest to his home. Columbia is four hours from Sikeston, while Memphis coach Josh Pastner can complete the drive in under two hours. Porter said he'd like to visit Georgetown and Memphis.
For a guy who hasn't strayed far from the nest, the Hoyas must seem like a world away.
"Georgetown is a big school and I have a high interest in them academic wise," Porter Jr. said. "Memphis, it's the same with academics and they have a real good school."
Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Wake Forest, Missouri State, Purdue, Xavier and most recently UCLA are also options for him.
Missouri did the most to try to get Porter Jr. to sign early. The fact that he had just one official visit and it didn't occur until November leads us to believe multiple programs weren't necessarily all in for him early.
The real deal
Otto Porter never played AAU ball.
Situations like Porter Jr.'s can be difficult to wrap your mind around, but they happen. Oftentimes coaches don't trust their evaluations and get in the "he's good but who else offered him" mode, which can lead to missing out on good players. ESPN Recruiting's Reggie Rankin saw Porter Jr. in December and is ready to sign off on him as a high-major prospect with Top 50 potential.
"What sets him apart is his length and his skill," Rankin said. "The midrange stuff he was doing at 6-8 is what makes him special. He has the ability to score inside the arc off the dribble or off the catch.
"People talk all the time about the middle game being a lost art and I think that is definitely what makes him special. To see a guy that good perform that well, and we didn't have a lot on him -- that's mind-boggling."
Porter Jr. and his family agreed he would make a decision following his senior season. As the months wind down in his high school career and his plan for picking a school unfolds, more recruiters are destined to realize his value. If they don't, it won't be a big deal to Porter Jr. or his parents. They've come this far without fanfare.
"I've told him you can't get caught up in what people think about you," Porter Sr. said. "When you're on the floor, play the game. I always preach to him that you'll get out of it what you get in it."
It's an old school philosophy that is about to pay dividends for the country's most significant high-major sleeper.
Dave Telep is the senior basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. His college basketball scouting service is used by more than 225 colleges and numerous NBA teams. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter.