For Michael Porter Jr., the spring of 2017 held infinite promise. In 2023, he became an NBA champion with the Denver Nuggets, but the road from here to there has been anything but smooth.

Back then, the son of then-University of Washington assistant coach Michael Porter Sr., the 18-year-old Porter Jr. had just won the Washington state 3A basketball title at Nathan Hale High School under the tutelage of head coach – and former NBA star – Brandon Roy. He went on to become the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game shortly thereafter. Porter Jr., who had committed to Washington the year prior, de-committed after father was fired as part of head coach Lorenzo Romar’s staff.

Now, as the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Porter Jr. had the option to go wherever he wanted, but followed his family once again, committing to the University of Missouri – where his father had been hired as an assistant to head coach Cuonzo Martin – along with brother Jontay. Two of his sisters, Bri and Cierra, played for the women’s basketball team, making Missouri the Porter family’s new home base.

Everything appeared to be lined up for Porter Jr., right up until the 2017-18 season opener against Iowa State. Unfortunately, he suffered a lower-back injury that required microdiscectomy surgery and forced him to miss the entire season. While there was hope (more on the part of NBA scouts than the university itself) that he could return for the tail end of the regular season, Porter Jr. did return to the court for Missouri’s quarterfinal tournament game in the SEC tournament as well as the Tigers’ first-round loss in the NCAA’s championship tournament that March. In both games, he came off the bench, and afterward, he declared for the NBA draft, forgoing his final three seasons of college eligibility.

The decision was somewhat surprising, given the severity of his injury, but Porter Jr. – as befitting the country’s one-time top prospect – was always expected to be a one-and-done player. Prior to the injury, mock drafts rarely had Porter Jr. outside of the top three picks in a draft that included eventual No. 1 selection DeAndre Ayton of Arizona, Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic and sweet-shooting Oklahoma guard Trae Young.

On Young’s “From the Point” podcast this week, the now-Atlanta Hawk sat down with the now-Denver Nugget, where the two longtime friends discussed the challenges of proving that he was healthy enough to play NBA basketball during the pre-draft process… and when it turned out that he’s wasn’t.

“I came back [to play in the tournaments with Missouri] too soon, and my back wasn’t fully healed, so I kind of re-injured it,” Porter Jr. told Young. That decision would have further consequences.

“My whole draft process was depressing, because I was wanting to work out, but I wasn’t right yet,” Porter Jr. told Young. The pair recalled a practice in Austin, in which Porter Jr. further injured his repaired back. “I tried to boom on this dude, and I fell from way up here,” Porter Jr. said of an ill-fated dunk attempt. “I thought I died [when] I fell on my back.”

After a “depressing” period following that fall, Porter Jr. took advantage of his next opportunity to prove himself. “Me and my agent decide to have one pro day; we were going to invite all the teams in to watch me,” he explained. It worked out pretty well; I didn’t miss too many shots. Teams were pretty impressed, because they hadn’t seen me for a while.” It appeared as if Porter Jr’s draft stock was back on the rise. “The Sacramento Kings, at number two, were [telling me], ‘we really like you. We might take you at number two.'”

That might have been enough, but Porter Jr. and his agent hoped for more. “My agent hit me up and was like, ‘we’re going to do one more pro day in front of the top ten teams, because there’s a chance you might go number one,” he told Young. “They all thought you looked healthy, and that was the biggest question mark.”

It seemed as if fate had been tempted. “The day before that second pro day, my back spasmed up; [so] bad that I couldn’t get out of bed. I’m scared, because this is my whole future ahead of me,” he recalled. “We decided to let all the team doctors look at me. So, instead of the pro day, I go to the gym. I’m laying on a table, and all these doctors are just analyzing me – and I know I’m not right.”

According to Porter Jr., one of those doctors had seen enough, and it had major implications for Porter Jr’s future.

“I don’t really hold a grudge, but I know who it was… the [Los Angeles] Clippers’ doctor is the one that wrote up the report, and it said, ‘he’ll probably never play again.'”

Porter Jr’s. stock plummeted after that, and he went from a top-three option to the biggest question mark in the draft. Then-Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly and his staff pounced. “I think the Nuggets were like, ‘man, his upside is pretty high, even if we’ve got to deal with the injury. Let’s try to at least figure it out.'” Denver selected Porter Jr. with the 14th-overall selection in that 2018 draft, but Porter Jr. didn’t necessarily know it was coming. “We go to New York for the draft, and I see name after name go by; dudes that I think I’m better than.”

It wasn’t where or when Porter Jr. hoped to go, but today, he thinks it was where he was meant to be.

“It was tough to go 14,” he told Young. “It was a hit to my ego; a hit to my pride… but I didn’t really know if I was going to hoop again.”

The Nuggets believed. After announcing a second surgery only weeks after the draft, the team decided that Porter Jr. would sit out the entire 2018-19 season. “[The Nuggets] got me right; we took the year off, and I started playing my second year, and it’s been a journey since then.”

In his second full season, and first as a starter, Porter Jr. dazzled throughout the 2020-21 campaign, putting up stunning shooting numbers before missing all but nine games in the 2021-22 campaign. Last season, Porter Jr. played – and started – in 62 regular-season games and showed both maturity and poise during the Nuggets’ already-legendary playoff journey to their first NBA Finals, and their first NBA championship.

Porter Jr’s picked up where he left off. Despite his winding journey, he’s still only 25 years old, and now, he’s playing the most well-rounded basketball of his entire career.

“Especially after the championship; those are the times you reflect, and you’re like, ‘man, God’s fingerprints were somewhere in this story.'”