Michael Porter Jr. spent his Monday night working out in what was basically a shed.
The location was D-Line Sports Center, a gym where the Denver Nuggets forward trains whenever he returns to Columbia. Separating the court and the entrance was half of a hallway. Insulation could be seen on the ceiling. It wasn’t much, but it was what he knew.
Just before he shot around with his trainer, a group of kids occupied the floor. They slid their feet across the hardwood, doing defense drills as he watched nearby. They were local kids, prospects for his soon-to-be team.
As Porter watched them, the former Missouri standout saw what he never had: a chance to play amateur hoops at home. With his help, those young players can get the exposure and experience they want without ever having to look outside of Columbia.
Porter announced Tuesday that he'll be partnering with Puma — the brand that has sponsored him since the Nuggets drafted him — to create his own AAU team, MPJ Elite, based in Columbia. The idea brewed in Porter’s head long before he inked his NBA contract.
“It’s always been my goal,” Porter said. “Once I made it to the league, I wanted to give back to my community, give back to the kids that grew up in the same area. … I just feel like we’re really gonna give these kids the opportunity to really excel and get the exposure they need. It’s a lot of talent around here. And sometimes these kids that don’t get the exposure or whatever, they go to other things.”
Porter knows it all too well. When he moved to Columbia at a young age, he quickly realized the basketball presence in mid-Missouri was vastly smaller than he was used to in Indiana. He recalled all the kids around him having gyms to go to and teams to play with in Indiana. Meanwhile, high school basketball wasn’t as prominent in Columbia. AAU was the place where Porter carved his own path.
But while Porter was at Tolton Catholic, there was no program near Columbia. The two closest Nike Elite Youth Basketball League teams were two hours away in different directions. His family drove from Columbia to Overland Park, Kansas, in order for Porter to suit up for MoKan Elite and play against the nation’s best prospects in the Nike EYBL circuit.
“Man, that travel,” Michael Porter Sr., Porter Jr.’s father, said. “Traveling to Kansas City and St. Louis to go play with high-end teams there, it’s not easy because it’s really expensive. The gas, the hotels and the food. Man, we just think there’s enough kids that want to play in Columbia.”
Columbia only has four high school basketball teams but is home to a talented pool of players that includes Porter Jr.’s younger brothers, Jevon and Izaak, both of whom play at Tolton.
Porter Jr.’s program already has begun recruiting players for its 15, 16 and 17-and-under teams. Porter Jr. said that he wants to be a resource for the kids and tells his dad that any young player with a desire to gain exposure in the area can get in contact with him personally.
MPJ Elite’s 16U coach, Chantel “Pep” Stanciel, spent the past several years recruiting and working with players for former NBA player and Missouri alum DeMarre Carroll’s AAU team.
Stanciel has worked with some of the best players the state has seen in recent memory. He plans on letting his résumé do the talking when recruiting players with other major programs around.
“We’ve been able to help kids and provide resources for these kids,” Stanciel said. “But also we have seen a lot of talent from other places. You look at Isiaih Mosley, Dajuan Harris, Michael Porter himself, OG Anunoby, Jontay Porter, Jimmy Whitt. These are all high-level kids that were going to other places. … These are kids that would have to go to Kansas City and St. Louis to play sponsored basketball in the circuit. They don’t have to do that anymore.”
Porter Jr.’s time with MoKan Elite fueled his dream. Now in the NBA, he’s admired other players from afar for their ventures into the grassroots circuits, yearning to be the figure those players are for their teams.
“I think (Bradley) Beal, he’s around his program,” Porter Jr. said. “I remember (Kevin Durant) sponsored our MoKan team when me and Trae (Young) played, and, you know, he’d be around at times. So I just saw what those dudes did, and I just want to take it a step further and make sure these kids are taken care of. Whatever they need.”
The NBA sophomore and his camp know what they’re up against. MoKan Elite and Brad Beal Elite — based out of St. Louis — are AAU juggernauts not just in the state but in what is likely the most competitive AAU circuit in the country. Four- and five-star recruits pour into those programs as coaches from all over attend their tournaments.
Porter Jr. just wants to see his program grow slowly but surely. It will be tough competing against all that Nike can provide, from competition to recruiting. But Stanciel has waived off the big programs. He’s looking to win, regardless of who his team plays.
“At the end of the day, the Nike sign, it’s a check, it’s a logo,” Stanciel said. “At the end of the day, we all gotta make it up and get it done. … We definitely coming. To make a name, represent Michael Porter Jr. and Puma well and play the game the right way. The end goal is definitely always to win.”