Kevin Porter Jr. has a funny phrase to describe the sensation he’s been missing during the last six weeks as he sat out 10 games with a nagging thigh bruise.
“My wiggle,” Porter said.
His ... wiggle?
“Just my, you know, my feeling, how smooth I am,” Porter explained. “The feeling of the game and being out there.”
Porter’s feel can’t come back quickly enough for USC. The Trojans endured a brutal four-game losing streak in December without their freshman wing who maintained his status as a consensus projected lottery pick in the June NBA draft throughout his hiatus. USC has responded with a four-game winning streak, including a 2-0 start in Pac-12 play last weekend, and now, just as the Trojans are beginning to roll, they got Porter back at practice this week leading into their first conference road trip.
After just two practices, USC coach Andy Enfield has seen enough of a positive response from Porter that he expects him to play Thursday night at Oregon State. Even Porter was surprised at how quickly he found his wiggle.
“I wasn’t expecting to be as fluid as I was, sitting out as long as I did,” Porter said. “Just being out there, you know, I’m a hooper. I’ve been hooping all my life. But as fast as it came, it was unexpected, for sure.”
In USC’s first five games, Porter was a consistent contributor, scoring in double digits each game and averaging 14 points. But the 6-foot-6 guard from Seattle, known for his freakish athleticism and jumping ability more than the polish of his full offensive repertoire, never fully showed what he could do before taking a knee to the thigh against Missouri State on Nov. 22.
The thigh bruise lingered longer than anybody would have thought. USC tried to play him against Nevada on Dec. 1, but he went just four minutes because it was clear he was not himself. From there, the Trojans and their medical team asked patience of Porter. It was taking so long that some observers began to speculate that Porter may have been advised to sit the rest of the season to ensure his health for the NBA.
Those people, of course, did not know Porter’s makeup.
“In my career I’ve never been out for this long,” Porter said, “so I’ve never had this feeling. I’m super eager to get out there tomorrow.”
Enfield said he would be cautious with Porter’s minutes Thursday, aiming to keep him from playing long stretches as he works to get back in game shape on the fly. The Trojans also don’t want to aggravate Porter’s injury.
Given the trajectory of USC’s season, sitting at 9-6 with no quality wins on their NCAA tournament resume, its best chance for a special finish is building a team over the next two months that can win the Pac-12 tournament and advance to the tournament that way. Risking Porter’s long-term health for wins over Oregon State or Oregon this weekend doesn’t make a lot of sense, as satisfying as it would be to keep the winning streak going.
But, “hopefully this week he’ll get back out there and act like nothing happened,” Enfield said.
Porter and his teammates believe that, at full strength, which they haven’t been all season, they can emerge as the best team in the Pac-12. USC guard Jonah Mathews wants Porter to take his time and not try to make up for six weeks in six minutes Thursday night.
“Usually people want to get right back into the flow and get going early,” Mathews said. “He needs to let it come to him and just play the game, and it will come, because he can score and he’s a talented player.”
Enfield said he didn’t have any worries about Porter trying to do too much.
“He’s a smart basketball player,” Enfield said. “He understands. We expect him to come in and play as hard as he can and play within the team concept and hopefully help us win.”
When asked about taking it slow, Porter didn’t put much stock in the idea of having to change the mentality that got him here.
“I always go out and play how I usually play,” Porter said, “and if there’s limitations and restrictions with how I’m playing, then I probably won’t play. I just feel like that’s not helping my team if I can’t play to my full potential.”
AT OREGON STATE
When: Thursday, 8
Where: Gill Coliseum
On the air: TV: ESPNU; Radio: 710.