OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s a preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks, and Mitch McGary catches a pass from Russell Westbrook in the pocket on a half-roll. With strongside help coming, he takes one hard dribble ahead, barreling his way toward the rim. Two defenders collapse, McGary picks his head up, taking a snapshot of where they came from, leaves his feet and whips a Ginobili-ish left-handed sidearm pass to Kyle Singler, who is alone in the right corner and buries the 3.
After selecting McGary with the 21st overall pick in the 2014 draft, some saw it as redundant — adding a young big man to an already deep front line. There were other apparent needs, particularly in the backcourt and on the wing, but the Thunder had their eyes on McGary from the beginning. They scouted him intensely, even as far as charting how he interacted with his teammates from the bench as he sat out nearly all of his sophomore season with a back issue.
The Thunder didn’t draft him merely to check a box. The front office saw McGary as a future impact player, possibly even a starter.
And in the play in which McGary set up Singler for that 3-pointer, you can see why. The Thunder have never really had a playmaking big unless you count Kevin Durant: one who can handle, pass, create and score. That’s also because they’ve never really asked any big to do that. But in today’s NBA, with so many teams finding more offensive diversity by working offense through 4s and 5s, McGary might be one of the Thunder’s answers to unlocking a previously unknown part of their offense — ball movement.
McGary, a jolt of energy
In his first preseason game a year ago, McGary was impressive, particularly as a facilitator as he made a number of slick high-low bounce passes to partnering bigs for easy dunks. But McGary also broke a small bone in his foot, causing him to miss almost the first two months of the season. When he came back, he played seven minutes against Phoenix until a shin injury caused him to miss another month and a half.
Upon his return from that injury, and with other injuries on the team providing some playing time for McGary, he broke out in his first full game, notching a double-double — 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting and 10 rebounds — in a nationally televised game against the Clippers. He followed that up with another double-double — 17 and 10 against the Nuggets — and quickly emerged as an electroshock of energy off the Thunder bench.
McGary’s style wasn’t hard to discern. He played like the big kid just let out for recess after being trapped in class all day. He was a golden retriever on a basketball court. He sprinted everywhere he went, often creating points simply by outrunning people down the floor.
His role was basically “Energy Bro,” a player to inject some life into the game by trying really, really hard and running really, really fast.
This season, though, McGary is working to refine his game and elevate not just himself, but the Thunder’s offense.
“Been working this whole offseason and preseason trying to move the ball, facilitate a little bit,” McGary said. “Just get the ball moving and not hold it as much.”
Under new coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder are working to embrace a more flowing offensive concept, one that involves more ball and player movement. This largely will be engineered by having big men who can “transport” the ball, as Donovan calls it. The Thunder are building a system that releases Durant and Westbrook from double-teams and bracketing, and a lot of that starts with an outlet for them to relieve pressure from defenders. In the past, that’s been Serge Ibaka for a spot-up jumper.
“I think he can do that,” Donovan said of McGary. “Everybody thinks the small ball is because of shooting, and there is an element to it, but what happens is, when Stephen Curry gets two guys on him and he throws the ball to the elbow area to Draymond Green, he’s putting the ball on the floor and creating offense. He’s getting it to the other side of the floor, he’s attacking the basket and he’s getting guys shots. When there’s two players on one guy, it means it’s four-on-three and having that kind of facilitator that can make a play, like I get the stretch-4 man in the NBA and guys that can really shoot and that’s certainly a weapon.
“But what’s even more of a weapon to me, is when you have four men who can handle and pass, because it really creates a problem,” Donovan added. “Because now you’re getting guys that can put the ball on the floor to the paint, and once inside to try and protect the basket, you’re starting to leave 3-point shooters open and guys can take rhythm shots and it makes it a lot easier. So I’ve always believed, even when I was at Florida, having [Joakim] Noah and [Al] Horford and David Lee, Mike Miller played some power forward, Chandler Parsons, those guys were always good, not only as offensive players, but they were really good passers and could make plays in broken floor situations.”
Of course, the Thunder are deep. Really deep. It’s no guarantee McGary will see regular rotation minutes, especially when the Thunder are going to be a high-level offensive team to start with. He’s also got to avoid those injuries that caused him to miss so much time (he’s currently dealing with a concussion and is day-to-day).
There’s an evolution already happening, and with Westbrook and Durant back to functioning at full capacity, the Thunder aren’t going to have a problem with points. But it’s about next steps, about evolving over time, about being a different team in April, and by the end of the season, McGary could figure in as an X factor kind of player that creates matchup problems for opponents.
“I may have more responsibilities but I’m just trying to help the team doing whatever I can,” McGary said. “Really just trying to stay on the floor, play great defense. Because really, that’s how I’m going to get on the court is playing good defense and making the right plays on offense.”
Especially if he’s going to start hitting 3s. In the preseason, McGary’s knocked down a pair of corner 3s, shooting both with confidence and without hesitation. He has the green light from the coaching staff to fire away from the corners, which is just another level of diversity and versatility added to OKC’s offense, to go along with his unique handling and passing abilities.
“That’s something I’ve tried to develop,” McGary said of his playmaking and shooting. “I know I have a skill set that’s a lot different than other bigs. Just try to keep the ball moving, can handle a little bit on the perimeter. And I like that, being more involved, making things happen for my teammates.”
The Thunder have big men for seemingly every situation. Steven Adams is the screen-setting brute, a defense-minded interior rim protector. Nick Collison is the savvy charge-taking vet. Enes Kanter is the offensive powerhouse, piling up nightly double-doubles. Ibaka is the the 3-and-D shot-blocking unicorn, a one-of-a-kind big man. And McGary seems to bridge the gap between them all, featuring a little bit of everything.
Which really might be the point with what Donovan is working to install. In some ways, McGary is a metaphor. He’s the unknown, the potential of the roster. It’s not that the other bigs can’t do the things McGary can; it’s that they’ve never been asked to.
Ibaka has always been a very robotic, mechanic A-to-B kind of player. He’s never been taken out of his comfort zone. Donovan wants to do that, as Ibaka spent the summer working on passing. Same goes for Adams and Kanter, whom Donovan wants to grow as distributors. He wants them to be different players in April than what they are in October. That takes a certain level of patience and perspective, to not fret over immediate results when future ones are the goal.
And it’s in that mindset that the Thunder have an opportunity to transform. They hired Donovan because they want to stimulate growth and progress. Consider last season’s Warriors, who with open minds made the move to start Green and sit Lee. That transition wasn’t made based on a pre-existing plan. It was one the Warriors made by paying attention and having a willingness to change. The best teams take that kind of approach: a dedication to improvement and evolution.
It’s with that kind of openness that McGary might play his way into being an influential piece. Maybe by the end of the season, he’s seen as the guy that’s helped unlock the potential of the Thunder’s offense, either directly or indirectly. The Thunder’s depth makes it hard to know, because there are 11 or 12 players deserving of minutes, but McGary represents the Thunder ethos for this season: Watch, learn and evolve.