When the Oklahoma City Thunder announced they were cutting two players in order for rookie Semaj Christon to make the final roster, it meant ending Mitch McGary’s time with the team. Selected 21st overall in the 2014 draft out of Michigan, McGary was viewed as a project then. Fast forward two seasons and not much progress has been made.
His release from the Thunder came as a surprise to no one close to the situation, as McGary was gearing up to serve yet another suspension for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy. After two years of injuries, suspensions, and underwhelming play, the Thunder had seen enough of McGary and decided to part ways.
At the age of 24, he has a lot of really good basketball left in him. With questions surrounding his game and level of commitment, McGary is at a crossroads in his career. If he wants to try to get back into the NBA, he needs to look to the D-League and not play overseas.
Playing overseas is very tempting. The teams have large and passionate fan bases, competition is improving every year, players get treated like a celebrity everywhere, but most importantly there is more money. Money, fame, or ego should all take a back seat to his need to prove three things: that he can stay clean, stay healthy, and that he could still be the same player he was at Michigan. He can accomplish all three, all while under the watchful eye of NBA personnel, in the D-League.
Teams could still access the player he was during Michigan’s incredible tournament run in 2013, McGary’s freshman season. During that stretch of six games he averaged 14.3 points and 10.8 rebounds, including monster performances of 21 points and 14 rebounds against VCU and 25 points and 14 rebounds against Kansas. Before that, he was the team’s sixth man and averaged 7.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game in just over 19 minutes per game.
In his two years with the Thunder, McGary saw a regression in his role from his first year to his second. In his first season, he appeared in 32 games (2 starts) and averaged 6.28 points and 5.16 rebounds in 15.2 minutes of action. His second season he only played 20 games and averaged 1.3 points and .9 rebounds in 3.6 minutes.
The only silver lining to his career so far is his time in the D-League. While on assignment with the OKC Blue, he has looked serviceable. As a rookie, McGary averaged 16.38 points, 7.75 rebounds, 1.88 steals, and 1.12 blocks in 24.2 minutes of play over eight games. He spent considerably more time with the Blue his second season; in 26 games played he averaged 14.65 points, 8.77 rebounds, 1.46 assists, and 1.08 steals in 24.9 minutes per game.
McGary is a high usage, back to the basket big that is proficient on the low block and can pull down rebounds. At 6’10” with a 6’11.5” reach, he isn't very long. He doesn't protect the rim well, but he is a big and physical presence in the paint on defense. There isn't a semblance of a consistent jumper, but his free throw percentage improved from year one to year two by almost 22 percent (from 54.8 percent to 76.3 percent) while with the OKC Blue.
If McGary goes overseas now, he will most likely stay there. Teams aren't going to give second, third, and fourth chances to someone that can’t seem to get a grip. The Thunder are a prime example. They didn't have the time or money to wait around for McGary to decide to be an NBA player; another person came in and earned that spot. Being out of sight, out of mind with a bad reputation will add to his negative persona amongst NBA personnel.
If he goes to the D-League, McGary can reinvent himself similar to how Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat did. Whiteside had concerns about his character, was cut in similar fashion, and had to go to the D-League to prove himself. Now, he is a max contract player and one of the cornerstones of the Heat. Being in a team’s system, around their coaches that can vouch for him will be invaluable to the process of getting back into the league.
It is highly unlikely that McGary breaks out like Whiteside, but he can be a very good role player on a winning team. His best case scenario at the NBA level is being the sixth or seventh man off the bench that can provide rebounding, scoring on the block, and some interior defense.
Four years removed from his breakout freshman season at Michigan and people still don't know what they are going to get from McGary. The upside is clearly there, but it remains to be seen if he can realize his potential. If he can stay clean, file down the rough edges to his game, and is consistent in both ventures then he can be a successful NBA player. NBA teams want