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Building an American Comeback: Jordan Mickey

The last season featured a handful of professional basketball players born in the USA play abroad after having being part of the NBA or the G League in the prior two seasons. We review their 2019-20 seasons in the Chinese CBA and/or Euroleague in this series of articles, to know what they did and the chances they have to making it back to America.

Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul v Real Madrid - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Tolga Adanali/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

There is no room at the top-tier of American professional basketball—the NBA and the G League, by extension—for everyone to be part of it. Every year we have a plethora of undrafted free agents luckily signed to contracts from NBA/G League franchises to become part of their squads. Every year, too, we see a lot of kids and veterans finding no place in the best hoop leagues in the world, thus looking for chances abroad.

That is not the most common path to building a sustainable career in the NBA, for sure, but for athletes that have worked their whole lives around basketball, it surely is one way to try to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the country where the best hoopers happen to play in.

In this series, we will explore the 2019-20 season of some American players that played basketball either in the CBA (top Asian league, and a place for ex-NBA veterans and young undrafted players) or the EuroLeague (the best-combined league in Europe and the consensus second-best league in the world only behind the NBA). All of these players also played in the NBA or the G League during the 2017-18 or 2018-19 seasons, so they are not too separated from their playing days in American soil and could still be re-called by an NBA franchise soon if they keep their level of play up.

Jordan Mickey - Khimki Moscow (Russia - Euroleague)

Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul v Real Madrid - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Tolga Adanali/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

The basketball story of Jordan Mickey has gone full circle since playing in Europe, so why are we going to think he can double on that spin and make it back to the USA, where everything started for him? Let me explain.

It was in the summer of 2018 when Mickey left the United States to play ball in Europe. A lot of stuff had happened prior to that, and we’ll get to it, but to get a simple image of Mickey’s career arc, this should do. Mickey changed Miami for Moscow, signing with Khimki, then moving to Madrid for the 2019-20 season, and finally getting back to Moscow in time for the freshly started 2020-21 season.

As you see, Jordan Mickey found a new home in Europe, tried another place, and eventually returned to Moscow, where he had played his best basketball. Expanding on that, Mickey could very well return home—this time for real, to his true home—eventually, getting back to the American basketball scene if everything keeps the same path that he seems to have followed since he started bouncing a basketball. Never say never.

Those first bounces took place a lot of years ago, but don’t get it wrong: Mickey is playing this season at just age-26, so he’s still very young and yet to reach his peak as a professional basketball player. When we first heard about Mickey, he wasn’t more than just another kid playing for an Arlington prep. Only when he transferred to Prime Prep Academy in Dallas for his senior HS year is when alarms started blazing and Mickey’s name started making headlines.

That happened all the way back in 2013, when Mickey carried his school to a 37-2 record, made Prime Prep a top-five team in the nation, and finished the year with neat 16 points and 10 rebounds per game averages. By the end of the 2013 academy year, Mickey was a four-star prospect, a top-5 player in Texas, and the consensus no. 37 recruit in the nation. Not bad for a start. Oh, and enough to force LSU to come calling.

It took Mickey virtually no time to become a valuable freshman playing for the Tigers at the NCAA-level. He went on to log 34 of 34 starts in his first year at LSU averaging a monster 32.8 minutes per game, the 19th-highest mark for a freshman in 2014, and he became one of only two first-year forwards to play 32+ minutes per game season (DeAndre Bembry being the only other one).

After the letdown that the 2014 season turned out to be (LSU missed the NCAA Tournament), a Tigers squad led by three sophomores in Jordan Mickey (15-10-1 average line), Jarell Martin (17-9-2), and Tim Quarterman (11-5-4) reached the 2015 Tournament and made it to the Second Round, where they fell to no. 8 North Carolina State.

Mickey had already grabbed multiple NBA franchises’ attention by then. He was expected to be a late-first, early-second round draftee in 2015. He put on a great NBA combine performance, raised his stock, and showed two-level shooting prowess entering the League. His calling card, though, were his 3.6 blocks per game in his second year at LSU: no player (all classes included) averaged more than 3.0 bpg in the 2015 NCAA season while playing more than 1,000 minutes. Since the 2009-10 year, only 19 players have reached the 3.0 bpg mark in a 1,000-minute single season. Jordan Mickey and Keith Benson are the only ones with two such seasons.

Although Mickey’s name appeared in mock drafts at the Celtics 28th spot often, he dropped to the second round and was picked with the 33rd overall pick... by the Boston Celtics. Boston opted to draft R.J. Hunter over Mickey in the first round, thus handing him a guaranteed contract that Jordan would never sign himself.

Mickey split his first year as a pro between Boston and Portland (Maine), playing for the Celtics G League affiliate Red Claws. All in all, Mickey played 16 games for the Celtics while logging 23 for the Red Claws... becoming a G League All-Star for the 2015-16 season. He remained in the organization for the 2016-17 campaign, but the additions of big-men Al Horford and Tyler Zeller in July 2016, paired with the arrivals of Ante Zizic, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes in the summer of 2017 combined to leave Mickey out of Boston’s plans, thus waiving him by the end of the 2016-17 season in which he had averaged just 5.6 minutes per gameof playing time in his 25 games for the C’s.

With Jordan Mickey a free agent, the Miami Heat jumped over him, signed the forward to a two-year deal with a team option for the second year, and declined such option in May 2018, thus leaving Mickey again in the cold world of free agency. Although he had played 23 games for the Heat (12.3 minutes per game with an average of 4.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game) Mickey never truly found his place among the elite and he had to look for newer avenues. Enter Europe and the Euroleague.

Russian team Khimki Moscow offered Mickey a deal to play basketball across the pond in 2018-19, and he took it in a hurry. Khimki had reached the Euroleague’s quarterfinals the season before, and was a perennial contender for the Russian domestic league. Mickey looked like the final piece of the puzzle, and although the team could repeat its quarterfinals appearance, he finished 2nd in the Russian and league once more. Mickey himself contributed in the effort with 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game, his best averages by far since he left LSU, and more than enough to make Spanish giant Real Madrid offer him a two-year deal to move to Spain for the 2019-20 season.

Now, if you don’t know about it, Real Madrid is purely stocked on a yearly basis. It’s one of the best basketball teams in Europe, so Mickey was never going to play the role of a no. 1 player, far from it. Even with that, though, Jordan Mickey became the ultimate off-the-bench weapon for Real Madrid during the Euroleague’s Regular Season last year (no final-rounds were held due to COVID). Mickey helped Real Madrid finish second in the RS stage—only behind Anadolu Efes—with 22 wins and 6 losses, and a 13-win streak in the middle of the season.

Mickey played 26 of the maximum 28 games, was on the court for 16.6 minutes per game, and although those minutes were low, he finished the year as a top-10 player in PIR (Performance Index Rating) on a per-minute basis among players with at least 26 games played and 16 minutes per game. His feats didn’t end there, though, as he closed the season with the best shooting line among those in that group at .628/.333/.780. For a big man, Mickey’s 0.8 3pa per game were no joke and he was one of only 16 players to log 0.5+ 3-point attempts and 4+ rebounds per gamein 2019-20—consider, too, that he did so playing just over 16 minutes per game compared to the likes of Nikola Mirotic (27.8) and Nick Calathes (32.2) who also made that group.

On a per-40-minutes basis, Mickey ranked eighth in PIR (26.1), 16th in scoring (21.8), and third in blocks (2.41). With Real Madrid having no room to keep feeding him, Mickey went back to the place that first gave him home in Europe: Moscow, signing with Khimki for the 2020-21 season. And so far, so good. While Mickey has only played one game for the Russian club in the Euroleague this year, he put on a good 12-5-1 performance to which he added 3 blocks in 24 minutes of playing time. Good old Jordan, that was.

Mickey’s current Khimki contract runs for the duration of the 2020-21 season, and he will hit free agency again next summer. While it is true that he will have three years of Euro-basketball experience under his belt come next July and that he could very well remain in Europe for the time being, the truth is also that he’s just 26 years old. He has all of the time to make a comeback to America, and re-join the NBA at some point.

Nothing is set in stone when it comes to either the NBA or the G League 2021 seasons. By the time the ball tips-off (rumored late January) and even more, the season ends (most probably deep into the summer, potentially in August/September), Mickey will be looking at his options in the Association. It is not crazy to think that he might find a place in some team by then if he could keep up his numbers and prove his value on defense via rebounding and blocking shots.

Don’t hold overly-high expectations about the prospects of Jordan Mickey becoming a starter in the NBA any time soon, or ever, but keep an eye on the former LSU Tiger, Boston Celtic, and Miami Heat as a potential candidate to complete the American Comeback and go full-circle for the second time in his career.