Checking in on Beilein’s NBA Wolverines --
[Seattleites, I’m so sorry – y’all should definitely root against the Thunder. Maybe you’ll get the Bucks soon.]
In terms of aggregate on-court production, Mitch McGary’s Michigan career was disappointing. Mostly through no fault of Mitch’s – injuries and a highly controversial* NCAA suspension effectively ended his Wolverine career after the magical run to the national championship game as a freshman. After coming along slowly throughout the regular season (partially due to the presence of rock-steady Jordan Morgan) while showing glimpses of his absurdly singular enthusiasm, fluidity, and coordination, Mitch was a breakout star in the tournament: he averaged 14.3 points, and 10.7 rebounds (3.5 offensive, 7.2 defensive) while often looking like Michigan’s best player – even over national player of the year Trey Burke. Against VCU, he put up 21 points and 14 rebounds, only missing one shot; against Kansas, he thoroughly outplayed Jeff Withey—a senior center who’d won the Big XII DPOY award twice—to the tune of 25 and 14; he was critical in attacking Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone and put up six assists and a points-rebounds double-double in a win. All as a freshman who’d played 8 minutes in Michigan’s regular season finale.
*read: insanely unlucky and totally bullshit
The basketball gods decided to smite him after he announced his intentions to return, and he only played eight games as a sophomore – never 30 minutes or more per game. The NCAA’s arbitrary bazooka of incompetence struck him down after landing on the “infantilizing and inefficient war on drugs crusade” tile and he pretty much wasn’t allowed to have a junior season.
So he entered the draft (he might’ve done so anyways) and the basketball gods decided to smile fondly on him again and nudged the Oklahoma City Thunder into taking him with their first round pick. Despite being snakebitten themselves over the last couple years, the Thunder—an organization known for its ability to discover and develop under-the-radar draft picks (like Serge Ibaka or Reggie Jackson)—are still a bona fide title contender and the best landing spot, by far, of any John Beilein product at Michigan.
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They did win the game… on the road against third-ranked Michigan State
But even though Mitch was a great—elite, depending on if his health / conditioning cooperated—player at Michigan, that’s not why he ascended into Michigan hoops lore as a goofy cult hero.
An incomplete list of reasons as to why he did:
- Because he’s the type of center who decides to pull a Rajon Rondo fake en route to a pick-six layup.
- Because his bench celebration game was as strong as anyone else’s in the entire country (except for Andrew Dakich, potentially):
Because he’d dive all the way into Lake Michigan to save a ball in a blowout win at Northwestern:
- Because he’d set bone-crushing screens like this.
[More on Mitch and his new team after THE JUMP]
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Mitch’s je ne sais quoi stemmed from his personality—intense, demonstrative, and often hilarious on the court (and on the bench mob), not to mention his famous unicycling ability and newfound love of snakes off the court. In a way, he was sort of like Denard Robinson, though their evidently unbridled enthusiasm manifested itself differently – Denard’s aspect was spontaneous, happy, and almost incredulous, while Mitch was the consummate showman and ultimate hardo. They were both big men on campus in their own ways and both only offered tantalizing glimpses into a potential that was never fully unlocked in Ann Arbor.
To be fair to Mitch,* there were extenuating circumstances – he was injured as a sophomore and effectively exiled afterwards. We didn’t get to see if he could fulfill the First-Team All-American hype entering his sophomore season and we didn’t get to see if he could ultimately make good on his stated intention to bring a national championship to Ann Arbor (an intention that was stated after Michigan was an 8-seed the year prior). He came extremely close as a freshman and wasn’t given a chance to push a very good team over the top as a sophomore. That’s just the way it is. As for the weed thing – Mitch himself said “the NCAA is a little harsh with it’s penalties, I don’t think the penalty fit the crime…it happens, hopefully kids can learn from it” – before adding “just don’t get caught.” When the reaction to Garrick Sherman’s claim to have taken drug tests for Durrell Summers was met with mild amusement, it’s pretty hard to blame Mitch for getting suspended for a whole YEAR for marijuana use.
*And to poor Denard, who was blighted with Al Borges for 2/3 seasons as a starter.
Mitch’s college game was best described by this DraftExpress video after his freshman season. Two of his strengths are classic white player compliments – “motor & energy” and “basketball IQ” – are straight out of the Aaron Craft lexicon; two other strengths – physicality and mobility – were what made him a top tier prospect during the fall of his senior year of high school when he committed to Michigan. Quite simply, when he was in shape and in form, he was a rare college player to jump off the screen like he did. Though he wasn’t a leaper and his wingspan wasn’t extraordinary, his combination of quickness, creativity, strength, and rebounding ability were everything you could ask of a college five. At his peak, he was the best Michigan big man since Chris Webber (a forerunner, in terms of style as a versatile five) and Juwan Howard patrolled the paint in the House that Cazzie Built.
At the time of his commitment, McGary’s only comparably-touted Wolverines were Webber, Jerod Ward, and Howard. He’ll certainly be less impactful than the two members of the Fab Five were, but he’s already fulfilled more of his potential than Ward ever did. In college, McGary – despite his flaws (DX’s two college concerns were his post game and shooting stroke) – was the clear second-best player on a team that was a few possessions from winning the national championship.
In the end, Mitch McGary was a program-changing player, but only for a few weeks. If the rest of his time at Michigan can be explained away – poor conditioning, nagging (or season-ending) injuries, an unjust suspension – it’s tough to think of what could have been; if not, it was one of the most timely runs of form in UM history. Either way, Mitch was a key figure in Michigan’s renaissance as a program: as a recruit who chose Michigan over teams like Duke, Florida, and Kentucky; as a dominant force anchoring Beilein’s devastating 4-out offense – the best offenses in the nation; as a flashy big man with unconventional skills – leading the break as a point-center, for example, a joy which is best described by UM professor Yago Colas; as a fan favorite during a time when basketball had more success than the football team and was much more enjoyable for Michigan fans to follow.
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...and we can still watch Mitch play in the NBA. In the last week, he played four games in Orlando with OKC’s SL team (essentially training camp for young players and NBA hopefuls), averaging 12 points on 57% shooting, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, and an assist and a block per game. Summer League games must be taken with a grain of salt, but from a scouting perspective, he looked good – he’s had problems with weight in the past but he looks in great shape and has improved his jumper. He won’t start, but he’ll be a part of the Thunder rotation come October.
AS FOR THE THUNDER:
My grandfather is a native Oklahoman who’s lived there for decades now (and currently likes in Oklahoma City), my mom went to high school in OKC, and I’ve been following them intently as one of my adopted teams. Needless to say, their success and star power has made them easy to root for. I went to a game over Christmas Break last season – Kevin Durant was injured, but Russell Westbrook dropped 29 points in an easy blowout over Charlotte.
KEVIN DURANT – KD, the “Slim Reaper,” is your NBA superstar alternative to LeBron James (who’s a well-documented Ohio State fanboy). Blessed with an unbelievable combination of length and ball-handling, he’s a revolutionary player – his shooting (spot-up or off the dribble) and scoring ability makes him into a generational talent. He averaged 25, 7 and 4 in an injury-riddled season; he appeared in just 1/3 of OKC’s games and played 34 minutes per game, his fewest in a Thunder uniform. The year before, he led the league in points (32.0 ppg) and won MVP; the year before that, he shot 50% from the field, 40% from three, and 90% from the line, a rare statistical feat.
Durant’s coming off of a foot injury, foot injuries to tall people are potentially debilitating, and he may have his eyes on heading home to OKC when he hits free agency next summer. Still, OKC has player who may be hitting his peak right before LeBron exits his prime and right before Anthony Davis enters his. He’ll keep Oklahoma City in contention.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK – Russ is pretty much pure, unfiltered basketball cocaine: if Steph Curry is a lithe magician, a little hoops Messi (though basketball, unlike soccer, doesn’t accommodate small players with supernatural skills as well), Russell is the alternative – a destroyer god hell-bent on attacking the rim with unparalleled ferocity and anger. Last year, mostly without Durant, he put up 28 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists per game; there have only been 16 triple-doubles with at least 40 points in NBA history – Russell is tied for the most with Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and LeBron and his came within a six week span last winter.
Westbrook was necessarily an extremely high usage scorer with iffy efficiency, a tenacious rebounder, and a willing distributor with well above-average passing vision. He wasn’t able to carry an Oklahoma City team ravaged by injuries into the playoffs, but he’s still easily within the top ten players in the league, an individual highlight machine with a hyper-intense personality. While outwardly sullen, he’s actually a nice guy.
SERGE IBAKA – Serge, a Congolese four, is a terrifying 3-and-D prototype: he led the NBA in blocks per game for two seasons (‘12, ‘13), then finished 2nd behind Anthony Davis (‘14) and 3rd behind Davis and Hassan Whiteside (‘15). Ibaka shot 38% threes on 3.2 attempts per game, becoming a legit spacing threat on the offensive end. His true value will always be derived from his rim protection ability on defense – as long as his athleticism holds up (and he’s only 25) – but he’s becoming incredibly useful as a dynamic “positionless” player who augments Kevin and Russ.
It’s easy to see certain lineups in which Ibaka, at 6’10, can play the five alongside Durant (or Kyle Singler) and he’s a natural fit at the four alongside one of Oklahoma City’s many centers. It will be interesting to see how he develops – adding a jump shot was extremely impressive – and he’s an incredibly easy player to pull for. Of the power forwards in the loaded Western Conference (Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, Zach Randolph, Dirk Nowitzki), Ibaka falls into the 3-5 range.
ENES KANTER, STEVEN ADAMS, and NICK COLLISON – The rest of Oklahoma City’s frontcourt (aside from McGary). Each of the three bring unique skill-sets and varied backstories: it was announced last night that OKC matched Portland’s offer sheet and will likely be singing Kanter to a four year $70M deal. The “Turkish Turnstile” had an acrimonious split from Utah last season and the Jazz actually got better without him because of his especially poor defending. Kanter is still just 23 and tallied 11 20-10 games with Oklahoma City after the trade, but those feel like empty calories when considering everything he does (or rather, doesn’t) bring to the table.
Adams played against Michigan in 2013 (and didn’t record a point) in a one-year stopover at Pitt before getting drafted in the lottery – he just turned 21 and has shown that he can rebound and defend at a decent level; Collison is one of only two former SuperSonics on the roster and has played throughout his career as a analytics-friendly bench guy.
DION WAITERS – The erstwhile Cleveland Cavalier and former #4 overall pick is a fascinating player. He was certainly part of the reason why the Cavs underwhelmed so much that they could afford to trade for Kevin Love with two former #1 overall picks, and there might not be a player with more self-perceived ability relative to how well he actually plays. Vines and montages of Waiters Island, parked away in the corner, barking for the ball and waving his arms like those inflatable tube ads, is high NBA art. If his superstar teammate deigns to give him the ball, instead of shooting it right away, he’d catch it, stop the ball for a little while, and then step back into a ghastly long two or drive with an array of aimless dribble moves before biffing a layup. Dion Waiters: a sideshow who’s pretty much not very good, but usually entertaining. Think a less funny Nick “Swaggy P” Young. Dion Waiters: a legend in his own mind.
ANTHONY MORROW and ANDRE ROBERSON – If it’s easy to imagine a tentative depth chart (Russell, ____, Kevin, Serge, Kanter / Mitch / Adams), the shooting guard will either be Waiters – who’s probably best in a sixth man role – or one of these two: at the risk of being overly reductive, the two are separate parts of the 3-and-D prototype – Morrow is a journeyman who shoots 43% from three over his career; Roberson is a rangy stopper without much offensive skill (sort of like a Branden Dawson type). OKC likes to start Roberson next to Durant and put Morrow with the bench to add spacing, but they’re effectively interchangeable.
KYLE SINGLER and D.J. AUGUSTIN – Oklahoma City didn’t want to pay Reggie Jackson his money, so they replaced him with Waiters and traded him to Detroit. In return, the Thunder acquired Augustin and Singler, two players who would theoretically be better in OKC than they were as Pistons. Both will be rotation players next year. Augustin will probably be relegated to the third-string after the Thunder used a lottery pick on another point guard. Singler was given a 5-year deal, evidence that OKC values his career 38% shooting from behind the arc, at least in a bench role (the contract was for just $5M / year, far less than starting-caliber wings).
CAMERON PAYNE – The aforementioned draft pick couldn’t play in the summer league because of a broken finger, so we haven’t seen much of him yet. Nobody’s seen much of him anywhere, as he was an underclassman PG from Murray St. (who didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament). I saw just one game of him, but he was pretty much a one-man show for the Racers – a big, playmaking lead guard. He led the OVC in assist rate and shot rate, was fourth in efficiency, and ninth in minutes. Payne shot 56.7 TS% but had an offensive rating of 75 in just three games against top 50 teams. It’s hard to project how much he’ll play or in what role, but he can play next to Westbrook if the Thunder would prefer Russ to play a role like Dwyane Wade’s in his prime.
JAMES HARDEN – Dammit! But another story for another day. KENDRICK PERKINS – Hallelujah! But another story for another day.
New OKC head coach Billy Donovan should’ve game-planned for this guy. (USA Today)
BILLY DONOVAN – After an illustrious career as Florida’s head coach (2 national championships, 4 Final Fours, 7 Elite Eights (cough, Michigan opened the game against ‘13 Florida, then-#1 in Kenpom, with a 13 point lead in an eventual rout), 6 SEC titles, 4 SEC Tournament titles, and nine first-round draft picks in 19 years in Gainesville), Billy Donovan replaced Scott Brooks as head coach. Last year, as OKC stumbled and missed the playoffs, Donovan was having a Michigan-like season (they finished 16-17), after having been to three straight Elite Eights with the same core. It was his worst year since ‘97, but the Gators are in good shape for the future.
Now, without ever having coached in the league, he’s expected to carry OKC deep into the playoffs. Some think the Thunder’s window is rapidly closing with Durant’s free agency next summer and Westbrook’s the summer after that; Donovan should be a short-term upgrade over Brooks, but as to how much of an upgrade that will be is anyone’s guess. Oklahoma City generally developed prospects well under Brooks, but a lack of creativity on offense, puzzling lineup decisions, an absurd devotion to Kendrick Perkins, and ultimately an inability to maximize OKC’s young core did him in.
From a strategic standpoint, the payoff could be massive. Two years ago, Golden State was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and after changing head coaches from the poisonous Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr, they were maybe the best team in the last decade. The jump likely won’t be the same for the Thunder, but if Durant and Westbrook mesh well with Donovan, they’ll be playing in the best system they’ve ever been in, at the college level – Durant played for Rick Barnes at Texas and Westbrook was a UCLA Bruin under Ben Howland – or as pros. Donovan has the offensive savvy to make things work and, if chemistry is not an issue, OKC’s a title contender.
Interestingly, Mitch McGary is now being coached by Billy Donovan after spurning he and the Gators to attend Michigan after having them in his top three. And McGary’s Wolverines routed those Gators in 2013.
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Mitch giving former CMU Chippewa Chris Kaman some problems
Mitch destroying the Clippers' crappy backup bigs / flexing with Russ after converting an and-one after the game was pretty much over
Grantland makes a joke.
And now Mitch is part of the story of the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the most compelling franchise narratives in the NBA. And, surprise, they love Mitch:
When the Thunder selected Mitch McGary with the 21st overall pick in last year’s draft, few knew who he was or what he could be.
But even in an injury-plagued first season, McGary quickly made a name for himself.
The bruising power forward out of Michigan established himself as a fan favorite for his energy and passion and showed he could soon be a double-double machine. (Mayberry, NewsOK)
So it’s no surprise that, when he returned to Oklahoma City this past weekend, Durant made his way to the gym to get some shots up. A normal instance in Thunderland.
But awaiting Durant this time was his new and enthusiastic teammate, Mitch McGary, there to cheer him on with an infectious smile that never leaves his face.
“He was on the other side of the court, screaming: ‘Good shot, Kev!’” Durant said, shaking his head in delight. “I’m thinking, this guy’s an All-American type of teammate right there.”
“I love Mitch,” Durant said. “I love everything he brings to the table.”
And he’s not afraid to cheer on his teammates or throw out a genuine compliment every once in a while. Like when he and Collison passed each other during Media Day and McGary stopped, turned and let Collison know: “Your hair looks good, man.”
Those quotes are pretty much peak Mitch.
"Nice hair, dweeb.
IF YOU WANT TO GET REALLY UPSET, here’s Mitch’s highlights in his D-League games rehabbing from injury. The D-League has far more talent than, say, the Big Ten, and this may have been what Mitch was doing in Crisler if not for the NCAA’s reefer madness:
Where’s Garrick Sherman when you actually need him?
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To wrap things up, here are the stakes: OKC is one of the four best teams in the NBA (Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio) and with their franchise player entering free agency next summer, there’s a sense of urgency within the organization. OKC’s championship widow has thus far been limited with injuries and, if Durant is to stay, they’ll have to show some title contending acumen in their first year under Donovan. The Thunder are as deep as they’ve ever been, far deeper than when their bench lineups would get routinely destroyed in the playoffs. It’s not hard to envision them as capable of having a top 5 offense and defense next year, on top of having a legit MVP contender and another possible first-team All-NBA guy. Rekindling your Mitch McGary fandom would also be picking an elite NBA team to root for. Win-win!
As for Mitch, it will be interesting to see his role. I like him best as an NBA five and, next to Ibaka, he’d be able to shine in a four-out system much like he did against Michigan. I don’t know if he’ll start over Kanter, but I’m much more confident in Billy Donovan’s ability to make savvy personnel decisions than I was in Scott Brooks. Either way, he’ll be in the rotation, and I’m hoping to be able to watch him and the Thunder well into next June.