Mitch McGary certainly has a unique reason for entering the 2014 NBA draft.
Most prospects decide to enter the selection process early because they're coming off a breakout season, just finished up a standout freshman year or figure now is the time to declare and avoid the insane overanalysis that comes with staying in school.
McGary, however, is submitting his name because he tested positive for marijuana and subsequently received a suspension from the NCAA that would've kept him out of action for the entirety of the 2014-15 campaign, per USA Today's Mark Snyder. Putting aside the ridiculousness of one test resulting in a season-long ban for a player who wasn't even active when he was tested, it's undoubtedly a unique situation.
A 6'10" center from Michigan, the sophomore is coming off a season in which a major back injury limited him to only eight games. During that time, he failed to live up to the lofty expectations before succumbing to the knife, averaging just 9.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
Obviously he can do more than that, or else we wouldn't really be talking about him. But will he get a chance to show off his skills in the NBA? Does he have a future at the sport's highest level after this failed drug test?
The Red Flags
How much of a red flag is a year-long NCAA suspension for using marijuana?
In the NBA, it's probably not a huge deal. There will be character questions about McGary heading into the draft, but those will only be coming from the prospect evaluators who really haven't done their homework. By all accounts, this was a college kid making a mistake, something that hasn't happened often with McGary.
Yago Colas, a professor of McGary's during his time at Michigan, staunchly disavowed any character concerns during a nicely penned piece that served both as a pro-McGary and anti-NCAA missive. Among the highlights—and I'd recommend reading the whole piece in its entirety—is the following quote:
I can say, and have already said, that he’s a fine young man, by all account appreciated by his teammates, and that I can testify first hand that he is a conscientious student and a very generous classmate. I could remind you all of how during last year’s Cultures of Basketball class 3 on 3 tournament, Mitch (like all the other UM ballers who have played in the tournament over the past four years) treated the games with seriousness and his classmates with respect; how he unselfishly sought to give his teammates opportunities, as though aware that this was a bigger thing for them than for him, but somehow without ever making it seem like it wasn’t a big deal to him; how he gave one of his teammates the MVP medal he’d earned...
This isn't a league that will punish McGary for a drug violation more than necessary.
It's one that will allow Nick Calathes to resume playing for the Memphis Grizzlies as soon as he's done serving his 20-game suspension. It's one that banned J.R. Smith for five games after he tested positive for marijuana for the third time, but also the same one that allowed him to continue suiting up for the New York Knicks as soon as that suspension had run its course.
Will Calathes and Smith have any trouble finding the work their on-court performance justifies? Absolutely not. Well, the answer is slightly different for Smith, who is a repeat violator of the unwritten "don't do it if it's stupid" rule, but his public perception still didn't exactly decline because he violated the drug policy.
Maybe McGary's draft stock will lead to more questions in the lengthy interview process prior to the festivities on June 26. But that's it. He made a mistake, and he's already proven to be quite accountable for his actions.
If anything, it's possible accountability could turn into a green light rather than a red flag. Am I advocating for drug use? Absolutely not, though I am unwilling to change my perception of a 21-year-old kid based on one relatively minor mistake when the NBA has shown it's more than willing to pay quality basketball players who have committed or been accused of far worse crimes.
Contained in the last sentence, though, is part of the red flag that actually matters.
McGary will be 22 years old by the time his name is called out by Adam Silver or Mark Tatum, should a team take a chance on him in the second round. Age is often a big factor in the NBA draft, with younger players possessing a distinct advantage over their older counterparts.
However, the Michigan product isn't just an older prospect; he's a veteran—compared to his one-and-done competitors—who has already missed a lengthy amount of time with back issues. And back issues are giant warning signs when it comes to big men.
McGary was named a preseason AP All-American and was a member of the preseason All-Big Ten team, but that was before a lower back condition knocked him out for almost the entire season. He officially had back surgery in early January, limiting him to just eight games of limited action.
That's the biggest concern.
To be perfectly honest, no one knows exactly how healthy he'll be throughout his NBA career. I doubt McGary himself is aware of how his back will respond to the rigors and grind of an 82-game season against top-flight competition.
More details will emerge on that front, but for now we're left evaluating this former top prospect on two different fronts. His health has to be weighed against what he brings to the table, and the latter aspect should still be enough to tip the scales in his favor.
Still Extremely Versatile and Unique
When Jonathan Wasserman, B/R's NBA Draft Lead Writer, last ranked his top 50 players in the upcoming class, the big man in question came in at No. 35 and was accompanied by the following blurb.
"Mitch McGary missed most of the year with a back injury, but despite providing scouts with such a small sample size to evaluate, it's pretty clear what he's bringing to the table," Wasserman wrote. "At 6'10", McGary has the mobility to run the floor and a nose for the ball to dominate the glass. He also has soft hands and excellent passing instincts out of the post, and in limited doses we've seen him knock down that elbow jumper."
That's not a combination of skills you'll typically find in a second-round or fringe first-round prospect, but that's what injury-related red flags will do for you. It's also worth noting Wasserman ranked these players prior to the drug news forcing McGary's hand.
After his freshman season, McGary was viewed as a lottery prospect, but he chose to return to Ann Arbor and spend one more year wearing a yellow jersey for the Wolverines. Nonetheless, he remained highly thought of.
In my preseason mock draft, I had McGary being drafted at No. 17, despite the stacked nature of the 2014 class, especially when compared to the previous one he'd spurned. He was still on the verge of being considered an elite prospect before the back injury.
Why? You need look no further than his performance during the 2013 NCAA tournament.
|McGary's Freshman Tourney|
|South Dakota State||13||9||0||2||1||6-of-9|
He impressed across the board, showcasing just about every tool in his arsenal.
A physical big man with good size who wasn't afraid of contact, McGary didn't hesitate to step out to the perimeter and knock down mid-range jumpers. He was an incredible rebounder, one who made a significant impact on both types of glass, holding position on the defensive boards and showcasing lateral quickness and instincts on the opposite end.
On top of that, he showed he had impressive passing skills for a big man, even if they didn't always result in assists. There's a certain value in being able to run offense through the high blocks, even if he's not going to look like a Joakim Noah or Marc Gasol at the next level.
As if that wasn't enough, his motor never stops.
You can see all of those skills in the highlight reel from the game against Syracuse, one in which he had the national media, his teammates and his coaching staff flat-out raving about his performance.
"Did you ever think Mitch McGary would lead us in assists over Trey Burke?" Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander asked after the game, via USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "That's a maturation of Mitch McGary. (He) has shown a terrific pace of play. He's playing much more under control. His vision and his footwork have been significantly cleaned up, and he's able to make cleaner plays."
The versatility not only makes McGary an intriguing prospect, but also a unique one. Finding an NBA comparison is tough for him, particularly because he's more of a physical offensive player than a defensive one.
Also appealing is the fact—back health pending—he's ready for the professional game. His ability to swing the ball from all areas on the court and space the floor with 18-foot jumpers will allow him to break into a rotation immediately, which is a huge luxury from a potential second-round pick.
How effective McGary will be as a pro still depends on his health, and that's going to remain a giant cloud over his draft stock until more is known. But that is the red flag.
His failed drug test will have a major impact on his professional future, but only because it forced him into the Association a year earlier than he planned. Not because it puts a damper on his career.