The rookie from Michigan came out of nowhere and unexpectedly opened a few eyes with a pair of impressive performances earlier this month. On Feb. 8, he posted his first career double-double (19 points, 10 rebounds in 23 minutes) in a 131-108 blowout against the Los Angeles Clippers. The next night, he again dropped a double-double (17 points, 10 boards in 25 minutes) on the lowly Denver Nuggets.
McGary came back down to Earth against the Memphis Grizzlies, as he failed to score before fouling out in 15 minutes. Still, his brief breakout gave the Thunder a glimpse of what he brings to the table. While other contenders mull some final tinkering to their roster before the Feb. 19 deadline, OKC's best midseason addition might already be on the roster.
Granted, McGary's work in the pros is only a small sample size, but he's been productive nearly everywhere he's been. In the D-League, he averaged 16.4 points and 7.8 rebounds in eight games with the Oklahoma City Blue, per RealGM. With Steven Adams hurt, Kendrick Perkins ineffective and Nick Collison on the decline, the Thunder need McGary to continue being a force up front.
Much like the Thunder, McGary's rookie campaign got off to a rough start due to injuries. The 22-year-old has appeared in only five of the team's 53 games after missing most of the first half with foot and leg issues. His presence must be some kind of good-luck charm, because Oklahoma City is undefeated when he plays.
This season, the Thunder has seen young players build momentum before fading back into obscurity. Perry Jones got off to a hot start filling in for Kevin Durant. A knee contusion in early November caused him to miss 13 games, and he never returned to form. Jeremy Lamb caught fire in late November/early December, but inconsistent minutes helped put that flame out. Since then, Lamb has been phased out of the rotation.
It's up to McGary to not suffer that same fate, and he's getting his opportunity to establish himself now. With Adams out for at least three weeks due to a broken hand, we should see a lot more of the rookie in the big Kiwi's absence.
Going forward, McGary and the Thunder will be dependent on each other. The club needs the big man's skill set to add a new dimension to their offense, while consistent playing time is crucial in McGary's development.
Offensively, the Thunder have the kind of versatility you'd want in a championship contender. They have two explosive scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant is unofficially (due to missed games) tied for second in scoring with 25.9 points per game, while Westbrook is fourth with 25.8.
Serge Ibaka has morphed into one of the league's best three-point-shooting big men (38.9 percent). The bench has two guards who can create off the dribble in Dion Waiters and Reggie Jackson.
They have everything—except an interior scoring presence.
Ibaka's infatuation with the perimeter (shot chart below, courtesy of Vorped.com) had left Adams as the Thunder's main option down low. Now, Adams is out.
This is where having McGary in the rotation will come in handy. The 6'10", 255-pound former Wolverine can be the Weapon X that the team has lacked inside.
In his last three games, McGary is 14-of-24 from the field (58.3 percent). Of those 24 attempts, only four have come from beyond seven feet, per NBA.com's shot log. Also according to NBA.com, 92.3 percent of McGary's takes this season have come from within 10 feet of the rim.
McGary put his interior scoring prowess on display against the Clippers. He went 8-of-9 from the field, with his lone miss being a 14-foot jumper. The most impressive of the big man's buckets can be seen here (Note: If you can read lips, Westbrook has a NSFW reaction at the end), when he bullies his way to the hoop for the layup.
The youngster's development and increased confidence can be huge for the Thunder going forward. He gives the offense a new wrinkle, and if the team actually commits to the rookie, it gives them one more reason not to chase a blockbuster trade at the deadline for an expensive post scorer like the Brooklyn Nets' Brook Lopez.
A five-man group of McGary, Ibaka, Durant, Waiters and Westbrook can be the kind of pick-your-poison lineup that makes the Thunder hard to defend. DailyThunder.com's Royce Young seemed intrigued by the McGary-Ibaka pairing after the team's win over Denver.
"I think I love the Ibaka-McGary frontcourt tandem. You've got a good roll big in McGary that can catch and finish, and you've got Ibaka spacing on the weak side. Creates a ton of room on the floor."
While it's still early and five games is a small sample, it's not crazy to think McGary could develop into a key member of the team's bench attack.
Jackson, who held the sixth man role for two-and-a-half years before Waiters came along, doesn't have much of a future in OKC. Waiters, the team's current top bench guy, has struggled finding a rhythm. The Syracuse guard is shooting just 38.3 percent from the field since coming over from the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 6.
Anthony Morrow can be dangerous when he gets hot, but he's mainly a three-point specialist. Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison are more valuable to the team as mentors than as role players. With no official sixth man on the roster, McGary's youthful exuberance can be like a breath of fresh air on the second unit's aging front line.
After McGary's big night against the Clippers, the Thunder's key veterans used the same word to describe what stood out the most about the young fella's performance: energy.
"I just loved his energy." Durant said, per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman.
"He wants to listen. He wants to get better," Collison added, per Mayberry. "Everybody loves him. He’s got great energy. He’s a guy you want to have on your team."
What about McGary himself? What does he think he has to offer this team?
"I'm a pretty energetic guy," McGary said, per Mayberry. "All I could do is just get the crowd into it even more...Whenever you get a standing ovation you've got to take advantage of it.”
McGary still has a long way to go.
Waiters, while a bit off the mark lately, is still much more proven at this point. However, at the very least, McGary can develop into being the bench's second scoring option. Like Waiters, he has a rare quality that gives the team a new dimension. In McGary's case, it's his uncanny speed for a player of his size and strength.
Mitchy Hustle (as he's known to only me) has some jets. His 99.92 PACE rating, which is the number of possessions he produces per 48 minutes, is second-best on the team behind Durant, per NBA.com. Also, as shown in the chart below, McGary is the fastest big man in Oklahoma City's rotation (Note: Speed stats courtesy of NBA.com).
|Oklahoma City Thunder's Frontcourt Speed Stats|
|Name||Minutes Per Game||Average Speed in Miles Per Hour|
McGary shows off his wheels in this highlight reel from one of his better games in the D-League. At both the 15-second and 1:11 marks, McGary comes up with the steal before racing down the court for the easy deuce.
If he can continue to make plays like that, it will be hard for this club to keep their latest breakout player on the bench.
In today's rush-to-judgment social media society, it's easy to overreact over what Mitch McGary has done in just a few games this season. However, what makes his emergence so critical is the timing.
The Oklahoma City Thunder need another piece to give them an edge in the West's three-team battle for the eighth seed. Rather than influence team chemistry by making a big splash at the deadline, the team may have found its missing link in-house.
Of course, we've seen this movie already earlier this season. There's reason to be a pessimist, too.
If McGary's rise can have a different conclusion than Perry Jones' or Jeremy Lamb's, the Thunder will have found a brand-new weapon.
With an opportunity ahead, it's up to McGary to prove whether he's for real or simply a flash in the pan.