Can Mac McClung Do More Than Dunk?

The viral sensation is becoming 'very good' player at Georgetown, but he's yet to convince critics he's the kind of well-rounded player who can make the Hoyas a winner and land in the NBA.
Matthew FoleyContributor IMarch 6, 2020

It's 2012, eight years before her son's college team was thrown into turmoil and a desperate fanbase questioned whether he could be the one to return the program to glory. Lenoir McClung had just signed her seventh grade son, Mac, up for a youth basketball league in rural Gate City, Virginia. Mac wasn't particularly passionate about basketballhe was a football player, in fact—but hoops was one more way to keep the energetic boy busy and out of the house. At first, there were no presumptions of windmill dunks, buzzer-beating threes or state scoring records. There were no expectations of viral fame. Hell, the boy wouldn't join Instagram for another three years.

But there was a love of competition he learned at home. His older sister, Anna, a soccer player who would become the nation's No. 3 recruit, would soon be a star at Tennessee. His father, Marcus, was a former linebacker at Virginia Tech. The three battled constantly, to see who could eat their food faster, who could race home from school first and who could complete the most reps in the basement gym that Marcus built at home for Anna. Mac became so obsessed with the Vertimax, a contraption that uses resistance to improve explosiveness and vertical leap, that Marcus had to ban him from the gym so that his then-high school-aged sister could focus.

He started little league football in the fifth grade, hoping to follow in his dad's footsteps. Soon, though, that borderline obsessive competitiveness manifested itself in basketball.

"I eventually fell in love with basketball, but it isn't basketball itself that makes me so competitive," McClung says. "No matter what it is, I want to win. Basketball just happens to be the sport that stuck."

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In hindsight, that should have come as no surprise.

By the end of ninth grade, McClung had grown to 5'10" and had given up football. He began training with Greg Ervin, the former head basketball coach at Gate City High School and father of his best friend, Zac. With Ervin's help, his shooting form improved, and dreams of NBA stardom occupied his mind, much in the way they do every high school player with a jump shot. Marcus, a former teacher and Scott County attorney who now works as a juvenile domestic relations court judge in the region, trained the Gate City basketball team in strength and conditioning. The collective focus began to pay off.

McClung played well enough to be named Southwest Virginia Boys' Basketball Player of the Year by the Bristol Herald Courier after his junior season. Ranked a 3-star recruit, he got offers from Rutgers, La Salle, Wofford, ETSU and Marshall before deciding on the Scarlet Knights. Later in the spring, though, he breached a new echelon of hops—one that would change his life.

Zac Ervin, a freshman guard at Elon and McClung's high school and AAU teammate, remembered the moment.

"He started jumping really well kind of out of nowhere that summer," Ervin says. Playing in an Adidas circuit tournament with Team Loaded VA in Hampton, Virginia, McClung caught a pass on a fast break, took one dribble and launched off two feet into a powerful windmill dunk. The original YouTube video generated hundreds of thousands of views. Two more videos of McClung's dunks, posted in January 2018, did 1.2 million YouTube views apiece within two months. His Instagramonce home to teenage buddy portraits and a James Bond-esque prom shotblew up, racking up more than 400,000 followers by the time his senior season rolled around. He's now at around 714,000.

Suddenly, McClung became the poster boy for social media's new-age viral dunking craze. No gym that he stepped foot in was safe from an onslaught of video crews and amateur iPhone cameramen hoping to capture his next aerial pursuit. In a matter of weeks that summer in 2017, he went from a small-town hoops hero to a nationally relevant prospect being documented on every platform imaginable.

Meanwhile, playing for a Team Loaded squad with 10 future D-I players, including David McCormack (Kansas), Rasir Bolton (Iowa State), Michael Wynn (Wake Forest), Ricky Lindo Jr. (Maryland) and Armando Bacot (North Carolina), McClung was trying to adjust to playing with the caliber of talent he would soon be surrounded by in college. "In high school, I had to put up 40 every night," McClung says. "But in college, you've got to make the right play. Playing with those guys prepared me for the adjustment."

By the time his senior high school season rolled around, McClung had offers from Georgetown, Boston College and Seton Hall. Nine days after decommitting from Rutgers in October 2017, he committed to College Basketball and NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing and Georgetown, a move that led some on social media to dub him "White Iverson." With his Hoyas commitment in tow, McClung faced a spotlight he had never experienced. On game days, Gate City's modest gymnasium was packed to the brim, its sidelines lined with camerapersons.

Six years after his first organized hoops game, Mac McClung was prime time.

"He embraces the attention, but you could tell it was taking a toll on him," Ervin says. "He was trying do it all himself."

Adds McClung: "I'm not a celebrity, but some days you just want to walk to get something to eat and not get noticed. There's some anxiety when everyone is looking at you and talking about you. I'm a regular kid, but it doesn't feel like it."

With the attention and anxiety mounting, McClung found an escape in the game, be it working out at the gym or leaning on his teammates. "Once he stopped worrying about handling all the pressure, that's when he started playing his best basketball and led us to that state championship," Ervin says. "That was probably the best year of my life."

McClung averaged 42 points per game as a senior that season, breaking Allen Iverson's single-season and career state scoring records in the process. In his final game, he dropped 47 points (breaking another Virginia scoring record for most points in a championship game, held by JJ Redick) to win Gate City its first Class 2A state title.

Despite all that, a vocal contingent of basketball fans debated whether McClung belonged at the high-major level. If his skin tone were darker, would McClung's dunking escapades draw the same attention? He's only a 3-star recruit. Is he a complete player or merely a white novelty at a program with a complicated history with race? During his senior season, one opposing high school coach told McClung that he's headed to Georgetown to ride the bench. As just the second white player to accept a scholarship to Georgetown since 1979, he had a lot to prove.

"A lot of people just saw him as a white dunker," says Ty White, director of Team Loaded VA. "More than his athleticism, his best attribute is his will to compete. He's a dog. He's one of those kids who will always find a way to win."

Nearly two full seasons into his Georgetown career, McClung has certainly proved he belongs. As a freshman last season, he averaged 13.1 points and 2.0 assists per game with 29 starts en route to Big East All-Freshman honors. This year, when healthy, it's been more of the same. McClung has missed nine gamessix in Februarythanks to a nagging foot injury, but he ranks second on the team at 15.7 points per game to go along with 3.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists and a passable 32.3 percent mark from three-point range.

"He's got a lot of tricks in his bag, and he's fearless," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla says. "Within a short period of time, playing in a very good conference, he's proven to be more than his reputation as a dunker. He's on his way to being a very good college guard."

Mac McClung didn't get the Hoyas into the NCAA tournament in his first season but played well enough to be named to the Big East's All-Freshman team.
Mac McClung didn't get the Hoyas into the NCAA tournament in his first season but played well enough to be named to the Big East's All-Freshman team.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Rarely, though, does "very good" guarantee an NBA future anymore. Unlike most college players, McClung has already achieved basketball celebrity based not on achievements at the highest level but on virality. Now that he is playing under a basketball-specific scrutiny, his stardom only goes so far.

"He's a baller, the type of guard who can take over a game," one Eastern Conference NBA scout says on the condition of anonymity. "But he doesn't shoot it consistently. The three-point numbers are ugly, and the box score is kind of empty other than points."

There's no question that one of McClung's greatest assets is his swagger, a quality undoubtedly derived from his otherworldly dunking ability. When times are right, that confidence inspires teammates and intimidates opponents. (Nobody wants to get posterized.) But he's being judged on a different scale now, leaving him to figure out how he can evolve his game without sacrificing the occasional dunk-hunting killer instinct. How does he use his gimmick to elevate his overall body of work?

For teams to see McClung as the player he thinks he can bea playmaking shot-maker who can defend both guard positionshe believes he needs to show that he can make Georgetown the winner it hasn't been in recent times.

"The biggest thing, for me, is showing that I'm a winner and that I can help lead this team to the [NCAA tournament]," he says. "When we come correct, with the right energy, we have the pieces to beat anybody."

With the season they're having, that's easier said than done.

Entering the season, McClung and sophomore point guard James Akinjo, last season's Big East Freshman of the Year, looked like perhaps the best backcourt in the Big East. Between them, sophomore forward Josh LeBlanc and NC State transfer big man Omer Yurtseven, the Hoyas were a popular dark-horse candidate to win the Big East. After a 4-2 start that included a 16-point win over No. 22-ranked Texas and a close loss to Duke, momentum seemed to be building.

Then Dec. 2, after seven games, Georgetown announced that both Akinjo and LeBlanc were transferring. Akinjo joined Arizona, while Baton Rouge native LeBlanc is headed to LSU. Soon after, a public records search revealed two Georgetown students filed separate complaints against members of the basketball team: one, filed Nov. 5 against LeBlanc and junior forward Galen Alexander, included allegations of burglary and threats of bodily harm; a second, filed against ­LeBlanc, Alexander and freshman forward Myron Gardner on Nov. 12, included allegations of sexual harassment and assault and was mutually resolved Dec. 9 without the admission of or finding of guilt and with the players agreeing to stay 50 feet away from the complainant. On Dec. 13, Gardner and Alexander left the program as well.

With a roster reduced to nine scholarship players, the Hoyas surprisingly thrived. Entering Big East play Dec. 31, Georgetown was a solid 10-3. "When you face adversity, you either crumble or you come together," McClung says. "We came together. We've got guys like Jagan Mosely and Terrell [Allen], who always make the right play. We've just had some close losses and bad luck with injuries."

Eventually, the personnel drain took its toll. The Hoyas have gone 5-12 since Big East play began and found themselves a tournament "bubble team" as March began.

"[Patrick Ewing] has this team headed in the right direction," CBS Sports analyst Clark Kellogg says. "But it's hard to work through a long season when you're missing so many pieces."

Despite his ability to attack the rim, McClung's long-term basketball future rests on whether he can improve his three-point shooting, which stands at under 30 percent through his first two years at Georgetown.
Despite his ability to attack the rim, McClung's long-term basketball future rests on whether he can improve his three-point shooting, which stands at under 30 percent through his first two years at Georgetown.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Not having McClung down the stretch hammers that point home. In seven games without the guard in February (including versus Providence, where he played eight minutes), Georgetown went 3-4, with three losses by 10 points or fewer. Georgetown's only hope is to build momentum into the Big East Tournament and go on a run at Madison Square Garden. Is that realistic?

Perhaps only with a...return of the Mac.

The odds of Georgetown making the NCAA tournament are just 20 percent, according to Regardless of whether this season results in a late March Madness push or just the latest Georgetown disappointment, there's little doubt that Ewing should have a recharged, McClung-led Hoyas team back in a much better way next season. McClung's pro prospects, meanwhile, may depend on another year of development too.

If his year-over-year improvement continues, what does his ceiling look like? For his part, Fraschilla sees some of another athletically gifted, occasionally wild, former Big East guard in McClung's game. White Iverson, meet White Donte.

"McClung's not the shooter that Donte DiVincenzo is, but he's an athletic scorer who can really carry a team," Fraschilla says. "In trying times, he's shown that you can rely on him."

Big East contention and a DiVincenzo-like rise to NBA prominence? That reality is difficult to imagine now, but with the benefit of health, it may not be far off. Plus, McClung is no stranger to leaping mental obstacles.

Which brings us back to perhaps the ultimate question: Is Mac McClung an NBA player?

"Oh yeah, there's no doubt in my mind," McClung says. "But I gotta prove it. And I will prove it. I got something to prove every day."


Matthew Foley is a writer based in New York. His freelance work has been featured in SLAM, the New York Times, Ozy and theScore. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyfoles.