Mitch McGary makes his long road back

There was a dunk contest when the rookie got together a few weeks ago for their trading card photo shoots and rookie transition program. Each one challenged the next on Twitter to top their dunks. You had Andrew Wiggins challenging Zach LaVine challenging Aaron Gordon challenging Jabari Parker. The video was pretty entertaining and exciting for basketball fans (especially the ones that hate the current iteration of the dunk contest).

Then there was Mitch McGary.

The 6-foot-10, 255-pound forward had a back injury that knocked him out of his sophomore season and then faced a suspension before his junior season before he get selected with the 21st overall pick in last year’s Draft.

McGary was a bit rusty and could not quite dunk.

It appears some of that athleticism was lost in the time off.

McGary though has the talent to be more than his draft position. In his freshman year at Michigan, where he helped lead the Wolverines through the Tournament to the National Championship Game, he posted 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in about 20 minutes per game. But during the NCAA Tournament, he averaged 14.3 points per game and shot 67.8 percent from the floor. This included a 25-point, 12-for-17 effort against Kansas.

He was immediately pegged as a potential first round pick. And in the weak 2013 draft, that could have made him a sure-fire lottery pick. It did not work out that way thanks to injuries and suspension.

McGary though still has a bit of his talent left and he was back on the court in Summer League, looking spry and able to contribute next to Steven Adams against that competition.

“It feels really good,” McGary said after his first Summer League game in July. “It’s been a long time coming just to get back on the court. I was just doing everything I could to help the team win.

“My back feels great. I only have one gear and it’s all or nothing. I’m going to keep going. I didn’t feel anything in there that was holding me back or anything like that. I wasn’t thinking about it, just trying to help the team win.”

That is good news for the Thunder, who rely on good drafting to supplement a cash-strapped roster.

Mitch McGary showed little rust in his offensive game during Summer League in Orlando in July. Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

McGary showed a lot of the skills that had people whispering lottery for him a few years ago. During the weeklong run at Summer League, McGary averaged 14.8 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game on 50.0 percent from the floor. It was a solid four games for McGary in Orlando that week. The Thunder came across impressed.

Teammates continued to say the same things about him again and again.

“He’s a hard worker,” Steven Adams said. “A good teammate. Just real energetic. He’s going to turn out good. Just how hard he works and the energy he brings [stands out to me]. His whole personality around the locker room brings everyone up. Those two things, That’s what I was looking forward to trying to impact the energy.”

“Mitch works real hard,” Perry Jones III said. “Mitch is a good player. Strong, physical, he can shoot. He’s very confident in himself. That is something you need to be successful in this league is to confidence. Hopefully, we can push that a bit more and make him more comfortable. You never want to be satisfied and always get better.”

“Energy. He’ll do anything for the team,” Jeremy Lamb said. “He’ll dive on the floor. He’ll take charges. He’ll get in tehre and really mix it up with big men. He does a lot of little things that’s not necessarily on the stat sheet.”

Some of that might be the normal platitudes veterans give rookies when they first meet them. But the consistency of the comments makes you believe some of it is true. At Michigan, McGary mostly did a lot of the gritty work before his big performance in the NCAA Tournament. The Thunder are hoping to get a little bit of that to pair with Steven Adams.

The rookie reminded a lot of the Thunder’s veteran players from Summer League of the way Steven Adams threw himself into the fire as a rookie. He does a lot of things really well that will fit in with a team like the Thunder, where the pressure will be low for him to score but high to contribute and fill his role. His unselfishness and skill as a passer will be key in filling whatever that role is.

“I like to play with a lot of energy. I’m a hustle kind of player. I like to pick the guys up, talk on defense and provide that extra bit of energy to get us going on offense.”

Slowly McGary will get his basketball legs back after nearly a year without competitive action. Summer League was a solid showing for him. But the regular season will be different.

Knowing the Thunder, even taking a chance on a talent like this was the right one. He seems to have integrated himself fine. In a few short months we will see if he is truly ready to play.

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily