Jimmy McKinney chuckled when asked what awaited his cousin.
Sitting court-side inside the gym at Vashon High School, the former Missouri guard, who had recently retired after a steady career in Europe, gazed up to the bleachers. Mario McKinney Jr. quietly scrolled through his phone and occasionally looked down to watch Cam’Ron Fletcher get pushed through his paces.
“He’s heard what’s coming,” Jimmy McKinney, “but it’s different to experience it.”
This was a year ago, before McKinney took the reins of the Wolverines in his hands, before assistant coaches from Missouri, Kansas State, and Iowa beat a path to take in workouts and before the combo guard stepped up Brad Beal Elite’s 17U roster in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League.
Even then, though, you could see the threads of a narrative being woven together: A V Side phenom picks Mizzou, serving as a totem for the program’s revival of a hot-and-cold relationship with a fertile recruiting ground. Heck, Mario McKinney’s career already mirrored that of his cousin. Winning back-to-back Class 4A titles made the comparison easy.
So, it’s only natural that it will continue in Columbia.
On Monday, Mario McKinney committed to the Tigers, a decision that seemed preordained since the moment coach Cuonzo Martin took the helm in Columbia. Yet, this McKinney’s game and persona stand in stark contrast the last member of the family to don black and gold.
The easy comparison’s stop when you reach the hardwood. Where Jimmy McKinney’s game was fluid, controlled and polished, there’s bravado and physicality to Mario McKinney’s style. If Jimmy McKinney would finish a break by softly laying the ball off the glass, McKinney the Younger might be inclined to cock his hand back and finish with a flourish.
Asked back then if he was ready for what awaited him, Mario McKinney looked down and grinned.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think I can handle it.”
We’ll get to see how he authors the rest of his story.
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What does McKinney do well?
Apply pressure. Lollygag in matching up? He’s going to barrel down the lane to the rim. Soft toss a pass on a ball reversal? He’s jumping into the gap and off to the races. Fail to get a body in his path once a shot goes up? He’s going to sail in off the wing and, in some cases, snatch the miss and mash it down on your head.
Despite his stature, McKinney might be one of the most athletic guard prospects in his class. And while he might not have the floor game to operate as a lead guard, his dribble is more than developed enough to operate as a secondary ball handler, which explains why programs that play at a fast clip such as Auburn and VCU tried to get in the mix.
Defensively, you can match him up with a point guard or wing, and he’ll hold his own. He also wants the challenge of checking an opponent’s best perimeter threat. Again, his athleticism is an equalizer. There are enough chase down blocks on film to speak to McKinney’s ability to recover defensively. You’re also getting a guard who’s willing to get on the glass. This summer, his 5.6 offensive rebound percentage with Brad Beal Elite was one of the better figures for a player his size on the EYBL circuit.
At a minimum, Martin’s roster added an elite athlete who attacks the rim, clamps down defensively and willingly goes to the glass. Sure, McKinney needs some sanding and polishing, but the raw materials are more than enough for MU’s staff to work with.
Where is his room for growth?
No one would deem McKinney a knock-down shooter at this point in his development. This summer, he connected on 28.6 percent of his 3-point attempts for Brad Beal Elite — a number that will have to improve to keep defenders from sagging back and playing him solely as a driver. On top of that, Missouri’s offense spaced its wings to the perimeter, and, at least in the half court, didn’t run a ton of isolation sets or ball screens to let a slasher get downhill. If McKinney can become an average shooter from long range, defenders won’t have a choice but to close out, offering McKinney the opportunity to put defenders on their heels.
Curbing McKinney’s penchant for risk might also be in order. If you’ve seen McKinney at Vashon, you know his presence — especially defending on the ball — can grate and chafe. He’ll hunt passing lanes at times, gambling on passes to kick-start fast breaks. And if he gets in transition, he’s going to blitz the pace and attack. You don’t want to file down McKinney’s edge. It’s just a matter of channeling it for maximum impact.
What role can he play?
Maybe you aren’t aware, but MU is slated to have some youth in its backcourt in 2019-2020 with potentially six underclassmen guards vying for minutes. How those get apportioned and the roles doled out remains unknown.
In theory, the Tigers addressed their need for ball handlers by inking Xavier Pinson and a pair of transfers in Mark Smith and Dru Smith this past spring. Yet Pinson still needs to pitch a tent in the weight room, while the Smiths will remain black boxes for another calendar year. At this juncture, Mizzou has the capital to bet on its ability to sculpt McKinney into a reasonable contributor. Meanwhile, the lack of entrenched players — for now — offers the combo guard a chance to carve out a niche after he arrives in Columbia.
Put simply, program and player each have some flexibility.
Martin and his staff can also look to Vashon for a template. While McKinney owned the talent to start as a freshman, Wolverines coach Tony Irons used him in a utility role, inserting McKinney at crucial junctures and letting his energy tilt the balance toward Vashon’s during it title runs. McKinney may not have been a starter, but his minutes and role might lead you to think otherwise. At a minimum, Martin can deploy McKinney’s physical tools and ultra-competitive persona to catalyze MU on both ends of the floor, and if McKinney rapidly scales the learning curve, there will be minutes he can snatch up and call his own.