FORT WAYNE, Ind. – On a Saturday morning in May, Mac Irvin Fire is sleepwalking during pool play at the Spiece Bill Hensley Memorial Run ‘N’ Slam.
Inside Spiece Fieldhouse, they’ve fallen into a 12-point hole against Nova Village, a plucky grassroots program out Ohio. The Windy City powerhouse is late springing traps out of its press and sloppily rotating in the halfcourt. At the other end, gaps are clogged, slowing Adam Miller, and Marcus Watson Jr. launches assaults on the rim.
All the while, center Ryan Kalkbrenner is struggling to keep time with a quick beat.
On several possessions, he’s barely crossed changed ends before the Fire, whose blistering pace ranks fifth in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, springs back the other direction. Unable to turn the game into a helter-skelter scramble, Kalkbrenner’s routinely caught in cross-matches against shifty wings.
Without a scouting report, the 7-footer’s left to decipher in real time whether he’s guarding a shooter or driver. Sliding to cut off drivers, he looks a half-step slow. Close-outs become flybys. Finally, marooned far from the rim, Kalkbrenner can’t do what he does best: pluck misses out of the air and swat shots – lots of them.
If Kalkbrenner’s presence on the Fire seems bizarre, he meets skepticism with a sly grin and a chuckle. “I like playing that kind of style,” he said. “It kind of forces me to run up and down the court, play with energy and stuff.”
And while the fit isn’t always seamless, the St. Louis native and Trinity Catholic senior has acclimated quickly. Since early March, he’s picked up 13 scholarship offers after entering the month with none to his name, including seven since the lone evaluation period of the spring wrapped up at the end of April. Count Missouri, which has gone on a recent spree in offering scholarships to frontcourt prospects, among the clutch of programs buying stock in Kalkbrenner.
While scouts and coaches scour the country in search of undervalued assets, a prospect like Kalkbrenner can go unsighted for quite a while. Growing up, he spent most of his time playing in local CYC leagues with friends rather than hunting for the best travel program. And when he reached high school, he opted to attend Trinity in north St. Louis, the alma mater of his mother’s brother, and a school known as a factory for churning out football talent.
A month ago, Kalkbrenner found it surreal to see coaches from power conference programs texting, calling and filling his inbox with direct messages. Now, 11 offers later, comes the fun part: picking a spot.
‘I knew where he was headed’
To understand how a quiet kid wound up on this path, pick the brain of Trinity coach Jeff McCaw.
Shortly after taking a job at the moribund program six years ago, McCaw struck up a chat Kalkbrenner, already standing 6-foot-1 at age 12, at a summer basketball camp. During the conversation, McCaw extracted two vital bits of information: The middle schooler’s father and mother stood 6-foot-9 and 6-4, respectively. “I knew where he was headed,” McCaw recalled.
Over the next two years, Kalkbrenner dropped by to watch Titans practices, every so often hopping into drills. By the time he was a freshman, Kalkbrenner had grown to 6-foot-7, with a game that lagged well behind his stature. He broke down quickly off the bounce, and his lack of lateral agility meant he was slow to rotate, negating whatever rim protection he might offer.
The fact that McCaw, the longtime coach at now-shuttered Wellston and an assistant at CBC, had a total rebuild on his hands was another factor. Opponents often pounced on Trinity— who owned a .382 win percentage in McCaw’s first three seasons— early, forcing the Titans to press in a bid to keep the margin close. Often, Kalkbrenner could be played off the floor.
“As a freshman and sophomore, you couldn’t really tell how skilled I was,” Kalkbrenner recalled. “I was out there getting pushed around and everything. I couldn’t really hold my own.”
Scoff all you want, but McCaw maintains his main goal is to cultivate players for success at the collegiate level. A simple motto gets at the crux of the approach. Be greater later. When he watched Kalkbrenner, he saw a big man who possessed all the essential tools for rim protection: an innate grasp of when to challenge a shot and great timing off the floor— all without biting on ball fakes.
Once McCaw taught him how to wall up and use his length to make defenders convert tough finishes over the top, a steady progression unfolded in earnest. Elite grassroots programs never scrambled to sign him up. There were stints with Gateway Basketball Club and the Louisville Magic, but neither raised his profile. “Just playing at the rec center,” he said of his summers. “I didn’t really do a bunch of traveling stuff.”
By last season, Kalkbrenner and Trinity appeared poised for a breakthrough. The Titans went undefeated in conference play, blasting opponents by an average margin of 22 points. If not for a foot injury, the program would likely have claimed its first district title. A year later, the checked the task off during a postseason run that ended with a loss against eventual Class 3 champion Vashon in the state quarterfinals.
Steady Progression | Ryan Kalkbrenner - Trinity Catholic
Consider, too, the fact Kalkbrenner’s touches, which produced 14.2 points per game, didn’t come via post-ups built into the blueprint of Trinity’s offense. Instead, his eight shots a night came off putbacks, pocket passes when slipping to the bucket, lobs to the rim on the break or off back screens near the elbow. At the very least, he knows he can score over his left shoulder with a baby hook.
“He just wants us to play basketball and puts in situations where we have to make the right reads,” Kalkbrenner said of McCaw’s approach. “He doesn’t want to put us into a restrictive offense where, once we get to college, all of a sudden we don’t know how to play basketball. He just wants us to make smart decisions on offense.”
The next step: Stave off extinction
Patience and prudence ferried Kalkbrenner a long way on the developmental curve, but the game’s rapid evolution is quickly rendering players in his mold obsolete. In the pace-and-space era, quants have demonstrated a post-up is far less efficient than launching a 3-pointer. While back-to-the-basket centers won’t go extinct, their size alone doesn’t ensure longevity.
“Not everybody can be a center,” McCaw said. “You have more options to move down a position to be a wing or a power forward because of your skill set. I want him to know he can be whatever he develops himself into.”
Survival will go to those post players who can make savvy reads, picking out shooters and whipping passes from the post. The ability to face-up, whether it’s a pick-and-pop or corner 3 – will be at a premium. Finally, the mobility to hold up on the perimeter guarding wings in switch-heavy defenses is also a trait in demand.
“That’s one thing coach McCaw has really been on me about,” Kalkbrenner said. “He tells me a traditional big isn’t going to work anymore. I have to be able to guard on the perimeter, and he really pushes me to do that.”
During Trinity’s practices, McCaw tasks his center to pick up point guard Rashad Weekly-McDaniels as he brings the ball up the floor. Working in ball-screen coverages matches hism against Marcus Washington or Isaiah Williams – a pair of guards who moonlight on the hardwood but will don shoulder pads for Texas and Illinois this fall. Over time, Kalkbrenner’s adapted, figuring out to use his size and wingspan to offset slower footspeed.
“Sometimes, a guard will drive, and I let them beat me,” he said. “I go for the block, and it looks good, but it’s not fundamentally right.”
Tinkering, tweaking, and trial-and-error go beyond McCaw’s preference to play man-to-man. When Trinity rolls out a press, Kalkbrenner might be the tip of the spear. The same logic applies to the Titans zone defense, which requires the biggest man on the floor quickly sink from the key to the basket when the ball swings to the wing.
Despite averaging better than four blocks per game, Kalkbrenner can still improve as a post defender. “You have to meet the guy three feet from the basket,” McCaw said. “You can’t just stand under the basket, or they’re going to put you on a poster. You can’t let them beat you to a spot.”
None of those goals, though, are realistic until Kalkbrenner learns to plays lighter on his feet. “I have the footwork down for my post moves,” he said. “It’s just too slow to be effective.” The instrument of choice? A rope ladder. Last summer, McCaw dropped it all over the gym floor, while McCaw tapped his toes in and out before having to switch feet, fire open his hips, catch a bounce pass and finish at the rim.
“I shouldn’t hear you coming,” McCaw said. “Big people walk like they’ve got on 100-pound boots.”
Which circles us back to an initially flummoxing question: How does a player like Kalkbrenner wind up playing on a grassroots squad that wants to play at a breakneck pace? Again, the answer is McCaw. Before he signed with UNLV and went 38th overall in the 2016 NBA draft, Patrick McCaw ran the Fire — a move the elder McCaw approved after watching Ben McLemore, who starred for him at Wellston, find success almost 300 miles to the north.
“The thing is, Chicago kids always play at a high intensity,” McCaw said. “ You have to see that if you won’t get acclimated to playing like that.”
When Kalkbrenner was looking to catch on with a team for a pivotal year in his recruitment, a call to Fire coach Mike Irvin, who also helms a Chicago power at Morgan Park High School, landed him a spot. In the month leading up to the start of EYBL play, the buzz among recruiting analysts surrounding Kalkbrenner steadily picked up. Those assessments were seemingly affirmed when he averaged 9.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks during the Fire’s opening quartet of games, earning Kalkbrenner a modest accolade.
EYBL Profile | Ryan Kalkbrenner, Post, 7-foot, 210 pounds
And after an unsteady opening 12 minutes last weekend, you can see why high-majors are taking an interest. Slowly, the Fire bent momentum its directions. Nova’s jumpers began kicking off the back rim, and Kalkbrenner snatched down three boards in as many trips. Quick outlet passes kickstarted secondary breaks, and a double-digit deficit slowly melted on the way an 89-87 victory — helping the Fire sweep its pool and reach the quarterfinals at an event that typically draws top programs from across the Midwest.
By then, Kalkbrenner had acclimated to how Nova wanted to attack him: having a guard sprint off a pindown, take a handoff from a big and force Kalkbrenner to pick up the ball-handler as they turned the corner. Instead of throwing his body in the desired path, he settled into trail position. Watching from the sideline, Irvin quietly muttered, “That’s yours, Ryan.”
When Kalkbrenner changed the shot’s trajectory, it doesn’t come after cocking back his arm. Instead, he raises it almost as if he’s hesitant to raise his hand in class. The ball’s flight path simply stops halfway toward the glass, falling gently over the baseline. Meanwhile, Kalkbrenner’s face doesn’t contort. He doesn’t make a sound.
The only peep is Irvin’s voice.
“Tell him to get that shit out of here,” he said.
A future written in dry-erase marker
To most of us, the task might sound corny, but in light of current events, it might seem prophetic.
When Kalkbrenner was still a sophomore toiling in anonymity, McCaw gave him simple instructions: Write the names of your dream colleges. The coach admits he can be long-winded and that some of his insights draw from time-worn cliches, but it doesn’t diminish the underlying point of the exercise.
“You are what you believe you can be,” McCaw said.
While high-major programs made sporadic contact with Kalkbrenner over the winter, the frequency picked up six weeks ago. In late March, Kansas State, Xavier and Illinois were the first power conference schools to extend offers. A month later, Mizzou reached out, but, like many of Kalkbrenner’s suitors, held back their offers until they saw him in the flesh in EYBL play during the first evaluation period of the spring. Since then, the likes Creighton, Georgia Tech, Cincinnati, Saint Louis and Virginia Tech have joined the fray.
And nine days ago, his phone buzzed. A Palo Alto area code popped up on the screen. On the other end of the line awaited an offer from the Cardinal. Suddenly, a simple thought exercise was no longer theoretical.
“That was my goal,” said Kalkbrenner, who recently entered the Rivals top-150 rankings as the nation’s No. 139 prospect. “But I never really thought about it. I was just trying to play basketball.”
Now, he faces a summer chock full of mulling.
The earliest he’ll look to line up visits is in June, when the grassroots circuit goes on hiatus and individual camps start in earnest. A trip to Columbia is on his early list of destinations, and Kalkbrenner’s seen from afar what Martin and his program desire in a player brought into the fold. “They want guys playing hard,” he said. “They probably want to see what kind of heart is in me.”