WESTFIELD, Ind. — Mario McKinney tinges his game with tension.
The Vashon guard prowls the floor in a perpetual crouch, whether it's beating a ball-handler to a spot or waiting to take a feed on the wing. At some point, the elastic energy stored in McKinney reaches the point of strain and snaps like a coiled spring.
On Saturday, the breaking point came two minutes into the second half of Brad Beal Elite’s 73-47 rout of BABC during the second session of Nike’s EYBL circuit. Pushing the ball on a secondary break, Joshua Wallace threaded a bounce pass Yuri Collins, who lofted it toward the rim almost as soon as it touched his hands.
Streaking down the middle of the floor, McKinney took off in the middle of the lane, snaring the ball over his left shoulder, lifted it aloft and mashed it down. Dangling from the rim inside the Pacers Athletic Center, the 6-foot-2 guard, who finished with 13 points on 4 of 7 shooting, gazed down almost pityingly on his peers.
One possession later, he bolted to the left corner to spot up, taking a feed for an easy catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. And four minutes later, the nation’s No. 76 prospect for 2019 poked the ball free from Brycen Goodine at the top of the key, scooped it up and shoveled it ahead to fellow Missouri target Terrence Hargove Jr., who breezed in for a two-handed throwdown of his own.
McKinney bides his time between outbursts. The BBE roster is stacked with four top-150 prospects in the 2019 class — McKinney, Hargrove, E.J. Liddell and Francis Okoro — and starts wing Moses Moody, the No. 21 player in 2020. Slotted at combo guard, McKinney claws for minutes with Yuri Collins, a point guard out of Saint Mary’s in St. Louis, and Zion Harmon, who is touted as the nation’s best freshman.
“Once I just relax and let the game to me, I just play my game,” McKinney said on Saturday. “Today, I had to settle down in order for me to play good, and that’s what I did.”
Mario McKinney Jr. — EYBL Statistics
McKinney’s levitations might leave audiences with jaws agape, but he’d rather college coaches walk away impressed by his floor game. For more than a year, a central question has framed his recruitment: Is McKinney a point guard or combo guard at the college level?
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff have told McKinney they see him as a combo guard but want the ball in his hands a large chunk of the time he’s on the floor. “So I need to work on my point guard skills a lot more and showcase my skills.”
And it’s a topic McKinney said he wants to address with BBE coach Corey Frazier, who also trains McKinney in the offseason.
“He likes me running, but I know when I get back to high school and things like that, I’m going to have to play the point guard a lot more,” McKinney said. “So I’m going to have to convince Coach to let me run the point a little bit. It don’t have to be a lot, but, you know, show some college coaches that I can run it.”
The hunt for those minutes could also impact the timeline McKinney is using to reach a decision. Coming into the grassroots season, the expectation was that he’d make his commitment by summer’s end. On Saturday, though, McKinney said it’s possible he could push the deadline back.
Vashon, which was exceptionally young last season, is slated to play a national schedule, including games in the City of Palms Classic, in front of a bevy of high-major staffs. A stellar campaign, one where McKinney thrives captaining the ship, could end skepticism about his ability to lead a team at a high-major program.
“I want to see how I do and see if I get any more looks,” McKinney said.
MU doesn’t need to see more, though. Martin made that much clear in a recent conversation with a prospect Mizzou fans have long pined for. Columbia, after all, is where his cousin and Vashon legend Jimmy McKinney suited up.
“He said whenever I’m ready to make that move, just let him know,” McKinney said. “But he said to continue doing what I’m doing and said they’re going to continue watching me every step.”
So tension, however slight, trails McKinney off the floor. Iowa State and Marquette paid a visit to his home earlier this month. He’s also in regular contact with Florida, Virginia Tech, Saint Louis, Kansas State, Louisville, and Purdue, and he holds offers from all of those suitors but the Boilermakers.
Meanwhile, Mizzou landed Evansville transfer Dru Smith late last week. On Friday night, Martin watched point guard D.J. Carton, the No. 31 prospect in 2019, at an event in Minnesota. Over three days in the suburbs of Indianapolis, assistant coach Cornell Mann trailed Rocket Watts, another top-50 prospect for The Family Detroit. Finally, the staff extended an offer to CBC’s Caleb Love, who plays for BBE’s 16U squad and is the No. 83 recruit in the 2020 class.
Point being, as is the case with BBE, McKinney could run into a minutes crunch in Columbia. With just a few more reps, he thinks he could make a compelling case to Mizzou’s coaches, who are mainstays at every BBE tilt.
“I can score,” McKinney said. “I need to showcase I can pass the ball, get teammates involved, get the big man involved, setting on-ball screens and getting other guys open.”