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Mario McKinney Jr. proved who he is this summer

The nation’s 121st-ranked player excelled on the grassroots circuit in July. But is he the right combo guard for Mizzou?

FloSports: FloHoops EYBL Session 2 Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Mario McKinney Sr. skimmed recruiting rankings and stared at his computer screen befuddled.

How can a kid slide 45 spots?

But there it was, a conundrum rendered in pixels and his the visage of his son — Mario McKinney Jr. — with almost a fitting scowl, as if his boy had taken a peek to his left and seen the digits next to his name.

Sure, the combo guard’s output may have ebbed and flowed for Brad Beal Elite. Maybe scouts roaming courts at EYBL sessions saw off days. Maybe they missed hustle plays or didn’t notice McKinney doggedly trailing and badgering opposing wings.

So, the father got out his phone to ask how the son landed at No. 121 in Rivals’ index.

“I chatted back and forth a little bit with the guy at Rivals who does the rankings,” McKinney Sr. said this week. “But I think Mario may have felt a little cheated. When he saw that, I think it drove him to get back in the gym and work.”

By July’s end, McKinney stacked up enough stellar outings, including a spot on the All-Breakout Team at Peach Jam, to remind prep scouts and college staffs why he’d been pegged as a top-75 recruit. Posting 17 points per game in the Nike EYBL’s finale is a compelling case, but McKinney played with the assertiveness and tenacity that is part and parcel of his persona for Vashon in St. Louis.

“He really took it back up a notch to the level he’s used to playing at,” McKinney Sr. said.

The final month of the grassroots season also settled a question posed last fall when McKinney, who had been a spark plug off the bench for his first two prep seasons, stepped into a starting role for the Wolverines:

Is he a point guard?

Mario McKinney Jr. | Peach Jam Statistics

17 41.5 63.5 25.9 6.2 1.6 0.2 0.2 46.9 52.3

A summer running with a loaded Brad Beal Elite roster, in theory, would offer up more data to help draw a conclusion. Instead, Yuri Collins, who plays with St. Mary’s Academy, and Zion Harmon, billed as the nation’s best freshman point guard, occupied those minutes. Pushed off the ball, McKinney had to vie for minutes with another blue-chipper in wing Moses Moody, a top-40 prospect in the Class of 2020.

Circumstances changed in June.

Moody suffered a foot injury in the run-up to tryouts for USA Basketball’s under-17 squad, opening up minutes. On top of that, Collins, who had been playing with a shoulder injury and donning a brace to stabilize the joint, finally underwent surgery — a procedure that forced him to sit out BBE’s trip to The 8 tournament in Las Vegas.

“They were sort of relying on him at times to take over,” McKinney Sr. said. “Do something to give a spark — get a loose ball, get a rebound, get a steal. It was those little things that I think sparked the team at times.”

Attrition offered opportunity and clarity for McKinney. He spent June putting in workouts twice a day with BBE coach Corey Frazier, who is also basketball trainer with Pure Sweat. McKinney’s game is pugilistic. He wants to attack in the open floor. He wants to attack gaps in the half court. And his brand of chest-to-chest defense has a way of testing the resolve of opposing wings.

Yet McKinney can be an easy scout. In catch-and-shoot situations, opposing guards hang back, anticipating McKinney to put the ball on the floor. In their workouts, Frazier drilled McKinney on making clean catches and getting his shoulder squared to the rim. “Normally, the first thing he does if he catches the ball in a place like the corner is drive or do a bunch of ball fakes,” Frazier said.

In July, though, McKinney’s shot selection diversified, even if the shooting percentage at an event like Peach Jam (25.9 3FG%) didn’t always reflect it. Meantime, Frazier laid down a simple edict.

“I told him, “If you’re not going to shoot the ball, you’re going to come sit down next to me.”

Asked what position he thinks McKinney plays at the next level, Frazier’s assessment was straightforward.

“He’s a combo guard,” Frazier said. “You’ve got to let him be who he is, and that’s an elite athlete because he plays bigger than 6-foot.

“He’s more comfortable off the ball,” Frazier added. “Now if he’s on the ball and in the open court, watch out. But in a half court set, I just don’t think he plays the position enough in his career to put it on him.”

Several programs pursuing McKinney may have reached the same conclusion. McKinney Sr. said VCU and Mizzou are pitching his son on systems that rely on multiple ball handlers. “That’s what he did with BBE,” McKinney Sr. said. “You might have one who brings it up the majority of the time, but you still have two guys who can make plays for you.”

State of Play | Missouri’s Remaining 2019 Offers

Last Name First Name Height Weight Position City State HS/JUCO AAU Offered
Last Name First Name Height Weight Position City State HS/JUCO AAU Offered
Liddell E.J. 6'7" 220 Combo Forward Belleville IL Belleville West Bradley Beal Elite (Nike) 5/10/17
McKinney Mario 6'2" 180 Combo Guard St. Louis MO Vashon Bradley Beal Elite (Nike) 6/18/17
Mosley Isiaih 6'5" 185 Wing Columbia MO Rock Bridge MoKan Elite (Nike) 6/19/17
Beverly Harlond 6'4" 170 Wing Southfield MI Montverde (Fla.) Academy Reach Legends (NY2LA) 10/21/17
Collum Antavion 6'8" 215 Wing Memphis TN Tennessee Prep Team CP3 (Nike) 4/8/18
Thomas Khalid 6'9" 202 Combo Forward Portland OR College of Southern Idaho NA 7/16/18
Braun Christian 6'6" 180 Wing Overland Park KS Blue Valley Northwest MoKan Elite (Nike) 8/3/18

In his communications with Mizzou’s staff, Frazier’s been told that MU views McKinney Jr. as an athlete who can give them flexibility. “They’re going to bring him in and do whatever’s necessary with him,” he said. “If you’ve got guys who are willing to take that risk, you can’t complain about it. That says a lot about that kid.”

On Monday night, McKinney released a list of seven finalists for his services via Snapchat. There were the expected members — Mizzou, Kansas State and Iowa State — along with a quartet of relative newcomers in Auburn, Louisville, VCU and Oklahoma State. How soon a decision might be reached is still a moving target.

Back in April, McKinney said he was mulling whether to let his senior season play out and see if it ginned up additional interest ahead of the spring signing period. Two months later, though, he told scribes he might not take an official visit to Columbia and made waves by implying that he and top-50 prospect E.J. Liddell, who is a childhood friend, might constitute a “package deal.”

On Sunday, McKinney Sr. said an official visit date has been for Kansas State during the weekend of Sept. 9. Two other visits are also in the planning stages for VCU and Iowa State, while McKinney Jr. said last month Auburn would likely get a visit as well. If those four schools play host the guard, he would have a lone trip in his pocket.

Meanwhile, Mizzou continues to do its due diligence, checking in several times a week. “They just want us to know they’re still here,” McKinney Sr. said.

At the moment, McKinney Jr. is one of three combo guards the Tigers are actively pursuing, along with a pair of top-60 recruits out of Michigan in Rocket Watts and Harlond Beverly. The Tigers also made the cut for Watts’ top eight last month, and various reports have indicated Mizzou’s chances to pry him out of the Mitten shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Meanwhile, Illinois transfer Mark Smith, a former top-60 prospect out of Edwardsville (Ill.) in the Metro East, is sitting out this season but will be available next year.

A year ago, conventional wisdom may have regarded McKinney as a chief priority for the 2019 class. Now, though, MU appears to have a variety of options at his position and raises the question as to how roster composition could be weighted in his decision.

“I don’t think it matters who’s there or who they’re recruiting,” McKinney Sr. said. “It’s not going to make Mario shy away from a decision. If it’s where he wants to go, he’s going to go in there and earn what he gets.

“If he goes there, he knows he’s going to work hard,” McKinney Sr. said. “He’s going to do everything in his power to be the kid you can’t keep out of your lineup.”