LAS VEGAS -- Mitch McGary squatted into a textbook defensive stance -- feet spread, knees bent, arm extended toward the dribbler. Normally, McGary would not have had a hard time locking down his opponent from that position, but on this occasion he just happened to be facing the best player on the planet. It only took LeBron James one power dribble to his left to separate from McGary, rise up and drill an easy 15-foot jumper. As McGary glanced over his shoulder to see the ball go in, he could only shake his head.
"I tried to do my best out there," he said later with a smile.
The sequence could have been from one of McGary's dreams, but it happened for real last week at the LeBron James Skills Academy, the Nike-sponsored gemstone of the summer hoops circuit. McGary was one of 23 college players invited to work out in front of dozens of NBA scouts at the Cashman Center in Las Vegas. Unlike three years ago, when McGary was one of the hundred-plus high school players at the camp, The King knew exactly who he was this time. (Imagine the twinge of glee McGary felt when, during a defensive switch, LeBron shouted, "I got Mitch!") James' cameo at the college workout happened to occur on the three-year anniversary of his ill-conceived announcement that he was signing with the Miami Heat. McGary had his own Decision to make last April, and if it received a fraction of the attention that the King's got, it also demonstrated a lot more maturity and judgment.
A burly 6-foot-10 forward with an intriguing blend of explosiveness, agility and ball skills, McGary enjoyed a thrilling ride last March when, as a freshman at Michigan, he anchored the Wolverines' surprising dash through the NCAA tournament. Michigan was a No. 4 seed in the South region, but thanks largely to McGary, it reached the NCAA championship game, where the Wolverines lost to Louisville, 72-66. In the wake of that achievement, McGary had to decide whether he should enter the NBA draft or return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore year.
When he submitted his name to the NBA's draft advisory board, McGary was told what he already suspected: He was a surefire first-round pick, and very possibly a lottery pick. The vast majority of college players would have jumped at that opportunity, but McGary defied convention and announced he would stay in school. "I want to prove to people that my potential is much greater than what I showed," McGary explained. "The way I look at it is, so far I've only cracked the glass. Next year I'm trying to break through it."
McGary is an old sophomore -- he just turned 21 on June 6 -- but his decision was especially surprising given his history of academic struggles. As a sophomore at Chesterton (Ind.) High School, McGary got so frustrated with his studies that he half-jokingly suggested to his AAU coach, Wayne Brumm, that he wanted to quit school "and get a normal job." The nadir came at the end of his junior year, when McGary contracted mononucleosis and missed several weeks. "His GPA really dropped, and he wasn't much of a student to begin with," said his father, Tim. At that point, it looked very unlikely that McGary would be eligible to play Division I basketball as a college freshman.
Further complicating matters was the fact that McGary had been diagnosed the year before with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). That came as a relief for Mitch and his family, who sensed that his low grades did not reflect his innate intelligence. "I was glad that we got a diagnosis because we knew something wasn't right," Tim said. "I think it bothered him that people at Chesterton didn't think he was smart." McGary tried taking medicine to help him cope with the disorder, but he stopped after six months because it made him feel anxious and sent his heart racing.
With help from Brumm, whom Mitch calls his "life coach," McGary and his family searched for a prep school that could help him get back on track. They settled on Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., which specializes in teaching students with ADHD. "When I said goodbye to him to go to Brewster, to be quite honest I didn't know if he was going to be back in two weeks or not," Brumm said.
McGary repeated the 11th grade at Brewster, spent two years there, and eventually flourished in the classroom. He did even better on the basketball court, where he led Brewster to the National Prep School championship and earned recognition as a Parade All-American as a fifth-year senior. That's when McGary made another unconventional decision: Instead of choosing a college whose basketball program had enjoyed recent success, he signed with Michigan, which had made nary a ripple since the glory days of the Fab Five in the early 1990's. "Mitch's greatest asset is that he's fearless," Brumm said. "He hides nothing, he's not afraid of being judged, and he's not afraid to fail."
With his mind finally in a good place, McGary went to work on his body. While attending summer school at Michigan, he lifted weights seriously for the first time. When he returned to Chesterton, his parents were shocked by his physique. "He was really jacked up. My wife and I were like, 'Holy cow,' " Tim said. Alas, that was not conducive for his basketball career. McGary ballooned to 275 pounds, which hurt his mobility and exacerbated his longtime problems with plantar fasciitis in his feet. While the Wolverines climbed the rankings during the regular season, McGary remained an off-the-bench role player, which was conspicuously at odds with the hype that marked his arrival.
McGary sensed early on that he was carrying too much weight. So midway through the season, he developed a new workout routine and diet with help from Michigan's training staff. "We'd go out to eat after a game and he'd say, 'I can't eat that. I'm going to have a salad,'" Tim said. "I'd never heard him say that before. He'd usually eat anything you put in front of him." Michigan coach John Beilein was still reluctant to turn him loose -- McGary played just eight minutes in a six-point loss to last-place Penn State on Feb. 27 -- but by the time the postseason rolled around, McGary was down to 253 pounds and ready for his opportunity.
His breakthrough came at the Big Ten tournament, where he posted a double-double during the first half of a win over Penn State. When the NCAA tournament began, Beilein finally inserted his prized freshman into the starting lineup. The move paid immediate dividends. With defenses focusing on the Wolverines' star-studded backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., McGary had 21 points and 14 rebounds in a third-round win over VCU and 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Sweet 16 overtime triumph against Kansas. He also showed his versatility by dishing six assists (to go along with 10 points and 12 rebounds) in the Final Four win over Syracuse. "To go from being a highly-ranked recruit who wasn't having a good year to shooting out of nowhere in the postseason and having all these people talk about me, it was pretty surreal," McGary said. "But at the same time, I knew I needed to stay level-headed."
Three days after Michigan's loss to Louisville, Brumm traveled to Ann Arbor to meet with Beilein and his staff. He knew that McGary wanted to make the same decision as his fellow freshman Glenn Robinson III, who is McGary's close friend and former AAU teammate. Brumm wanted some assurances that McGary and Robinson would be permitted to unleash their full potential -- not as role players, but as featured performers. Beilein did not make any explicit promises, but he indicated that if the players did their part, then they would have every opportunity to show what they can do, especially after Burke and Hardaway turned pro.
Since the school year ended, McGary and Robinson have been working out for long stretches together in Indiana. (Robinson was also invited to work out at the LeBron James Skills Academy.) Besides keeping his body fat low, McGary has been sharpening his perimeter skills. This isn't so much a step forward as a reprise of his past. Brumm vividly recalls that when McGary was a high school junior, he was among the best outside shooters in the country. As McGary developed his strength and explosiveness, his game moved closer to the basket, but now he is hoping to step out like he used to. The NBA scouts assembled in Las Vegas took notice. "He is showcasing that he can do stuff other than playing with his back to the basket," one western conference scout said. "You can tell he has been working on his outside shooting. That's a skill we like to see in big guys."
McGary may have made the right decision for his long-term basketball future, but he would not have come back to Michigan if he were strictly business. The truth is, despite his checkered academic past, McGary has always liked school. Most of all, he enjoys college life. "Growing up and playing sports all the time, sometimes that takes the kid out of you," he said. "I feel like trying to be young for as long as I can is good for me."
And of course, he and Robinson believe they have some unfinished business to attend to. Michigan's postseason run may have been glorious, but it still ended with a loss. They want one more chance to shatter the glass. "We want to build a new name for Michigan basketball," McGary said. "Yes, we're missing some pieces we had last year, but I feel like with the leadership that Glenn and I bring to the table, and the guys we have coming in, we can be on a national stage. You saw how far we made it last year when nobody expected it. So why not again?"