Newcomer McKinnie Aims to Build off Unlikely Journey to Cavs
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- New Cavaliers forward Alfonzo McKinnie played in Luxembourg his first year a professional, making $1,500 a month.
He played college ball at Green Bay, not exactly a factory for the NBA. When he was finished there, he didn't even bother to enter his name in the draft. Nor did he take part in any pre-draft workouts.
So he took his talents overseas.
How bad were things in Luxembourg? Bad enough that McKinnie felt alone enough to quit the team and return home to Chicago. Because the pay was so low, most of McKinnie's teammates had day jobs. It was pro basketball purgatory and he felt isolated. That was in 2016.
Following a brief stint in Mexico, McKinnie became a member of the U.S. 3-on-3 team for a FIBA tournament in China. He averaged 3.1 points. When it came to the NBA, McKinnie was about as far off the radar as a man could get.
When all that was happening, in 2016, the Cavaliers were winning their first championship, a 3-1 series comeback over the Golden State Warriors.
"I started from the bottom," McKinnie said. "I've learned how to grind and stay focused, not knowing what would come next."
Today, McKinnie is speaking as a member of the Cavs. He was waived by the Warriors last week. The Cavs picked him up a couple days later. After an injury to Kevin Durant, McKinnie is coming off a season in which he played meaningful minutes in the Finals.
So he has seen both the darkest corners and highest pinnacles of pro basketball. Now, he and the Cavs are hoping he has found a permanent home.
McKinnie is 6-foot-7 and appeared in 72 games with the Warriors, averaging 4.7 points and 3.7 rebounds.
But the Warriors decided to go younger this season and McKinnie, 27, was the odd man out. Still, he left quite an impression.
"He's the kind of person you want on your team," Kerr told reporters. "He helped us win a lot of games last year; helped us get to the Finals. He's everything you want from a player in terms of being a great teammate and great worker."
That's one reason Cavs general manager Koby Altman and coach John Beilein were excited to land McKinnie. They are trying to build a strong culture and McKinnie is a culture guy.
In the fall of 2016, McKinnie paid $175 to try out for the Windy City Bulls, the G League affiliate in his hometown. That is how his journey to the NBA really began.
He made the team, performed well and even played in the G League All-Star Game. Finally, scouts started to notice.
It all led to a contract with the Toronto Raptors in July 2017. But even then, McKinnie appeared in just 14 NBA games, averaging 1.6 points and spending most of his time in the G League. The Raptors waived him before the start of last season.
A few invitations to training camp rolled in. While the Warriors were a power and not really in need of help, McKinnie decided their invite sounded best. Their bench was growing older. His young legs could be what they needed in practice and in reserve.
It proved to be the right fit -- for at least last season.
Now, McKinnie is starting over again. He said he has never played with any of the Cavs before, isn't too familiar with anyone on the team.
That's OK with him. He has always been able to adapt. He has seen it all. This situation is no different.
"You can look at it like, in a sense, the young guys don't know what to expect," McKinnie said. "I can help them, just to stay focused. I can let them know, 'Don't ever be too down, don't ever be too up, because things change in this game.'"
McKinnie knows all about the changes of which he speaks. It's why he is happy to be in Cleveland, happy to be anywhere in the NBA.
"For sure. We play basketball for a living, get paid for it," he said. "What's better than that? I've been playing this game my whole life. Up until the professional level, I played it for free.
"So it's an opportunity you have to cherish. You never know when that ball is going to stop bouncing."
McKinnie said he intends to bring the same role to the Cavs that he brought to the Warriors -- energy, defense, doing the little gritty things that can sometimes go unnoticed.
Those are the things he felt would make a different early in his career, the things that have brought him to this point, and the things he said he hopes will carry him to another level.
"For me it's always been about staying self-motivated," he said. "Even when I was in Luxembourg, I knew I was a higher caliber player. It was always about working every day until an opportunity presented itself.
"I'm just thankful that Cleveland is giving me the opportunity."