TikTok Dances and NBA Draft Prep: How Jared McCain Balances Both Ahead of Likely First-Round Selection

The former five-star recruit and Duke guard is ‘unapologetically himself all the time’ whether in front of nearly three million social media followers or on one of college basketball’s biggest stages.
Duke Blue Devils guard Jared McCain has nearly three million followers on TikTok and is a likely first-round pick in the 2024 NBA draft.
Duke Blue Devils guard Jared McCain has nearly three million followers on TikTok and is a likely first-round pick in the 2024 NBA draft. / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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From the day Jared McCain stepped on campus at Duke last summer, Blue Devils men’s basketball coach Jon Scheyer had “the TikTok talk” ready to go. 

It’s something that came with the territory of recruiting the California native, equal parts basketball and social media star. Being a five-star recruit on the court, with nearly three million TikTok followers off of it, was guaranteed to create the question: Can he do both? So Scheyer, in his second year as Duke’s coach, was ready with what he called the “be careful on TikTok” speech, should McCain hit a bump in the road. It never came. 

“It was literally never a distraction,” Scheyer says. “Once you’re around him, you realize he’s one of the few, maybe ever, to be able to handle both [basketball and social media] and still be all the way into everything that it takes to be a successful basketball player.” 

The stereotypes associated with McCain, the 20-year-old future first-round NBA draft pick who embraces painting his nails and isn’t afraid to sing or dance in front of millions online, can be ugly. But how the 2024 draft prospect has played on the floor has won over plenty of skeptics, and in the process has helped redefine what “being yourself” looks like for athletes everywhere. 

McCain’s star was born, on and off the court, while he was a high school student at Centennial High School in Corona, California. His brother Jayce, 24, says Jared “flipped a switch” from a basketball perspective in eighth grade after seeing family friend Devin Askew emerge as a star on the high school recruiting circuit. 

“Jared saw that and that was when it clicked in his brain that, like, ‘I can be good at this thing,’” Jayce McCain says. “That’s when he started taking it seriously, that’s when he started working out multiple times a day.” 

In four years of high school basketball, Jared McCain’s team went a ridiculous 111–12 (40–0 in league games). In AAU, he led Team Why Not to the 16U Peach Jam championship, the most prestigious event in grassroots basketball, and scored 25 points in the title game. All the while, he saw his recruiting ranking take off, rising from being ranked in the mid-30s nationally in the fall of his junior year of high school into a top-15 prospect and McDonald’s All-American by the time final rankings came out at the end of his senior year, days before he officially moved in at Duke.

At the same time, McCain’s celebrity was rapidly growing thanks to his success on TikTok. McCain’s dance videos exploded on the app, helping his following explode from a couple hundred thousand in the summer of 2021 to pushing two million by the end of ’22. His near-daily posts featured him dancing, well, wherever … from hotel rooms with AAU teammates to the living room of his family’s house back home in California. 

Building that type of platform essentially guarantees experiencing some online vitriol. For McCain, much of that came from him painting his nails. McCain’s not the only athlete to embrace nail-painting as a form of self-expression: Jared mentions seeing Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson and Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green do it first as inspiration, and Heisman Trophy–winning QB and new Chicago Bear Caleb Williams has also painted his. 

“It’s funny, when I first did it in [the COVID-19 pandemic], I wasn’t really processing it. Like, I knew it was a ‘girl’ thing, but I didn’t process it, to that extent, that people were going to be that mad at it,” McCain said during the NBA draft combine last month in Chicago. “I’m used to it by now, though.” 

Jared McCain with a basketball in his hands in a shooting motion with his fingernails painted blue.
McCain routinely paints his nails as a form of self-expression. / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As if being a Duke basketball player didn’t make McCain a villain enough for a segment of the internet, dancing on TikTok with painted nails added fuel to the fire. So when McCain started the 2023–24 season slowly, averaging 7.6 points and shooting just 36% from the field in the season’s first eight games, the criticism came in bunches.

“If you’re playing bad and you paint your nails and you do TikTok dances, you’re going to get hate no matter what,” McCain said. “I’m always going to be myself … Find what makes you happy, what makes you feel good about yourself and just keep doing it.” 

But even as McCain struggled, the work ethic that got him to Duke never wavered. Scheyer called him “the most disciplined” freshman he had ever coached and watched as McCain slowly found his footing in the college game playing in a new role off the ball. 

“He didn’t have a bad day at Duke,” Scheyer says. “He had days where he didn’t shoot the ball well or he missed defensive assignments, but it was never due to a lack of preparation or a lack of commitment or his mind not being all the way in. He’s an all-in guy.”

From the outside, being “all in” while balancing what for many is a full-time job as an influencer might be perceived as a challenge. But for McCain, there has always been a clear hierarchy, and his efforts to be great first as a basketball player have never been questioned by those around him.

“He’s great at balancing it, obviously. But the funny thing is, everything in his day is designed around him being the best basketball player he can be,” Jayce McCain, who spent last year as a graduate assistant at Duke, says. “He’ll do the influencer thing for five minutes, not even five minutes a day. He’ll just film a few TikToks in two minutes and that’s his work for the day for the influencer part, and the rest of the day is designed for him to be the best basketball player he can be. I think people get that mixed up, that he’s out there doing TikTok while he should be in the gym. No, he put in four hours in the gym and everything else around his day is basketball.” 

“Working hard, being disciplined, having a routine. That’s what got me to Duke, got me to a five-star in high school, McDonald’s All-American,” Jared McCain said. “I’m not the most athletic or anything like that, but I’m going to find ways to win and just play hard.” 

McCain drives to the basket during the McDonald's All-American Game in 2023.
McCain drives to the basket during the McDonald's All-American Game in 2023. / Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

And with consistent work came the eventual payoff. McCain circles his big performance (21 points, three assists, 7 for 11 shooting) against Baylor in late December as the big turning point, one that propelled him to a second half of the season that saw him look like one of the best guards in college basketball. From that game on, McCain averaged over 16 points, five rebounds and two assists per game. The only Duke freshmen to post those averages for a full season in the last decade: Paolo Banchero, RJ Barrett, Jayson Tatum and Brandon Ingram.

He also emerged as the heartbeat of the Duke locker room, even on a team that featured multiple veterans like senior Jeremy Roach and sophomore star Kyle Filipowski.

“I don’t think you can just dictate who your leader is or who the guys are going to gravitate to. It was clear early on, I don’t care if you were one of the more experienced players on the team or one of the freshmen, they all gravitated to Jared,” Scheyer says. “He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk every single day. Nobody could say they worked harder than him. Nobody could say they competed harder. He’s unselfish, he’s about winning, he’s about others. Off the court, he’s one of the most fun, jovial guys; on the court, he’s the most serious, as locked in as anyone on the team.” 

McCain has a way of “lighting up a room with his personality,” according to Filipowski, Duke’s leading scorer and another likely first-round pick in this month’s draft.

“There’s a lot of biases or misconceptions about him because of the way he lives his life,” Filipowski said at the combine. “To be honest, he probably gets the most hate out of anyone I’ve ever seen, and you can’t even tell he gets hated on. He just lives his life how he enjoys it … I’m just looking at him like, if this guy can do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it.”

McCain now making the jump to basketball’s biggest stage means having to answer the same questions many had this time last year: Does basketball really come first? McCain never seems to get frustrated by the TikTok question, regardless of how many times he has to answer it. 

“If you know anything about me, talked to anyone around me, you know [what] my work ethic is,” McCain said. “[Social media] has no effect on anything I do on the court.”

The negative comments and online hate seem likely to only be amplified once he steps foot in the NBA. But McCain is uniquely wired to handle his celebrity both in and out of basketball. Scheyer uncovered perhaps the best way to describe him during the recruiting process, a quote from McCain’s high school coach Josh Giles: “He’s unapologetically himself all the time.”

“A lot of people would change once you start reading comments or reactions or hateful comments,” Scheyer says. “He’s just continued to double down on who he is as a person.”

In doing so, McCain has won over coaches, teammates and fans at every step of his basketball journey. Wherever he’s picked in the draft later this month, it’s a safe bet he’ll do the same thing in the NBA. 

“I miss him like crazy, man,” Scheyer says. “He’s a hell of a guy to be around. People are going to regret not picking him higher, I’m just telling you.”

Kevin Sweeney


Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).