Final Four

Build up: McGary develops from raw talent into focal point of Michigan offense

Photo illustration by Ankur Patankar, Photo courtesy of University of Michigan Athletics

Michigan big man Mitch McGary has gone from seldom used in the regular season, to a key component of the Wolverines' Final Four run.

Mitch McGary rode the roller coaster of college basketball recruiting. From Chesterton High School (Ind.) and AAU national powerhouse SYF Players to renowned Brewster Academy, the big man’s stock skyrocketed as he dominated AAU tournaments, and faded quickly as his stats fell at Brewster.

He rose from a triple-digit prospect, skipped double-digits and landed on ESPN and Rivals’ rankings as a top-five recruit in the class of 2012. He signed with Michigan on Nov. 3, 2011, as the nation’s No. 2 recruit in both rankings. But McGary finished his prep year at Brewster as ESPN’s No. 27 prospect, while Rivals had him at No. 30.

The only number that matters now is two: the amount of wins it’ll take for McGary to win the national championship, his stated goal when he signed his Letter of Intent. Starting in each of Michigan’s four NCAA Tournament games, McGary’s ability to get to the high post and open up the Wolverines offense has been crucial in its run to the Final Four.

His production at Chesterton caught the eyes of scouts and he surged through the rankings. But as quickly as McGary’s stock rose, it fell.

“I wouldn’t really say it was his performance because he brought it every night, and some games he didn’t play well,” former Brewster teammate and current Florida State guard Aaron Thomas said. “People waited for those times he didn’t play well to criticize him. (But) he was one of those guys who really didn’t care about rankings.”

Like many big men, he was athletic early on in his development with untapped potential. Under SYF coach Wayne Brumm and high school coach Tom Peller’s teaching, McGary went from tall and raw to taller and polished.

McGary’s shooting form was reminiscent of a bowler twisting his wrist, Brumm said, but it became more natural. And teammates and coaches raved about McGary’s ability to grab rebounds and trigger fast breaks.

The success stemmed from one two-week training session in the spring of 2011.

“We worked really hard during Spring Break in his senior year of high school,” Brumm said. “He came back home, I got a personal trainer and he worked out every day for two weeks. This guy threw his vertical up in just two weeks. He had never really lifted with his glutes and his legs the way he probably should have.”

McGary hit the spring circuit on a tear. He shined at the LeBron James Skills Academy, shattered a backboard at the Boost Mobile Elite event and dominated the Under Armour Best of the Best Camp. ESPN and Scout.com ranked him No. 3 overall, while Rivals put him at No. 5. Michigan, Duke, Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky and Maryland showed interest.

But he struggled academically at Charleston and transferred for his senior year to Brewster, where he could focus more on his studies. Peller said McGary was such a talented athlete that things may have come too easily for him and he may have gotten by without much effort.

“He’s not a dumb kid, though; he just didn’t work,” Peller said.

But when he arrived at Brewster, he was joined by Division-I recruits Semaj Christon, Jalen Reynolds, JaKarr Sampson and T.J. Warren — players who were scorers and players who needed shots. McGary’s scoring suffered, and so too did his place in the rankings. He even came off the bench for a time.

“We were so much of a talented team that he didn’t need to carry us,” said Warren, now a forward at North Carolina State. “Everybody could play. His rankings started to fall at the beginning of the season, but I don’t understand how, because he always played hard, we were winning and Mitch was averaging a double-double. It wowed me when he dropped in the rankings like that.”
There were also a few poor performances, most notably against Kentucky star Nerlens Noel. Noel finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots. McGary had two points on 1-of-8 shooting.

But what made McGary highly regarded in the first place was still there.

“Nobody teaches the great ones everything,” Brumm said. “The great ones always have something that makes them special.”

In McGary’s case, it’s fearlessness and motor.

“If a kid goes up to dunk, everyone runs away. They don’t want to get dunked on,” Brumm said. “Mitch doesn’t care.

“And his motor. For a big kid to outrun and outwork guards ― I mean, guards would be begging me for a rest and Mitch was like, ‘Hey, I’m good.’”

McGary worked with former Michigan captain and Chesterton alumnus Zack Novak in the summers after his sophomore and junior season. Novak taught McGary the work ethic, commitment and discipline it takes to play at the major Division-I level.

The change was seen later in his career at Chesterton and he matured even more at Brewster.

“Throughout the whole season he played his butt off, worked hard and things fell his way, obviously because he’s in the Final Four now,” said Joe Bramanti, a former Brewster teammate and current Wright State guard. “You spend a year with him, you learn about him, you get to be his friend, and now he’s doing things you’ve always dreamed of doing. It’s an awesome sight to see.”

Now McGary wears the blue and yellow Novak once wore. And he’s thrived down the stretch of the season. And as he does, new numbers are circulating around McGary: where he could fall in a future NBA Draft.

But those that know him best know that the rankings never fazed him. He just focused on what he had to do to become the best basketball player he could.

Said Peller: “We knew early on he had professional talent.”

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