ORLANDO -- Here in the land of make believe, it's impossible to think about Mitch McGary without imagining what his life would have been like had he declared for the draft after his freshman season at Michigan. He was a bit of a phenomenon back then, with his deft passing skills and infectious play catapulting him from an unknown bench guy into a Final Four hero.
McGary could have been a first-round pick in 2013, maybe even a late lottery selection. Instead, he went back to school amid much fanfare and promptly injured his back eight games into his sophomore year. Surgery ended his season and then came word of a pending marijuana suspension. The NCAA, in its infinite nanny state wisdom, chose him for random testing even though he wasn't playing.
He did the requisite mea culpas, but McGary had no realistic options left after that except to enter the draft and get on with it. With little track record and even fewer team workouts or interviews, all he had were reminders of his past performances and a dose of intrigue, which are sometimes the best kinds of draft buzz.
So, when the Oklahoma City Thunder scooped him up late in the first round, it was seen as yet another coup for GM Sam Presti, who has made a killing mining the draft from the highest reaches of the lottery to the lowest depths of the late first round. Presti obviously scored big with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but he also landed the likes of Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams and Perry Jones, giving OKC an enviable crew of young talent to build around his superstar core.
"Pretty surreal," McGary said of his draft night experience. "To be picked by a first-class organization like OKC was a great feeling. I'm incredibly grateful to be in this position after all the adversities I went through last season. A lot of teaching moments this year but I'm just happy to be in this position."
In some ways, this is the best thing that could have happened to McGary. He'll get a chance to learn from seasoned vets on a good team. In other ways, it will be more challenging. There is no guaranteed playing time in OKC and he'll have to earn his minutes the hard way. At 22 years of age, McGary is an old rookie, but he's still a rookie. Within his postgame quotes lies the soul of an independent spirit understanding his place.
"I'm a versatile big man," he said. "I'm not your average post-up, stand in the post big man. I love to dribble." He quickly added, "when needed."
McGary has played well in Orlando. He had 15 points on just seven shots in a loss to Indiana on Wednesday, which came on the heels of an eye-opening 18 and 13 outing against the Nets on Monday. He said it took him the better part of a game to get his wind back, and the rest is coming back to him quickly.
"I've got a lot more freedom right now," he said with a shrug. "As soon as I get in the system, the older vets [Nick] Collison, [Kendrick] Perkins, Serge [Ibaka], they're going to teach me a lot of things. Obviously having two of the best players in the NBA, [Kevin] Durant and [Russell] Westbrook, on my team, I think my freedom's going to be a little bit restricted just because I'm a rookie, trying to find my niche in my team. I think I may be be one, two push-out dribble and kick ahead to them, which is totally fine with me."
Had McGary declared in 2013, he might have been in an altogether different situation -- one where playing time would be far easier to come by than in OKC, where he'll be competing with Perkins, Ibaka, Collison, Steven Adams and Perry Jones III for minutes. But after all he's been through, he figures that will take care of itself and he'll finally have a chance to show everything he can do on the court, which will include ... whatever.
"I don't know man, I'm a character, I'll probably bring something out every day," McGary said. "I just like to go out and have fun. If I'm not having fun I don't like doing it. Basketball is what I love to do and it was taken away from me for a period of time. It made me grateful for where I am today and I'm just happy to be playing."