Mitch McGary isn’t the prototypical Sam Presti draft pick.
He missed most of his sophomore season with a bum back, and he’s got baggage.
In the spring, while his Michigan teammates were competing in the NCAA Tournament, an injured McGary tested positive for marijuana.
Both issues, as far as we know, are foreign to the Thunder.
Throughout the league, they’re red flags.
But in selecting McGary 21st overall in Thursday night’s NBA Draft, Presti placed his trust in the burly 6-foot-10 power forward.
From here, it’s up to McGary to make it pay off.
“It means everything,” McGary said at an introductory news conference welcoming him and No. 29 overall pick Josh Huestis to town Friday afternoon. “For a team to take a chance on me after all the adversities I went through and the way I ended my collegiate career, it really shows a lot about them and shows that they saw past the adversities and know that I can overcome them.”
McGary already sounds like a young man who’s left his problems in the past.
Grinning uncontrollably and laughing giddily as he stared out at his family while seated next to Presti, Huestis and Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver, McGary came across not as an injury-ridden player with a sketchy past but a contrite, determined and eager rookie who just can’t wait to get started.
He missed all but eight games this year due to a nagging back ailment that ultimately required surgery. His last game for the Wolverines was Dec. 14. He underwent back surgery on Jan. 7.
With limited data to analyze McGary as a prospect, and even fewer details available regarding the status of his back, McGary’s draft stock sunk. He went from a potential top 10 pick after a promising freshman season to a projected second-round selection this year.
Presti ignored projections and stuck to his and his staff’s scouting.
Rather than viewing McGary as a risk, Presti saw him as a potential gem, one that the Thunder wouldn’t have had a chance at selecting had McGary declared for the draft following his freshman year or simply enjoyed an injury-free season this year. Landing a lottery-type talent with the 21st overall pick, Presti figured, was a rare opportunity that the Thunder just couldn’t pass up.
It’s one of the reasons why the Thunder didn’t risk trading back to take McGary with its second first-round selection, the 29th pick. Other teams could have shared the same thinking.
“We try to get the players where we have them on the board. And we felt like the opportunity to add him to the team is valuable,” Presti explained. “I can’t project what happens behind us, but when you have a player that you think fits not only your playing identity but also kind of fits into your roster-building construction as you look forward, I think he was not only a playing addition but also a strategic roster-building addition as well.”
In other words, McGary can eventually replace Nick Collison, who will turn 34 days before the start of next season and is entering the final year of his contract. While Collison continues an unavoidable downward trend, McGary is now in place — grooming while on a vitally inexpensive rookie deal — for at least the next four seasons.
Clearly, the Thunder, as always, did enough reconnaissance on the other issues to feel comfortable making McGary its man.
“I feel like I know a lot about him,” Presti said.
After transferring from Chesterton High in Indiana following his junior year, McGary played two more prep seasons (he repeated his junior year) at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., a basketball powerhouse two hours from Presti’s hometown of Concord, Mass.
“He’s been a guy that we’ve watched for quite a while,” Presti said.
A pot-smoker was not the McGary that Presti knew. Connections back east, as well as strong relationships with Michigan’s basketball program, confirmed to Presti that he wouldn’t have anything to worry about with McGary.
In the eyes of Presti, McGary showed his true character through the manner in which he responded to his positive test, a violation that carried a one-year suspension under NCAA rules when McGary was busted.
“How he handled that situation, quite frankly, he took accountability, he showed that he was remorseful and he said publicly that he’s really learned from it,” Presti said. “We’ve done an incredible amount of due diligence on him and quite honestly on all the players in the draft...If I wasn’t comfortable with the work that we’ve done over the last three years, then we wouldn’t have moved forward with him.”
And the back?
“We’ve done a lot of work and were pretty aggressive early on at Michigan, and we’ve got a lot of confidence that he’s in a position to have a very productive career,” Presti said.
McGary said Friday that his back is doing great but added that he’s still not 100 percent.
“I’m recovering, rehabbing every day,” he said. “Just trying to get better each and every day. It feels great. I’ve been back on the court. I would like to play in summer league, and I plan to.”
If he does take the floor in the Orlando Pro Summer League on July 5, McGary will snap a seven-month layoff.
He can’t wait.
“It was difficult for me to sit on the sidelines, especially during the NCAA run when the previous year our team made it to the final game. But it really made me sit back and not take things for granted because basketball can be taken away from you just like that.”
McGary motivated his teammates any way that he could while sidelined. He cheered them. He encouraged them. He instructed them. He rebounded for them in pre-game warmups. Most importantly, he stayed positive.
It stood out to the Thunder just as much as anything McGary did on the court.
“The last thing that is really, really impressive to us and the reason why we value him even more is he’s an incredible teammate. Just an incredible teammate,” Presti said. “I felt like I was scouting him on the bench when he wasn’t playing. The way he engaged with his teammates. His support was unwavering. His enthusiasm was unwavering. And combine that with his skill set and intangibles and that’s a Thunder player for us.”