Even after a breakout season in 2016-2017, Alfonzo McKinnie must not feel like everything is different. He was signed to his first ever NBA contract, yet he’s still playing for a G-League franchise. The franchise, for its part, is happy to have him. “He has always been one of my favourites,” Stack gushed, “Happy to have his athleticism, his toughness, his ability to go to the offensive boards… He’s a good pickup for us, for sure.”
McKinnie was an important piece in the 905 home-opener win over the Long Island Nets. Despite foul trouble throughout the game, and being blocked thrice at the rim, McKinnie was able to play solid minutes and amass sixteen points, six rebounds, two assists, and a steal.
If fitting into a new home and new team isn’t easy for stars like Paul George or Chris Paul, then it can’t be easy for anyone. McKinnie will have to develop some aspects of his game in order to carry his Windy City all-star campaign to Toronto. He and his teammates will need to learn each other’s tendencies; the lack of chemistry was clear early on, especially as McKinnie called for two transition alley-oops in the first half. The first pass sailed over his head, and the second identical situation didn’t even result in a pass. An alley-oop thrown in the third quarter flew out of bounds, as McKinnie wasn’t expecting it.
There are kinks to work out, but he is stressing patience, especially as he has only had two practices with his 905 teammates since his assignment. But McKinnie is making strides. His attack off the dribble is smooth, and he offers a tight handle. His first basket of the game came from a decisive drive and easy lay-in:
After another easy basket at the rim, the Long Island Nets decided to make his life much harder, sending waves of help to stifle his drives. He was met and rejected at the rim three times in the first half. There are improvements to make, but McKinnie is confident he will make them: “I’m an easy guy to play with,” McKinnie explained, “I try to help [my teammates] look good, and they try to help me in different areas.”
McKinnie has never been a dominant scorer, not even cracking 15 points per game in his all-star season last year. He just isn’t used to many touches outside of corner 3s and offensive rebounds, and as a result, he has never averaged even one assist per game. It’s clear the 905 are trying to work on that. McKinnie had lots of touches above the break, frequently screening for the ball-handler and receiving the ball on the switch. Despite his early trouble at the rim, McKinnie adjusted to making plays for teammates, finishing with two assists in the game.
Even as the team is working on McKinnie’s less-developed skills, such as his ball-handling and shot creation, it’s clear that his already-high-level talents have not depreciated. What makes him a great teammate is that he can score without touches, off of cuts, rebounds, and spot-up jumpers. McKinnie’s cutting is already creating some important early-season chemistry with his new teammates:
In a game where offense is scarce and both defenses overplay in order to force turnovers, easy scores from cuts like this are valuable. Furthermore, McKinnie’s shot looks incredible and much smoother than it did last year. He stroked his way to two 3s in the game (a third make was lowered to a 2 due to a foot on the line) on only four attempts.
However, trouble struck McKinnie in the second half. Some early mistakes in the third quarter landed McKinnie in some hot water, and he was yanked after just a few minutes. Starting the fourth, he committed an offensive foul quickly, clearly pressing too hard. He was pulled from the game again. Stack is hard on his players, but McKinnie recognized his mistakes without even hearing from the coaches, knowing it was due to his quick fouls early in the third and fourth.
It’s important to keep things in perspective, and for McKinnie the focus is on his potential contributions to the Raptors. The team wants McKinnie to become a combo-forward instead of just a wing; he started the game at power forward and didn’t log his first small forward minutes until, by my count, the 4th quarter. The team wants McKinnie to become a 3 and D player, and he has complied:
After locking up one of the Long Island Nets’ best attacking guards, Tahjere McCall, McKinnie drives coast to coast and finds Bruno Caboclo for a dunk. He is already looking too skilled for the G-League, despite ample mistakes in his first game and limited playing time due to constant foul trouble – a sign of high energy, if unfocussed play.
McKinnie is treating his split time between the Raptors and the 905 as two sides of the same coin. He praised both Dwane Casey and Jerry Stackhouse, saying, “both are great coaches. I learn a lot from Coach Casey. But just being able to come down and be able to work with a coach like Stack, learn the stuff, and be able to put it to usage…will only make me better and prepare me for when I go up to the Raptors.”
His work is paying off. Both the 905 and McKinnie are focusing his development towards his future contributions at the NBA level. Even in a game in which McKinnie faced more challenges than he is used to, it’s clear that his best is yet to come.