Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca
Right around this time a year ago, the put-back dunks started.
Alfonzo McKinnie was on the doorstep of the NBA, closing in on what would be the closing of one chapter of a tremendous basketball odyssey. From an unheralded prospect to Luxembourg’s second division to G League All-Star the year prior, McKinnie was in Las Vegas Summer League with the Toronto Raptors, trying to get over that last – and most difficult – hump. And he did so, exciting fans with thunderous dunks on offensive rebounds in consecutive games, turning in a strong overall performance, and ultimately earning a $100,000 guarantee for training camp that he eventually turned into a full-time roster spot, beating out K.J. McDaniels for the Raptors’ 13th-man role.
The issue with the Raptors being so locked in to a very successful top 12, though, was that McKinnie never really got a chance in that role. This is a good problem to have at the team level, of course, where 10, maybe 11 players filled their roles admirably, the team was fortunate with injuries, and their depth wings were rarely called upon. From a wider organizational perspective, it’s a little more difficult. They identified and developed a prospect they like in McKinnie, but he was already coming off of an All-Star season in the G League. There was plenty of room for improvement there, he just never got to test what he already was against NBA competition. He played just 55 minutes despite sticking on the roster all season, topping out at nine minutes in an early-season blow-out loss in Denver and only appearing in a game decided by single digits once, a three-minute cameo against New Orleans.
McKinnie got to show nothing at the NBA level. And that’s fine, in a sense. The Raptors were very deep and McKinnie was a development project, a 25-year-old who hadn’t yet been under the guidance of an NBA staff and who could still use G League time to take a step forward. It’s hardly a lost season for McKinnie, who earned an NBA salary all year and improved as a player and prospect in the process. The issue the Raptors face as a result is that they still haven’t gotten a look at McKinnie against NBA competition, which would have been nice given the decision they have to make on him soon.
McKinnie’s minimum contract for 2018-19 guarantees on July 20, and while a minimum deal for an intriguing wing prospect is, on the surface, an easy bet, the Raptors are in a tough luxury tax situation and can’t afford to guarantee someone they don’t know for sure is in their plans. They figure to use a few minimum contracts to fill out the roster, and the Summer League team is loaded with intriguing wings. McKinnie having a late guarantee date offers the Raptors some flexibility, and he could essentially be in a competition with Malcolm Miller, Rawle Alkins, Jordan Loyd, Fuquan Edwin, and more. For those others, maybe a training camp competition is in the cards (Loyd has a EuroLeague deal). For McKinnie, there is a greater urgency, as Toronto’s decision on him as to come within a week of the end of Summer League.
The Raptors know him and his game well at this point, and they saw him take strides as a member of Raptors 905’s run to the G League Finals. Comparing McKinnie’s two G League seasons does his growth a bit of a disservice. Like with Miller, his numbers didn’t necessarily pop or jump. Instead, a player already playing at a high G League level got better at the elements of his potential NBA role – the Raptors don’t need McKinnie to run pick-and-roll, they need him to knock down threes and defend like hell.
Consider the latter firmly accomplished. At 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, McKinnie has the size to play either forward position, and at 215 pounds he’s quick enough to guard some twos. The 905 leaned on him heavily as a small-ball power forward – they gave him more perimeter opportunities on offense to grow his game there, but he was mostly a four/three defensively – and his defensive metrics improved. Most notably, all of the tools and effort McKinnie showed as a G League rookie in 2016-17 materialized in actual production this time around. According to data from Synergy Sports, McKinnie jumped from the 48th percentile to the 81st percentile as an isolation defender and from the 52nd percentile to the 85th percentile as a defender overall. That’s a major jump in a decent sample, and it’s backed up in the team’s performance, as McKinnie played a large defensive role on the G League’s best defense.
It’s the “three” part of 3-and-D that remains a question. Nobody can argue that McKinnie is a monster threat in transition and on the offensive glass thanks to his high-end speed and elite athleticism (he ranked in the 90th and 78th percentile as a transition weapon the last two years). It was McKinnie’s 3-point shooting that always stood as his swing skill, though, with the Raptors seeing some DeMarre Carroll in his game if he, too, could find his stroke a little later in his career. For a while, McKinnie showed good progress, flirting with the high-30s early in the season and even knocking down some above-the-break looks. By the end of the year, his number was back roughly where it was a year prior, his mark having improved from 30.8 percent to 32.6 percent (including the postseason). There are some encouraging signs within that number. McKinnie bumped from the 25th percentile to 42nd percentile as a spot-up shooter, an important bump to respectability, and he hit 33.8 percent of his looks from the corners (more than half his attempts coming above the break hurt his overall number).
Still, that’s the area McKinnie is going to need to show consistent growth to warrant his deal guaranteeing. The Raptors know he can be an elite G League defender and didn’t get the chance to see whether that could hold up against NBA competition. If they’re confident it can – and they should be, with McKinnie already having put in some serious work on his body this offseason – it then becomes a matter of projecting whether his offensive game can expand beyond transition and cleaning up misses, as spacing and playmaking figure to be important skills for a Nick Nurse-run team. Vegas won’t produce a great sample for 3-point shooting, increasing the leverage on each of McKinnie’s attempts.
And so here he is, a year after the put-backs started raining down and he earned himself an NBA contract, once again trying to turn a strong Summer League showing into another chapter in his basketball story.