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As the first player from the NBA’s nascent G League to compete in the All-Star Game Slam Dunk competition, Mac McClung appreciates the opportunities that come with being known as a viral dunker.
But as he graciously goes through interview after interview while being peppered with questions about his highlight reel days in Gate City, a small town in southwest Virginia, McClung can’t help but feel pigeonholed .
Much like a boy band looking to change their sound but constantly reminded of their origins in bubblegum-pop, McClung has spent the last six years demonstrating his skills on the hardwood that go far beyond dunking clips Put Gate City High on the map.
Mac McClung’s dunk contest show crowns All-Star Saturday’s crowd puller
“On the one hand, I feel like [being known as the White player who dunks is] something you can only assume at this point,” McClung said. “But on the other hand, I love the game of basketball more than dunking. And while I can really understand why people like to point that out, I’m much more than that, and I think my numbers and the in-game movie show that.”
During Saturday’s dunk contest, which McClung won easily, the TNT broadcast crew presented McClung as a YouTube novelty, not an actual basketball player.
“Unfortunately for Mac, I think the highlight stuff can distract some of his peers and even some personnel scouts,” said Coby Karl, McClung’s coach with the Delaware Blue Coats. “If you have a preconceived notion of what someone is before you meet them, it tends to affect your opinion. In Mac’s case, it distracts from who he really is as a basketball player.”
McClung recently signed a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers after averaging 19.1 points and 4.7 assists with the Blue Coats. But getting people to see him as a basketball player rather than a viral sensation has been one of the hardest parts of his journey.
The night before the dunk contest, the 6-foot-2 guard led his team at the Rising Stars showcase by 10 points in 4-for-8 shooting with two assists and two rebounds in nine minutes.
In three college seasons split between Georgetown and Texas Tech, McClung averaged just under 15 points, but on the night of the 2021 draft he went to sleep without hearing his name. After a brief stint with the Chicago Bulls, where he got his first minutes and points as an NBA player, McClung moved to the South Bay Lakers, the G League offshoot of the Los Angeles Lakers. In 26 games, he averaged 21.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists, earning him G League Rookie of the Year honors and a nomination to the Lakers regular-season finale. But in the off-season, he was cut.
The Golden State Warriors offered McClung an invitation to training camp that season, but ultimately declined.
“I’m just trying to focus on the things that I can control,” McClung said. “But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard for me, especially with the Lakers. I was rookie of the year over there, we won, and I was just waiting for a turn that never came. Honestly, it hurts when you feel like you’re doing everything right, but it doesn’t get you any closer to your dreams.”
Given McClung’s notoriety, his journey into the NBA has been chronicled in a way unfamiliar to most G-League players.
But Karl, who faced a similar path through the pro ranks after his career at Boise State, said many players find themselves in an awkward position: They’ve dominated the G League, but either don’t have the skills to do so to the next level or haven’t had a chance to prove they can do it.
“When it comes to an NBA team, 99.9 percent of the time, they already have the guys they want to take the shots and handle the ball,” Karl said. “Even though the highlights, stats and awards might move the needle on social media, they don’t necessarily get you out of the G. The question every G League player needs to answer is how they influence the game from a support role can. ”
To show his potential as an addition, the Blue Coats shifted McClung’s role from being the dominant player to more minutes off the ball. After a short period of adjustment, he has settled in well.
Delaware is 11-2 in its last 13 games after a mediocre start, and McClung is playing one of the most balanced basketballs of his career, shooting 57.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range.
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“When we got Mac, we knew he had a great first step that allowed him to get to the bucket almost at will,” Karl said. “But since we got him off the ball he’s shown he can be a really good spot-up shooter, which has become one of the most important skills in the game today.”
As a two-way player, there’s no guarantee McClung will play even a second with the 76ers, but getting that opportunity is a necessary step in his journey.
“I just have a firm belief in God’s timing and that everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I feel like my story was challenging for a reason and I just have to wait my turn. When it’s my turn, I have to be ready. That’s one thing I know for sure.”