Mac McClung wanted to be sure he didn’t step out of bounds Saturday night at Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware.
The high-leaping, spotlight-grabbing Delaware Blue Coats guard certainly knew of a report by The Athletic’s Shams Charania that he’s accepted an invitation to be in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest on Feb. 18.
However, McClung stopped short of officially confirming that news.
“That’s the rumor. It’d be awesome for it to happen,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia with a smile. “That’s what people are saying. When the NBA announces it, I’ll be certified. We’ll see, man.”
If the 6-foot-2 McClung indeed participates, he’ll be the first G League player ever to feature in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He’s not short on name recognition, though. McClung has thrown down all sorts of dunks (and had many of them captured on camera) since his high school days in Gate City, Virginia, where he broke Allen Iverson’s single-season state scoring record.
Even in a layup line, he tends to be worth keeping an eye on.
“I’ve been thinking of some things just in case,” he said. “I’ve been trying to think of some unique things that I haven’t seen before. Hopefully, I just make my dunks and go from there.”
McClung was dunk-less in the game itself Saturday and disappointed after the Blue Coats dropped to 6-4 this regular season with a loss to the Long Island Nets. The 24-year-old also injured his right pinkie finger in the fourth quarter and said he’d have it checked out Sunday, though he expected he’d be fine.
McClung’s bounciness still jumped out in an 18-point, seven-assist outing. He made a couple of nice lefty layups thanks to his substantial hang time and looked comfortable attacking in transition while staying attuned to open teammates. McClung has averaged 18.9 points and 5.2 assists in the regular season while shooting 45 percent from three-point range, for Basketball Reference.
McClung’s defense was not a plus Saturday, which he acknowledged. He didn’t provide meaningful ball pressure or trouble jump shooters, and he took poor angles on a few drives.
“I was sloppy tonight on the defensive end,” McClung said. “I think my defense has been pretty good the last few weeks, and as a team we were playing great defense. I think we all kind of just let it slip tonight. We need to figure out a different approach as next game, and we will.”
In addition to defense, passing matters plenty for McClung’s NBA ambitions. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr praised McClung after the Warriors waived him in October, but he indicated they preferred Ty Jerome because they sought a more traditional facilitator.
Perhaps honing the unconventional passes in his game can benefit McClung. It’s noticeable in person that he possesses both the athleticism and the audacity to change his mind while high in the air. His results on jump passes against Long Island were mixed, but it’s an intriguing, instinctive skill.
“I think tonight that probably was more negative than anything,” he said. “I think maybe I do need to stay on two feet more (as a passer). But when it comes to lobs and stuff, I feel like I’m a decent passer getting in the air. It’s not something I even really focus on. I just kind of read that low defender and see where the other guy is from there.”
At the NBA level, Tyrese Haliburton, LaMelo Ball and Ja Morant are among those who throw dazzling (and effective) jump passes. There’s nothing wrong with manipulating defenses and exploiting openings that didn’t exist on the ground.
“He’s a smaller guard, so you’re going to have to get creative at times,” Blue Coats head coach Coby Karl told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I thought tonight he struggled probably as much as he’s struggled in a while. They’re the No. 1 defensive team in our league and they have some good length and good defenders, and they’re physical. … But I think his creativity is a strength of his … so mixing that creativity and athleticism, and figuring out ways to use that to create open shots for your teammates — draw two defenders and get the open man the ball .
“How he does that, I’ve never really coached in that manner in terms of trying to teach one direct skill, but I think figuring it out is something that’s really conducive to success at the next level. And I think he’s shown the ability to be creative, and to use that creativity to help.”
In a big-picture sense, Karl has seen progress from McClung since the Sixers signed him to an Exhibit 10 contract.
“He’s been enjoyable to coach,” Karl said. “I think sometimes he’s hard-headed. I was hard-headed as a player, so I get it, and I think that’s what makes him good. He’s competitive. He wants to be really good and he wants it now. But my favorite part about coaching him this year is a lot of things we’ve asked him to do aren’t easy things, and he’s made strides.
“He’s grown in a lot of those areas, and to me growth is the No. 1, most important thing at this level. I think he’s watching the ball better. He’s making an impact in the pick and roll. He’s giving a good effort in those areas, and then he’s trying to get his teammates involved early in possessions and using his skills and athleticism to help his teammates.”
Ultimately, if “the rumor” is true, considerable attention will fall exclusively on McClung’s dunking in less than a month.
Iverson may very well be watching.
“He’s always been very kind to me, man,” McClung said of the Sixers legend. “He looked out for me in his All-Star game and showed me a lot of love. A lot of inspiration, especially as a young kid, so I appreciate him a lot.”
Karl’s perspective on Sixers’ two-ways
Both of the Sixers’ two-way contract players are currently stationed in Delaware.
Forward Louis King has posted 15.1 points, 5.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game for the Blue Coats since joining the team in late December. Rookie wing Julian Champagnie has spent the large majority of his season in the G League.
Though Karl said he’d like to see King “get a little stronger,” the 39-year-old coach has learned firsthand that King isn’t easy to guard.
“Lou has a good feel for the game,” Karl said. “I think he naturally moves around the court, he anticipates plays. One play tonight, he stole it on the pick-and-roll; they tried to hit the roller and he was there. … And then I think his creativity, skills and length of him to be able to score over defenders… I jokingly guard some of our players. And some of the guys, even though I’m old, I can still see, like, maybe I could guard him.
“I was messing around with Lou and he’s just really tall. His skills, ability to handle the ball under pressure, and then shoot over the top of the defense I think are some of those things that will allow him to play at that next level. So I think the 3-and-D applies to him, but I think he has a little bit more creativity with the ball, the ability to create his own shot, and then also to play in the pick-and-roll.”
Following a rough summer league in which he shot 3 for 24 from three-point range, Champagnie has gained comfort as a professional. Though he hasn’t been great beyond the arc — 33.5 percent on 200 total attempts in the G League — Karl lauded his approach.
“I’ve enjoyed my time with Julian because he struggled so much in summer league,” Karl said. “And I think to me, for people and players at this level, it’s not necessarily about how successful you’re going to be, but it’s about can you get hit and get back up? I thought he took that summer league experience, came in to training camp with the Sixers, and made an immediate impact on training camp. I think he earned the respect of his veteran teammates. They trusted him; he fit in. He looked the part, he played the part.
“And throughout our season, he’s been one of our most consistent players. That’s kind of what you’re supposed to do with the two-way position, but it’s not always the case for a rookie player. So it’s been enjoyable to watch how he handles adversity, how he handles his growth process, how he handles learning how to play at this level.”