Raptors betting on Alfonzo McKinnie to seize camp opportunity

Alfonzo McKinnie the Toronto Raptors dunks the ball during a Summer League game vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Garrett Ellwood/Getty)

TORONTO — On a busy court clustered with players in red and black, Alfonzo McKinnie hovers near the right corner and waits his turn.

On another court, just inside the entrance of the BioSteel Centre practice courts, Jerry Stackhouse stands with his arms crossed at the top of the key as he puts a group of players through a series of drills. Across the gym in an opposite corner, Bruno Caboclo practises his mid-range shot while Norm Powell lingers nearby.

Even though training camp won’t officially get underway until next week, it’s already a full-house at the Raptors practice facility and team headquarters. Members of the front office huddle in closed-door meetings as they prepare for the season and look to fine-tune the roster.
For players like Powell and Caboclo, mornings like this are an opportunity for fine-tuning, but these semi-formal training sessions carry a lot more weight for McKinnie.

He swallows a pass and takes a dribble, his six-foot-eight frame lifting and fading away smoothly like his haircut. He swishes the corner three, a shot that he’s probably practised more in the last two months than in the two years since he graduated college.

Then again, a lot has changed since then.

Two years ago McKinnie was an NBA afterthought, plying his trade in a second-tier league in Luxembourg, his only real pro offer after a four-year NCAA career. This time last year he was playing three-on-three basketball—full-time. Less than a calendar year ago he was paying his own $125 fee for a D-League open tryout.

Following a breakout all-star season in the D-League with the Windy City Bulls that few saw coming, and a strong performance for the Raptors at the Summer League in Las Vegas, the 25-year-old enters camp one of four players competing for two roster spots. If he doesn’t make the cut, he’s a free agent—not that he’s entertained that scenario.

“There is no backup plan right now,” says McKinnie. “I wake up every day saying to myself: I need this roster spot.”

Though camp is still four days away, the summer has been one long tryout process for the undrafted rookie the Raptors have been grooming for this opportunity.

After the Summer League wrapped in July, Toronto signed McKinnie to a provisional deal and sent a staffer to his hometown Chicago, where he had returned. Assistant coach Nick Nurse spent time working with him there, and the team also brought him out to Los Angeles to scrimmage with players from their NBA roster.

Over the past few weeks, McKinnie has been in Toronto, spending the morning competing here on the courts at BioSteel alongside a small army of Raptors coaches and players that includes signed youngsters Caboclo, Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and fellow roster hopefuls guard K.J. McDaniels, forward Kyle Wiltjer and big man Kennedy Meeks. In the evening he returns for individual workouts, and does it all over again the next day.

“We’ve been spending the effort and our coaches are putting in the same time [with McKinnie] as with our main roster guys,” says Raptors assistant general manager, VP of player personnel and Raptors 905 GM Dan Tolzman.

It’s not hard to understand why the organization is doing everything they can to help ensure McKinnie remains a part of their system. Although his game is still raw, he has a defined skill-set the Raptors could use at small forward. With next-level hops that allow him to sky for boards and finish at the rim along with an improving long-distance stroke, he can be a coveted and dynamic “three-and-D” player coming off Toronto’s bench.

“His lateral quickness and athleticism is off the charts,” says Tolzman. “He can probably guard two through four depending on the matchup. Coming out of the Summer League our coaches can’t stop raving about his attention to detail and how dialled in he is. That’s half the battle, finding guys who are as fully involved as he is.”

McKinnie didn’t land on Tolzman’s radar until last November, during a D-League game in which the Bulls forward matched up with Caboclo and put his raw ability on display.

“I remember seeing him and thinking to myself, ‘Who is this guy?,’ he recalls.

Fair question.

From high school to college, McKinnie was never a top prospect and never even the star of his own team. He had a moderately successful collegiate career split between East Illinois and Green Bay-Wisconsin but suffered an MCL tear in his junior season and spent his final year recovering. He went to free agent camps with two NBA teams, but nothing came of it.

“Coming out of college, the offers I was getting, it had me thinking, ‘Maybe I might not be good enough,’” McKinnie says. Still, he pursued one of the few opportunities there were.

“I got a call from a team in Luxembourg. Honestly, I was like, ‘… Where’s Luxembourg?’”

The East Side Pirates of Luxembourg’s B-Division played in Berbourg, a town just East of the German border. McKinnie, the only American on his team, lived in nearby Trier, Germany, where he would work out daily with a local pro team from Germany’s top-level league. The Pirates only practised three times per week and only at night, because the rest of the roster all had day jobs.

Several levels beyond his teammates talent-wise, McKinnie took on a bigger role than he ever had—“They all looked at me to do a lot of stuff that I wasn’t used to,” he says. “I was literally playing one through five and I had the ultimate green light.”

He was putting up numbers and dominating stretches of games. Soon he noticed opposing teams were focusing their game plan solely on stopping him. It provided a new confidence he’d never felt before.

“Suddenly it was like when I came into the gym other teams and coaches, they knew,” McKinnie says, matter-of-factly. “They thought that I could beat them.”

He returned home in the spring of 2016 ready to prove he belonged at a higher level, but found himself back at square one. “Teams were telling me that because I played in the Luxembourg B-Division I couldn’t play in, say, the German A-league,” he recalls, “Saying that I had to play in the third division instead. That’s down here,” he drops his long arms down toward the ground. “The NBA is here,” he lifts them high above his head.

He continued to workout in Chicago, scrimmaging with local players, when he was recruited to play in a three-on-three basketball tournament. He declined— twice—but eventually said yes when he learned the coach was Chicago Bulls assistant Randy Brown.

McKinnie excelled in the format, representing the USA in international FIBA tournaments and helping capture a silver medal for his country at the championships in China last October.

Coach Brown encouraged McKinnie to come to the Windy City Bulls D-League tryouts last October, and although he famously had to pay his way into the building, the bouncy forward had an inside track to make the team.

He began the season as the Bulls’ sixth man but it wasn’t long before he was starting. He established himself as one of the league’s top talents, and relished matchups like ones versus Raptors 905 where he got to prove he could compete with Caboclo and Siakam, players who had spent time in the NBA.

Once the D-Leauge season wrapped, McKinnie told his agent he didn’t want to field offers from teams overseas and began arranging workouts with NBA teams.

The Raptors were the last in a gruelling series of free agent mini-camps earlier this year. At each of them he turned heads and by the time he arrived in Toronto in mid-June, he already had a deal in place to attend the Knicks training camp in New York.

McKinnie says his camp with the Raptors was the best he played of all, and evidently the team agreed. After the first session ended, they asked him to remain on the court and he scrimmaged with members of the Raps young core he’s currently competing with ahead of training camp. Before he left, team president Masai Ujiri pulled McKinnie aside.

“Masai told me that with my length and athleticism I could play at this level,” he recalls. “And if I was a gym rat and dedicated myself that he could see me on that Raptors floor. I believed him. My gut just said ‘Toronto.’”

It’s been a strange road to get here, but the Raptors front office hardly views that as a red flag.

“There are a ton of examples of guys who slide out of the draft, or go lower than they should and take 2-3 years to figure out their game, or their body, and all of a sudden the light bulb goes off for them and you have an NBA player and a big-time contributor,” says Tolzman. “Honestly what [McKinnie] reminded me of was, back when I was in Denver we had a free agent mini-camp and DeMarre Carroll was in there fresh off being waived by Houston the year before.”

Carroll, of course, went on to have success in Utah and Atlanta before signing a lucrative deal with the Raptors. It’s an apt comparison given that, should he make the roster, McKinnie could have a very real shot at taking on a similar role, albeit off the bench where he could legitimately surpass Caboclo and injured first-round pick OG Anunoby on the Raptors’ depth chart.

The next step will be to walk into training camp and bring the same type of confidence he’s shown guarding Powell in scrimmages when he’s matched up with an established star like DeMar DeRozan. This summer with the Raptors organization has McKinnie expecting nothing less.

“Coming into camp he doesn’t seem like a guy just fighting to make it,” says Tolzman. “It feels like he’s a Raptor. Now it’s on him to perform at a level where he’ll make the roster. When camp starts there shouldn’t be jitters.”

McKinnie knows what his coaches want to see in order to take one of the team’s final roster spots, and is poised to prove he belongs at the next level.

“I look back at everything that’s happened,” he says of the last two years, “and I feel I am an NBA player. I didn’t always feel that way. But now? I know I can make it.”