In the most recent issue of Dime, I wrote a story on Saint Mary’s point guard Mickey McConnell and his odd trip as an unknown basketball prospect to being a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award for the NCAA’s best point guard. Despite being wooed by some of the nation’s best baseball programs during his senior year of high school, McConnell chose hoops. In four years, he grew by leaps and bounds.
He hasn’t picked up a glove in that time span, but Major League Baseball apparently didn’t notice. On Wednesday, McConnell was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 91st round of the MLB Draft – the 944th pick to be exact.
“It’s exciting, I’m totally surprised, this was a little bit unexpected,” McConnell said in a press release by the school. “The last time I played was four years ago in high school. In the summers I would hit a little bit and do minor baseball stuff with my brother but nothing serious or organized.”
McConnell doesn’t have plans to go the baseball route. He’s been working out for NBA teams such as the hometown Phoenix Suns and plans to try out with Golden State and Sacramento in the upcoming week. With that, here’s the story of McConnell’s rise to basketball success while growing up in the baseball hotbed of Arizona.
*** *** ***
Often, we find ourselves in awe of the LeBron James and Derrick Rose genetics in a basketball player; the ones that give them god-like athleticism and the superhuman abilities incomprehensible by you or I.
Much of becoming a successful basketball player â€“ the type that makes our jaws drop â€“ is usually predicated on the legends of players’ high schools days, where dunking on current NBA stars or exploding onto the AAU circuit with a big game on an even larger stage equates to fame. But what if they didn’t have that experience, exposure or even genetics to lean on?
You do what Saint Mary’s College (Moraga, Calif.) point guard Mickey McConnell did. Don’t trust anyone but yourself, never get rattled. That’s McConnell in a nutshell.
“Coming out of high school, personally, I thought I was good enough to continue playing,” says McConnell. “In college, I thought I was good enough to make an impact.”
He resembles the perfect model for building a basketball player from scratch. Not a highly-sought-after recruit out of high school, McConnell finished his senior year at Saint Mary’s this spring with a Bob Cousy Award nomination on his resume and an invitation to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament after averaging 16.4 points and 6.1 assists per game. This included standout victories over Mississippi State (28 points and 13 assists) and Gonzaga (27 points, four rebounds and six assists) for the 25-9 Gaels.
Now, as usual, the 6-0, 190-pound guard has confidence that he’s good enough to be a professional.
“It’s funny,” says Mickey’s father, Rick McConnell, who was also his son’s basketball coach at Dobson High School (Mesa, Ariz.). “I’d laugh, most of the teams he’d play (in college) weren’t the teams that recruited him. You just kind of have to approach (the next level) the same way â€“ realistic. But he’s got a lot of confidence in what he can do.”
Not surprisingly, McConnell’s recruitment to the Gaels was closer to an accident than a straightforward affair. Committing to New Mexico during his junior season, a coaching change led to his eventual release from his commitment in the spring of his senior year.
Only three or four Division I schools came calling. Instead, elite baseball programs came after McConnell in the midst of his spring baseball season at Dobson, including Oregon State coach Pat Casey. Rick McConnell said Casey, fresh off a 2006 NCAA Championship, would call every week in Mickey’s final month of high school, just one of the programs looking at McConnell as another big-time Arizona prospect.
“It was kind of a strange thing,” says Rick. “You know, most people thought baseball was the smart move for him. Baseball kind of threw a curve in everything because it made him think a little bit.”
But baseball wasn’t in his heart, the lure of a national championship team not enough. McConnell chose Saint Mary’s basketball instead, becoming a member of the small liberal arts college of 2,600 undergrads. And like he had done in high school, without the AAU advantages and without frequent experience against Division I-caliber players, he built his career on his own.
Well, sort of. First, you have to understand his history. McConnell’s grandfather, Dick McConnell, is the all-time winningest high school basketball coach in the state of Arizona. And in addition to coaching Mickey for three years at Dobson, his father was a member of Arizona’s 1976 College World Series Championship baseball team.
So winning was in his genes.
“I was around my dad’s teams a lot,” says Mickey. “Just growing up around his teams and just watching a ton of high school games, watching film when he got home, I learned a lot about how the game should be played. Just kind of the little things like that; work ethic, being a good teammate, I learned a lot of that.”
The coaching perspective embedded itself into his style, wiring McConnell into a pass-first, pure point guard. At Dobson, he grew up in an unspectacular basketball metropolis of the greater Phoenix area, a place known more for its baseball and golf prospects than for its hoops stars.
AAU basketball was scattered throughout the sprawling suburbs, talent diluted to the point where high school hoops was the better place to develop. McConnell’s little exposure to Division I talent came against Mesa’s Mountain View High School, which ran out a team of Kendall Wallace (UNLV), Harper Kamp (Cal) and Brendon Lavender (Arizona).
And then there was St. Mary’s High School and future pro Jerryd Bayless, who knocked off the Dobson team from the state playoffs in two of McConnell’s three seasons there.
It’s a reoccurring theme in McConnell’s basketball career â€“ always the underdog. During his childhood, it was his older brother, Matt, two years Mickey’s senior, showing him how to play with poise and intelligence. Then it was Bayless. Then in college, it was Australian guard Patty Mills.
“That was one of the things at a disadvantage for Mickey,” says Rick. “When he got to Saint Mary’s, he didn’t play a lot of AAU ball. There really wasn’t that much exposure for him. It has turned out to be an advantage for him because he has been able to go head-to-head with so many great players.
“Sometimes he’s the underdog.”
He played little his freshman year of college, apparent proof by other colleges that told McConnell he’d play second fiddle to Mills. An athletic scoring point guard, Mills, now playing with the Portland Trail Blazers, kept McConnell in his shadow until an injury thrust the then-sophomore into the Gaels’ starting lineup midway through the season.
It was the blossoming of McConnell’s career. Those practice battles against Mills helped McConnell develop against the Aussie who grew up playing in under-18 tournaments and, according to Rick, had more than 100 international games under his belt.
“If you’re going to sit behind anyone, it’s kind of nice to sit behind someone like him,” says Mickey. “The way he was on the court, he never got rattled. He always knew he was good enough to be out there. Just the way he carried himself on the court is something I took away from it.
“No matter what the situation was, he was pretty in control with his emotions.”
That rubbed off on McConnell, but of course, onlookers make the easy comparison of he and Steve Nash, another unheralded pass-first point guard from a West Coast Conference team. McConnell, being from Phoenix, can’t get around it.
Now, he looks toward a future of basketball. NBA, Europe, it doesn’t seem to matter. Just basketball â€“ just like high school.
Adds his father: “The good thing for Mick is, the style he plays he won’t have to change. His main thing is getting the ball to people and getting them better.”
To do that, he doesn’t need to jump any higher or impress anyone with his highlight reels. McConnell will do what he always has done â€“ stay calm and have confidence, even as the underdog. Winning will sort itself out.
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @offensivelyfoul.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.