Can Mac McClung actually make the NBA after winning the dunk contest?


As the first player from the NBA’s developmental G League to participate in the All-Star Game slam dunk contest, Mac McClung appreciates the opportunities that come from being a viral dunker.

But as he graciously sits 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.

In the same vein as a boy band that is looking to change its sound but is constantly reminded of its origin in bubble gum pop, McClung has spent the past six or so years trying to prove his abilities on the hardwood extend far beyond the dunking clips that put Gate City High on the map.

Mac McClung’s dunk contest show caps crowd-pleasing All-Star Saturday

For better or worse, he’s primarily known as a White player who dunks.

“On one hand, I feel like it’s something you can only embrace at this point,” McClung said. “But on the other hand, I love the game of basketball more than I like dunking. And while I truly can understand why people love to point it out, I’m way more than that, and I think that my numbers and in-game film show that.”

During Saturday’s dunk contest, which McClung won with ease, TNT’s broadcast team presented McClung as a YouTube novelty, not as an actual basketball player.

“Unfortunately for Mac, I do think that the highlight stuff can be a distraction for some of his colleagues and even some personnel scouts,” said Coby Karl, McClung’s coach with the Delaware Blue Coats. “When you have a preconceived notion of what someone is before you meet them, more times than not it’s going to impact your opinion. In Mac’s case, it becomes a distraction from who he truly is as a basketball player.”

McClung recently signed with the Philadelphia 76ers on a two-way contract after averaging 19.1 points and 4.7 assists with the Blue Coats. But making people see him as a basketball player, not as a viral sensation, has been one of the toughest parts of his journey.

The night before the dunk contest, the 6-foot-2 guard led his team at the Rising Stars showcase with 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting to go with two assists and two rebounds in nine minutes.

Three collegiate seasons, split between Georgetown and Texas Tech, saw McClung average just under 15 points, but on the night of the 2021 draft he went to sleep without hearing his name called. Following a brief stint with the Chicago Bulls in which he recorded his first minutes and points as an NBA player, McClung joined the South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers’ G League affiliate. In 26 games, he averaged 21.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists, earning the G League’s rookie of the year honor as well as a call-up for the Lakers’ regular season finale. But in the offseason, he was cut.

The Golden State Warriors offered McClung an invitation to training camp this season but waived him at the end.

“I just try to focus on the things I can control,” McClung said. “But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tough on me, especially with the Lakers. I was rookie of the year over there, we were winning, and I was just waiting for a turn that never came. Honestly, it hurts when you feel like you’re doing everything right but your dreams don’t get any closer.”

Given McClung’s celebrity, his journey to the NBA has been chronicled in a way that’s foreign to most G League players.

But Karl, who faced a similar route through the professional ranks after starring at Boise State, said many players find themselves in an awkward position: They have dominated the G League but either don’t have the skills to do it at the next level or haven’t had an opportunity to prove they can.

“When it comes to an NBA team, 99.9 percent of the time they already have the guys that they want taking the shots and handling the ball,” Karl said. “So while the highlights, stats and accolades may move the needle on social media, it won’t necessarily get you out of the G. The question that every G League player must answer is, how can they impact the game from an auxiliary role?”

To assist in showing his potential as a complementary piece, the Blue Coats shifted McClung’s role from ball-dominant to more frequently off the ball. Following a brief adjustment period, he has settled in nicely.

Delaware is 11-2 in its past 13 games following a middling start, and McClung is playing some of the most well-balanced basketball 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 that he had a great first step, which allowed him to get to the bucket almost at will,” Karl said. “But since we moved him off of the ball, he’s shown that he can be a really good spot-up shooter, which has become one of the most important skills to have in today’s game.”

As a two-way player, McClung has no guarantee he will play even one second with the 76ers, but getting this opportunity is a necessary step in his journey.

“I’m just a big believer in God’s timing and everything happening for a reason,” he said. “I feel like my story has been a challenge for a reason, and I just need to wait my turn. When it’s my turn, I’ll need to be ready. That’s one thing I know for sure.”

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