The spoils of a first-team All-Southeastern Conference season came during the summer for Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, whose trips to skills camps put on by NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant gave him another dose of confidence on top of what he’d already gained from his late-season surge in 2013. That’s not good news for the rest of the SEC, because a confident McRae can be dangerous.
He proved that last season. After starting just once in the Vols’ first 12 games, McRae entered the lineup against Ole Miss on Jan. 9 and never left. His promotion from the bench followed a 26-point, four-assist effort in a loss to Memphis. McRae went for 26 again against the Rebels, scored 21 in his next game at Alabama and 23 at Kentucky. Two games later, he torched Ole Miss for 26 points yet again. He was on his way.
McRae didn’t cool off much the rest of the way, staking his claim to first-team All-SEC honors with a late-season scoring flurry that made his early outburst seem weak by comparison. On Feb. 19, he hit LSU for a career-high 34. He scored no less than 21 points in his next five games, including a new personal best of 35 at Georgia. During that streak he knocked down 22 of 38 3-point shots (.578), including 8-of-11 against the Bulldogs.
Can McRae continue on that pace in his senior season, which begins in earnest on Tuesday when the Vols conduct their first official practice? Not likely, but neither is he forced to score 30 a night for the Vols to win. With the return of Jeronne Maymon, who missed all last season because of lingering knee issues, the addition of former Memphis guard Antonio Barton and the continued maturation of Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee has plenty of options.
“There will be games where he’s not gonna get very good looks,” Tennessee assistant coach Kent Williams said. “But from what I’ve seen [during the preseason], he’s realized there are other things he can do to help the team win than just scoring.”
The value of having a well-round game was driven home to McRae during the skills academy season, when he was forced to guard some players who will one day be plying their trade in the NBA, just as he hopes to do.
“I got a chance to see how I stack up against a lot of other guys,” McRae said. “A lot of them, I’ve never played against; I’ve just seen them on TV. Getting a chance to go against Glen Robinson [Michigan] and Gary Harris [Michigan State], getting to guard those guys, that gave me confidence and made me realized my defense is getting a lot better.”
Part of the reason for that is McRae’s dedication to the weight room. Over the summer he added close to 15 pounds of muscle to his spindly frame. That may not sound like much, but considering he showed up on campus three years ago at 175, it’s progress.
“I can feel that I’ve gotten bigger and stronger,” McRae said. “Now I don’t have to shy away from contact [in the lane]. I can take the hit and keep on going to the basket.”
Toward that end, McRae put in a lot of time on his ball handling over the summer. And to make sure he retains that 3-point stroke he showed last season, he launched 500 shots a day, every day.
“Most days I shot in the morning,” McRae said. “Then I’d go to class, and after homework I’d come back at night and shoot again.”
McRae will also benefit from his new backcourt running mate. Barton comes to Knoxville after three years at Memphis during which he produced good numbers but didn’t play as much as he’d hoped. Barton’s arrival couldn’t have been better timed: He showed up not long after last year’s starting point guard, Trae Golden, bolted for Georgia Tech.
“It feels like he’s been here four years,” McRae said of Barton. “He’s already gelled with the team; even people who aren’t in our program have noticed that. That translates onto the court.
“Everybody has good chemistry with him. He’s great for what we’re trying to do because he brings a different sort of movement. He’s fast, and everybody hates to guard him. Every time you turn around, he’s right there. And he doesn’t care about getting his shots. He just wants to average six or seven assists and win.”