To fully appreciate the transformation of Tennessee junior swing man Jordan McRae, Elite Scorer, you have to go all the way back to remember Jordan McRae, Inconsistent Bench Warmer.
There was a time in the not so distant past when the Vols' new basketball superstar and hottest player in the SEC couldn't even crack the rotation on a team in desperate need of offensive firepower.
Sure, the Midway, Ga., native had all the intangibles -- a lanky 6-foot-5 frame, a sweet outside stroke, elite mid-range jumper, and the versatility to play any position from point guard to small forward. But his game was filled with gaping holes. He was only concerned about scoring. Rarely was his focus present in the weight room or did he have the desire to bang around in the paint or play defense against bulkier, more physical opponents.
That's not a good trait when you play for a coach as defensive-minded as former Purdue standout Cuonzo Martin, who may have been lauded for his shooting but wouldn't have played for legendary coach Gene Keady without being able to work his tail off on defense as well.
As a result, there were plenty of times last year -- and even some earlier this season -- when McRae sat next to Martin, keeping a spot warm on the bench while his teammates sputtered their way to embarrassingly low point outputs. When that happened, we all watched and wondered just when -- or if -- this elite talent would ever live up to his immense potential.
Nothing has come easy for McRae since Martin took over, and as Josh Richardson told Wes Rucker for a feature story on the junior scorer earlier this season:
"I think Jordan’s the kind of guy you’ve got to be rough with. I mean, everybody has different personalities, but Coach Martin definitely expects a lot more out of him. He has a lot more potential than a lot of other guys, so he really gets after him."
My personal fan frustration boiled because of that immense potential. I recalled a phone call I received from somebody I trust midway through Martin's first season as UT's head coach where McRae was discussed and then written off as a potential transfer candidate because he simply "didn't play hard enough" to play for Coach Zo. This person had a solid familiarity with the team and made a comment to the extent of, "He doesn't have to become the best defensive player in the world. He just has to try hard and work hard. He doesn't even really know how to work on offense. You can't just stand around and play for this group of coaches. Work isn't an option."
McRae didn't transfer, so I hoped he finally bought in. There never was any question about whether or not he could score. From the moment he first stepped onto the court in the UT Chattanooga game back in 2010 -- a game I attended -- there were no doubts about his aggressiveness and athleticism. It was just a matter of if he'd ever be able to put it all together. When I asked the same person about McRae during a typical slump earlier this season, he said, somewhat exasperated, "No, Jordan gets it now. He does. It's just a matter of him getting that confidence in himself."
In that same article I linked above, Coach Martin echoes some of those things I was told so long ago; he had to give McRae plenty of tough love for him to finally, totally buy in:
"As a coach, I mean, whether you’re a team or a family, there’s certain things you say to a guy, there’s certain (ways) to react to a guy to get something. You get a guy a play to a certain level. I approach Jordan a little differently than I’ll approach another guy. That certain type of coaching is what he needs and what he responds to.
"You might see on the bench and think we’re arguing to each other in certain cases. But he needs a certainly level of emotional energy — ‘Come on, let’s go.’ You’re making him understand, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go.’ He responds to that, because he has a big heart, and he wants to be successful.
"I enjoy coaching him. Every day it’s, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ and just keeping him in tune."
I think that's why I fumed so much earlier this season -- at McRae AND Martin -- when it seemed the player was on the cusp of actually getting it but he just never seemed to develop. You could see it there ... just below the surface ... and yet, McRae never really could grasp it. During a frustrating 11-10 start, I concluded aloud that, at this point, "it has to be coaching." There had to be a disconnect between teacher and pupil. I mean, if there was this continual flicker, and this gradual improvement over the course of his career, surely one day, you'd expect the light to come on.
Boy, did it ever.
During this current six-game winning streak, it's like somebody put 100-watt bulb in McRae's 25-watt socket.
In the midst of this 6-0 stretch that has put the once-left-for-dead Vols back in the NCAA tournament picture at 17-10, McRae has played himself into first-team All-SEC discussion. The 6-5 guard has averaged 20 points per game, made 47 percent of his field goals, 16-of-31 3-pointers and has emerged as an unguardable presence. Against LSU, he poured in a career-high 34 points. In the four-overtime marathon at Texas A&M, McRae had 23 -- including a contested 3-pointer with 12 seconds left to force overtime. Then, on Tuesday night's showcase showdown on national television against eighth-ranked Florida, he outscored the Gators entire group of guards 27 to 26.
McRae's latest effort against Florida was a performance that continued Tennessee recent dominance over the Gators, running the Vols' record against the Gators in the past 16 match-ups to 11-5. It was also a game that prompted this response from UF coach Billy Donovan afterwards:
"...McRae has emerged to be, to me, maybe the best wing player in the league ..."
This from a man who has won two national championships and doesn't pass out praise like turkeys at a homeless shelter. It also wasn't just lip service. When the Vols need a big shot like the one he hit at A&M, he gets the call and the ball. It's written all over his face that he wants it -- and that he knows what's going to happen when he gets it. That's the mark of somebody who finally gets it. He's depended on, and he's now able to be depended on by his teammates.
I'm convinced that Trae Golden is the most important player on this suddenly-rejuvenated Tennessee basketball team -- defensively and offensively. And sophomore anvil Jarnell Stokes is an inside force who leads the league in double-doubles. But the superstar on the squad is McRae, who is not-so-quietly playing himself into every opponent's top defensive priority and potentially playing his way into NBA draft discussions [that we all hope hold off heating up until after NEXT season].
Of all the indicators that are present in the transformation of McRae, none is more evident than his body language. In the past, a streaky McRae could be seen on the court rolling his eyes or visibly dejected or exasperated at his ineffectiveness. The look was almost like, "I've done this my entire life; why is it not happening now?"
Lately, those expressions have morphed into jubilation and excited reactions after made shots and key plays. In typical Martin-coached fashion, those camera-caught moments are short-lived, captured while McRae is hustling to the other end to play on the side of the court that used to be unfamiliar territory. Unlike Marshall Henderson's childish antics, McRae's are never directed toward opponents or fans but in the magnitude of the magnificent moment after he does something brilliant. After the game, you'd be hard-pressed to paint anything the soft-spoken junior ever says as bulletin-board material.
McRae is killing you quietly, but he's killing you, nonetheless.
So, when will it end? There's no way McRae can all of a sudden be this good this quickly, right? It's just a matter of time before he realizes the kind of player he is and goes back to being inconsistent again ... surely. Right?
I don't think so. Anybody who has watched his fair share of the sport just knows when there is elite talent simmering just underneath. It's always been there for McRae. He's always known it. Cuonzo's always known it. Heck, we've always known it. Maybe it was just a matter of finding that perfect place to tap into it. Once McRae bought into the coaching he was being given, bought into the motion offense, bought into the fact that he had to play tough on both ends of the court in order to ever play at Tennessee, it was just a matter of knowing his role and letting his talent take over.
Sometimes, you just need a trickle -- that turns into a sustained rain of 3-pointers -- to start the flood. For McRae, the storm wasn't overnight. It had been brewing for the past 2 1/2 seasons.
Now that it has come, the rest of the league had better batten down the hatches.