When Jordan McRae signed a two-way contract with the Washington Wizards, he had one goal in mind: prove that he deserved to be in the NBA full time. His professional career following four years at Tennessee, where he was twice First-Team All-SEC, has been up and down, back and forth, and all over the world. At 27, he is making a push to be in the NBA for the foreseeable future. His past experiences are part of what has made him an MVP candidate in the G League for the 2018-19 season.
McRae was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs with the 58th overall pick in 2014, but immediately traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite a successful Summer League averaging 21 points per game in four contests, he was asked to play overseas where he signed with the Melbourne United and averaged nearly 20 points per game. The next year, McRae joined the Delaware 87ers, the 76ers’ D-League affiliate. There he started to make a name for himself with a 61 point performance, a D-League single-game record. Three days later the Phoneix Suns rewarded him with one of eventually two 10-day contracts, but the early years of uncertainty weighed on McRae.
“Just not knowing,” McRae said was the worst thing of all the back and forth. “Getting drafted, playing really well in Summer League and then I got sent to Australia. I played well there. Came back, played in the G League a little bit. Just not knowing and now its kind of back to that now, but basketball is fun. Once you get with a group of guys and stuff that takes over, but times when you are going home or getting calls at 12 o’clock telling you to be somewhere at 8 or you may have to fly out, different city, go somewhere else and play, that gets tough. Once you are here, being with everybody that’s the easy part.”
Phoenix let his second 10-day contract expire, but that opened the door to sign a deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers in February 2016. As a deep reserve on a team headlined by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, McRae did not see game action too often. His most noticeable performance was recording 36 points and seven steals in 47 minutes of play in the regular season finale with most of the regulars resting. In the postseason, McRae would play just four minutes but would make the most of it with nine points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting. He went on to receive a championship ring after the Cavs overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors. In 37 games the next season, including four starts, McRae averaged 4.4 points in 10.4 minutes per game before being waived by Cleveland on March 1, 2017. His time around the likes of James and Irving taught him a lot about the profession.
“Seeing how hard they work,” McRae took away from his time in Cleveland. “You think you work hard until people you look up to and All-Stars work harder than you. It’s the kind of attitude like if they can work that hard, why can’t I? LeBron has never had an All-Star break, he just stopped playing USA, Kyrie still plays USA. These guys are playing year round and still be the first ones in the gym and the last one out, I look at it like someone who’s a low-minute guy or who’s not an All-Star like ‘why can’t you do the same thing?’ You can look at those guys and you can tell they’re where they’re at for a reason. Just seeing that every day between KLove and Bron and J.R. and Shump and all these different guys fight through injuries. That spoke a lot to me.”
The next season, McRae opted against signing non-guaranteed NBA deals or accepting training camp invites to again play overseas. He signed with Baskonia in Spain who plays in the Liga ACB and EuroLeague circuits. He wanted a chance to play consistently again and the money was a plus, too. Unfortunately for him, his season was over before it really began after he tore his labrum in his left shoulder during a preseason game in September 2017. Looking back, McRae believes he made the wrong decision going to Europe beyond the fluke injury.
“I initially went to Spain after playing with Bron and them for two years,” McRae began. “I could have got some non-guaranteed deals, some camp invites, but I wanted to go to Spain and play. Like just play, that was my biggest thing about that year. I got hurt. I felt like I was chasing money that year and that’s something you shouldn’t do at my age. I feel like there was a reason [for the injury]. If you see the accident I got hurt in, it was like a freak accident. Something that I do a hundred times a game. I really felt like I shouldn’t have did what I did, going and chasing money.”
The 6-foot-5 guard initially tried to play through the injury for a handful of games, but with the injured shoulder repeatedly falling out of place he decided to shut it down to avoid long-term damage. Following months of fighting with the team, McRae finally underwent Bankart repair surgery in January 2018 and began a six-month rehab process. Despite having to work his way through the first and only major injury of his career, McRae found the silver lining in the ordeal.
“A lot of time I got to spend with my family that I normally don’t get,” McRae shared. “So just being home in January and not playing was weird. I haven’t done that since before high school. It was good for me. I used that as a positive to take off because ever since I’ve been in the league, I had Summer League every year or different camps. I tried to use the injury time as best as I could.”
At the age of 27, the NBA was wary to give out a contract to a player coming off of a serious injury. McRae felt that his best chance to break through into the association again was on a two-way contract as opposed to trying his luck solely in the G League. In August, the Wizards and McRae agreed to terms on a two-way deal that would allow him up to 45 days with the NBA team during the course of the season.
“When I got back it was like, I just want to get back in the league,” McRae expressed. “I feel like I belong here. It got to the point where if I have to sign a two-way contract to show people I can still be in this league, then I will. My mindset was to sign a two-way, do what I can do to show people I’m still an NBA player and I think so far I’ve done that this year.”
The G League’s leading scorer certainly has opened the eyes of teams across the NBA with his offensive skillset. In 25 games with the Capital City Go-Go, McRae has averaged 30.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 36.6 minutes per game. He has been a walking bucket in the G League and is in a James Harden-esque class of his own with an active seven-game streak of 30+ points. Despite the grueling lifestyle of being a two-way player and not knowing what game you need to prepare for until hours beforehand, McRae still found the positive of a tough situation.
“Just in a rhythm right now,” McRae humbly attributed his explosive play. “It’s hard playing in so many games, but then you’re constantly in a rhythm. You never have a time where you have two days off where you possibly get out of your rhythm. It’s just the most I’ve played straight and after the season I’m going to take some time off more than I normally would. As far as the best I’ve played since I’ve been out [of college], it’s the most I’ve played since I’ve been out. So if I get 25 minutes there and 40 minutes here, you’re just constantly moving. You’re always playing, that’s the best way to keep a rhythm.”
“He can play multiple positions and he can defend multiple positions. When he’s doing that, he’s one of the best players in the league. Obviously, he can score at a high clip but when he’s defending and taking the initiative to defend night in and night out, he’s definitely our leader,” Go-Go head coach Jarell Christian said about McRae. “What he’s been able to do with us this year has been really good. I think with him, just getting the opportunity. When’s he’s gotten the opportunity up there he’s looked pretty good. He’s definitely an NBA talent, it’s more so about a fit and just him continuing to grow and develop in his game.”
Many teams in the NBA have rewarded their two-way players by converting their contracts to ordinary pro-rated deals for the rest of the season. McRae is more than deserving of the same, but the Wizards will likely cross over the luxury tax should they sign him to an NBA deal. Washington spent the trade deadline ducking the tax so that is out of the question.
McRae has been up with the Wizards for 28 games as well as a handful of practices this season and NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes reported the two-way guard only has nine more days available to Washington before hitting his 45-day limit. That means McRae will only be with the Wizards for nine or fewer days to not forfeit his rights between now and the end of the Go-Go’s regular season on March 23. Washington has 14 games until then over the next month and then eight games after. The backup guard has already missed the Wizards first two games after the All-Star break, both losses, in an effort to make sure he does not reach his limit.
“He should be here,” Bradley Beal immediately responded when asked if he would answer a question about McRae.
“I haven’t had that contract so it’s tough because they have to limit his days, but all he can do is continue to prove himself just like he’s been doing,” Beal elaborated when asked about his advice for his fellow shooting guard. “He might be the MVP of the G League. His production is ridiculous, I think we [the Wizards] need it, but I understand the league.”
During a recent 10-game stretch before the All-Star break where McRae received consistent rotation playing time with the Wizards, he averaged 7.7 points on 57.4 percent shooting in 13.6 minutes per game. Against Cleveland, he had a perfect 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting and when facing Atlanta he had 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting. It is clear that he could be helping Washington on the court with his scoring as well as giving Beal much needed breathers. This summer, the Wizards will likely make McRae a restricted free agent and he will be on the hunt for an offer sheet with a team he sees a fit with, whether that be with Washington or not.
“I’m going to sign a fully guaranteed [NBA] contract and be able to feel like I can help a team night in and night out,” McRae shared his goals for his basketball future. Try to get in a rotation of a team. Just keep working at it this summer, work on my body more, be a better defender. I definitely feel like I’ve opened a lot of eyes this year all over again and that’s the goal.”