McCray lands on his feet in NBA

Former Terp waits, learns with Bucks

November 11, 2006|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Chris McCray could have wound up anywhere.

He could be playing overseas, like some of his former University of Maryland basketball teammates who were not quite good enough for the NBA. He could be playing in some developmental league, still dreaming about getting back to the big time.

Truth be told, McCray could also be nowhere, just as he was last winter, when his career in College Park came to an abrupt and embarrassing end after he was declared academically ineligible 17 games into his senior season.

McCray believes he wouldn't be where he is now, as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, if not for what happened then.

"It definitely woke me up," McCray said yesterday at Verizon Center after the team's morning shoot-around in preparation for last night's game against the Washington Wizards. "I was a basketball player, but I was basically trying to be a college student, too, and I kind of got caught up in a lot of things I shouldn't have."

After hanging around the campus for a few weeks, McCray withdrew from school in mid-March and went to Houston to train with former Terp John Lucas, who has become a mentor and workout guru to dozens of aspiring NBA players.

McCray, a two-year captain at Maryland and the team's leading scorer at the time of his academic troubles, said he went to Houston at the urging of Maryland coach Gary Williams.

"We sat down and we both came to the opinion that it was best for me to get away from everything, to get away from the distractions, to get away from the negativity and basically rededicate myself," said McCray, who spent three months in Texas.

"I owe Coach most of the credit because he was the one who sent me away. If I had stayed around, I would probably have gotten down on myself and people would have kept bringing it up. Getting away, I was able to clear my mind."

McCray says that his academic suspension damaged his chances of being drafted. Aside from the negative publicity, McCray fell off the radar of NBA scouts who attend NCAA - and even National Invitation Tournament - games to see prospects.

"The draft is all about winning, and teams take the guys that win," McCray said.

McCray has said he felt responsible for the way the Maryland season ended, with nine losses in the team's remaining 15 games that cost the Terps a shot at an NCAA bid and then closed with a first-round loss in the NIT.

"I talk with those guys all the time, especially D.J. [Strawberry] and Ekene [Ibekwe] and all the guys that I played with," McCray said. "I basically told them to play this year for me and go out on a good note. If they do, I'll feel like I had a part in it."

After an impressive preseason with the Bucks that included scoring 12 points in 24 minutes in the final exhibition game, McCray earned the last spot on the 15-player roster. It was not an easy task since there were 15 guaranteed contracts and McCray didn't have one of them.

"Guys told me, `You beat the odds, all the stuff that you went through and you still made it,' " McCray said.

First-year Bucks coach Terry Stotts said general manager Larry Harris liked what he saw in McCray during pre-draft workouts in Milwaukee, as well as what the staff saw in training camp and during the preseason.

"We were surprised he didn't get drafted, and we invited him to camp," Stotts said. "Once he came to camp, there were a lot of things that we liked. He has good offensive instincts, he's a good shooter, he's got a good attitude. When you get a player like that, you're looking at what he can be, not what he is now."

McCray made the Bucks partly because the team's starting small forward, Bobby Simmons, remains sidelined with a heel injury. At 6 feet 5 and 192 pounds, McCray is projected to be a shooting guard who can be moved to the frontcourt depending on the matchups.

For now, McCray is simply a practice player whose toughest job is remaining patient.

"It's the pro game and I know I'm playing behind great guys," said McCray, who has yet to be activated through six games. "Coach [Stotts] always tells me that Michael Redd played only 35 minutes his whole rookie year. I need to wait my turn, keep working hard and doing what I can do to stick on this team. That's all I can do."

One of his current Bucks teammates is former Maryland point guard Steve Blake, who was a senior when McCray was a freshman. Though Blake was drafted by the Wizards in the second round and came with a guaranteed contract, he spent his rookie year often watching rather than playing.

"When you're not playing in games, there's a feeling that you can let go and not keep your game up, but you have to work hard and keep ready, because when the opportunity comes, you can take advantage of it," Blake said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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