Kansas State University

McGruder inching closer to NBA dream

Rodney McGruder plays in the NCAA Tournament as a senior for Kansas State. (March 22, 2013)
Rodney McGruder plays in the NCAA Tournament as a senior for Kansas State. (March 22, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber had a question for Rodney McGruder last month.

He wanted to know if McGruder, after three years playing professionally overseas and in the NBA’s D-League, was interested in trading in his jersey for a suit. Weber was searching for a new assistant, and he thought McGruder would make a nice addition to his coaching staff.

After all, the last time they were together K-State won 27 games and shared the 2013 Big 12 championship. Maybe they could recreate that success. It was an intriguing and flattering thought.

Still, McGruder shot it down almost immediately.

“I couldn’t take him seriously,” McGruder said in a phone interview. “He called and said, ‘Are you ready to stop playing yet?’ I laughed and told him, ‘No, I’m not ready to stop playing. Not yet. It will be a long time before I’m ready for that.’ 

Indeed, the future has never seemed brighter for McGruder. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound swingman is coming off a breakthrough season in which he helped the Sioux Falls Skyforce win a D-League championship while averaging 15.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

His versatility as a skilled three-point shooter and lock-down defender should make him one of the most watched up-and-comers in the NBA summer league.

If he continues to play the way he did in the D-League playoffs, scoring 30 or more points in three of seven games, there is a good chance he will crack his first NBA roster next season.

“That’s my dream and my goal,” McGruder said. “I gave it my all this year, I have a great agent and my coach spoke very highly of me. Hopefully, the opportunity comes. I want it bad.”

How bad?

“Oh man, real bad,” McGruder added. “People tell me I am already living the dream, that I got to go overseas and now I get to play basketball every day as my job. But playing in the NBA would be different. That has always been my dream.”

K-State fans, whom McGruder refers to as his extended family, will root for him along the way.

McGruder could be K-State’s next NBA player, and the Wildcats could use more of those. Michael Beasley was the only K-State alum to play in the NBA last season, finishing out the year with the Houston Rockets.

The NBA is an unforgiving business. McGruder already has stories to tell.

He has played for three teams in the summer league and he has twice made training camp rosters, first with the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the Boston Celtics. But he has never played in a regular-season game. That forced him to explore options overseas, spending a season in Hungary and playing for two D-League teams.

McGruder thinks a mixture of youth and injuries held him back his first two seasons. At times, he was brilliant. At others, he struggled. The Maine Red Claws cut him after 26 games a year ago.

Then everything came together.

“I am playing the best basketball of my life,” McGruder said. “It’s because of my approach. My approach to the game is way different now than it was in college.”

Call it an increased focus on the little things. Being in position to make a routine play means more than being out of position and making a highlight play. Taking good shots is a higher priority. Maybe that’s why he shot 39 percent from three and 51.3 percent overall.

“It’s hard to explain, but I feel like I am doing everything a little bit better. When your focus and your approach are right you become a better player, because you are more in tune with everything.”

“I am more mature in that aspect. I think that is key. You can be the best player or the best athlete in the world, but if you’re not focused on the right things and don’t have the right mentality you’re not going to play well.”

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett