June 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

First-round pick Mitch McGary impresses Thunder on and off court

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Mitch McGary, left, and Sam Presti, the Thunder's executive vice president and general manager, hold a basketball jersey as McGary is introduced during a news conference Friday in Oklahoma City. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

For many rookies in the NBA draft, they don’t worry about which team selects them; being picked and being able to realize their dreams is enough.

Especially in the first round, it’s unlikely to be picked by a playoff team that has needs at a particular position and expect to get playing time.

Michigan’s Mitch McGary might have gotten the best of both worlds — a good fit and a perennial playoff team that can contend for the NBA title. The Oklahoma City Thunder selected McGary 21st overall in the first round of Thursday night’s draft.

McGary, a 6-foot-10 forward who missed all but eight games last season because of back surgery, made an impression on the Thunder with his play on and off the court.

“Mitch is a guy that we followed for quite some time; he brings tremendous energy, passion, plays with a great basketball IQ and brings a toughness that we value,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said Friday afternoon at McGary’s introductory news conference.

Before the draft, McGary only worked out for one team, the Milwaukee Bucks, and his status was uncertain because he wasn’t recovered completely from the surgery. He was facing a one-year suspension because of a positive marijuana test if he opted to return to Michigan next year for his junior season.

Instead, he decided to enter the draft — and ended up in a good scenario with the Thunder, who need young big men in their frontcourt, which includes Serge Ibaka and the aging Kendrick Perkins (29) and Nick Collison (33).

Even though he’s had limited practice time since he declared for the draft, McGary said he plans to be ready for the summer-league season, which begins in July. McGary hasn’t played since December, but was a valuable asset in other roles on the bench.

“It was difficult for me to sit on the sidelines, especially during the NCAA run, when the previous year our team made it to the final game,” McGary said. “It really made me sit back and not take things for granted because basketball can be taken away from you just like that.”

But while McGary was on the bench, the Thunder scouts were watching him, to see what kind of teammate he would be and whether he would still be plugged in while Michigan was playing without him.

Needless to say, they were impressed.

“Being there before games, I saw him rebounding the ball for guys, keeping people up when they were losing leads and I think you can learn a lot about people in those situations. While we go and watch the plays, we also watch what’s happening around the game,” Presti said. “That’s what I think makes a great intangible player — someone that can impact his team just not even being in uniform, but with his spirit and his energy.

“You can tell when that stuff’s sincere because not a lot of people can do it consistently. He was very consistent with that and sincere with that. He wouldn’t be sitting here quite honestly if he handled it any differently.”

McGary, who gained fame for his play when he entered the starting lineup for Michigan’s 2013 NCAA Tournament run to the championship game, is regarded for his hustling and energetic style, which made him a crowd favorite. With the Thunder and league MVP Kevin Durant, he’ll have to prove himself all over again and ingratiate himself to the team and fan base.

“It’s great to be part of such a first-class organization; I’m thrilled to be here and I can’t wait to get started,” McGary said. “Kevin Durant already texted me this morning and he said can’t wait to get to work. I know these guys are eager to get us in the gym and be an NBA contender again next year.”

McGary, who signed autographs in Ann Arbor on Wednesday night, was back home in Chesterton, Ind. on Thursday for a draft party in his parents’ garage with about 40 friends and family.

But he was off to Oklahoma City to Friday morning and was eager to begin learning the system and adjusting to being a pro. With the Thunder, he won’t have to play a starring role, unlike many rookies. Instead, he can focus on doing the little things that helped make him successful with the Wolverines.

“I’d like to bring a lot of toughness. I know this team is tough but everybody needs an extra edge. I’d definitely like to bring a lot more energy on and off the court,” he said. “Being on the bench, I’m up on my feet almost every possession; whatever it takes for the team to win, I’m going to try to bring to the table.”

Judging by his time at Michigan, that shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for McGary.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com
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