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The plane flight that changed Warriors forward Alfonzo McKinnie’s NBA trajectory

How the 26-year-old went from NBA long shot to Warriors rotation player

OAKLAND, California — A sleepy Alfonzo McKinnie walked down the aisle to the back of the Golden State Warriors’ team plane after being summoned by head coach Steve Kerr. The journeyman forward entered training camp as a long shot to make the two-time defending NBA champs’ roster. And, now, on the flight from Las Vegas to San Jose for the team’s preseason finale on Oct. 11, he expected the worst: getting waived just days before the start of the NBA season.

“They woke me and told me to come to the back to talk to Coach Kerr,” said McKinnie. “In those situations, you don’t know anything until you know. I was just back there rolling my eyes thinking, ‘Man, I was about to get that Judgment Day on the plane.’ ”

Kerr, however, told McKinnie he made the team. And the Warriors appear to have found a diamond in the rough.

McKinnie began making a name for himself during camp and secured the team’s remaining two-way contract on Oct. 11. With restricted free agent Patrick McCaw still unsigned, the Warriors turned McKinnie’s two-way contract into a regular contract on Oct. 12. McKinnie has produced at the start of the season, averaging 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting a sizzling 58.8 percent from distance in 13.3 minutes per game. He was even on the floor with Warriors All-Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson down the stretch during a 116-99 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 2 and had a key fast-break dunk and 3-pointer.

“In training camp, he wasn’t standing out at first,” Green said. “But as camp went on, suddenly he is flying in making great rebounds and hustle plays. He just started making a splash. He went and got that spot. I respect that. After he started making a splash, I started learning more about his story. I respect a guy like that and what he is doing. He got it out of the mud and earned himself a spot in this rotation.”

What might be most remarkable about McKinnie’s story is that he initially had no realistic shot of making the NBA.

Stephen Curry & Co. have embraced their 26-year-old journeyman (center).

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

ESPN.com ranked McKinnie as a two-star recruit and the 196th-best power forward in the country as a senior at Chicago’s Marshall High during the 2009-10 season. And he was far off the NBA radar as a college senior at Wisconsin-Green Bay, averaging 8.0 points and 5.3 rebounds during the 2014-15 season. During the 2015 NBA draft, McKinnie went to a draft party for his friend and teammate Keifer Sykes, who went undrafted and has since played in the G League, Korea, Turkey and Italy.

“I didn’t even put my name in the NBA draft,” McKinnie said. “I had zero NBA workouts.”

McKinnie went on to play professionally in Luxembourg for the East Side Pirates in front of sparse crowds in tiny gyms. Most of McKinnie’s teammates had jobs besides playing once a week for the Pirates, who won just two games with McKinnie during the 2015-16 season.

A homesick McKinnie went back to Chicago in May 2016.

“I was the only American on that team and I was far from home,” McKinnie said. “It was a culture shock because I was isolated and alone a lot. A lot of the guys on the team had regular day jobs. They would be working and I’d be home.”

Days after returning, McKinnie traveled to northwestern Mexico to sign with Rayos de Hermosillo, which was in the 10-team Circuito de Baloncesto de la Costa del Pacífico basketball league. McKinnie averaged 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in 25 games.

While McKinnie enjoyed his time living in Hermosillo, he saw some scary things during road trips in Mexico.

“The police walk around with machine guns,” McKinnie said. “I’ve never seen that. One night I saw some dudes got stopped and the police pulled out machine guns and had them up against the wall. I was like, ‘Let me go back to my hotel.’ There would be cities where our coach would tell us not to leave anywhere alone, always travel with somebody.”

McKinnie also represented the U.S. during the 2016 FIBA 3×3 World Championships in Guangzhou, China. He averaged 3.1 points per game for the Americans, who finished with a silver medal. He also won a silver medal in the competition’s dunk contest.

But it literally cost McKinnie $175 to finally get noticed by the NBA. That’s how much McKinnie paid for a tryout with the Chicago Bulls’ G League team in September 2016. He not only made the roster but scored 16 points in the 2017 G League All-Star Game.

McKinnie made his NBA debut with the Toronto Raptors last season, averaging 1.5 points in sparse minutes in 14 appearances. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward spent most of last season with the Raptors’ 905 G League team, averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

McKinnie said he had several opportunities to join NBA training camps this past offseason. But his mentor, former NBA guard Will Bynum, pushed him to sign with the Warriors.

“I was talking to one of my big homies, Will Bynum, at his house,” McKinnie said. “He said, ‘Ain’t nothing else to think about. I don’t care what they offered you. It’s Golden State there. You have to go there and lay it all on the line.’ ”

McKinnie, 26, may not have had a chance to earn a spot on the Warriors’ roster if McCaw had signed his offer sheet, which is still on the table. And an injury to backup guard Shaun Livingston also aided McKinnie’s ability to get playing time.

Regardless, McKinnie appears to have played well enough to make it tough for the Warriors to let him go because of his hustle plays, rebounding on both ends and 3-point shooting. With a team full of scorers, the Warriors need to have players who do the little things, like Green, Andre Iguodala and now McKinnie.

The Warriors have to decide by Jan. 7 whether to guarantee McKinnie and his $1.3 million salary for the season. His odds are looking better by the game.

“He is trying to make an impact, whether it’s rebounding the basketball, playing great defense or knocking down shots,” Curry said. “You love the confidence he has coming in. He knows he belongs. He knows he can help us win. And he knows he can impact the game.”

Said Kerr: “He’s been a huge surprise for us this year. He’s really come in and seized the opportunity.”

McKinnie also showed how comfortable he is with the Warriors when they recently danced to a hip-hop remix of Fergie’s rendition of the national anthem at February’s NBA All-Star Game. Green said McKinnie stole the show with his side-to-side dance moves.

“He definitely stole the show. I don’t know what that dance he did was called, but it was good,” Green said.

McKinnie said he has gained 10,000 new followers on Instagram since the video was posted.

“I jumped in the front and just did a dance that boosted my Instagram and social media a lot,” McKinnie said.

Before the Warriors’ road game against the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 29, he put some of that money to good use by buying his mother a home. McKinnie signed all the paperwork at the team hotel, with several family members there taking in the moment. His mom finally got the suburban Chicago home she had been dreaming of.

“She was sitting right next to me when I was there signing the documents. I’m just happy that I was able to do that,” said McKinnie, who scored 19 points in 26 minutes in front of his mother during the Warriors’ 149-124 victory.

A few days later, McKinnie took a spot at the table usually reserved for the team’s Big 4 and happily answered questions after the Warriors’ win against the Wolves.

“It doesn’t matter where you start,” McKinnie said. “You just have to keep working hard day in and day out. Just wait for the right opportunity to present itself. And when it does, take full advantage of it and see what happens.

“That is pretty much what I did. I just continued to work. You see where I am at now.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.