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Rebel on the rise: UNLV’s ballyhooed big man sets lofty goals for team

2017 Scarlet & Gray Showcase

Steve Marcus

Brandon McCoy (44) talks with reporters following the UNLV basketball Scarlet & Gray Showcase at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017.

The first slam dunk of Brandon McCoy’s life didn’t go according to plan.

Playing at a summer camp as a rising eighth-grader, the Chicago native found himself on a breakaway, and though he’d never cruised at rim altitude before, a surge of adrenaline ordered him to explode upward for a powerful slam.

McCoy complied, but the results were ugly. He made the dunk — a pivotal moment for any young player — but his takeoff was so awkward that he injured himself in the process.

“It was a two-handed rim raiser,” McCoy said, laughing. “I sprained my ankle, that’s the only reason I remember it.”

Present-day McCoy could use any number of excuses for flubbing the dunk — nerves, inexperience at elevation, lack of height (he was 6-foot-2 at the time) — but he’s honest about his origin story.

“I wasn’t good yet,” he said.

That’s the truth about Brandon McCoy; he’s not a natural. Now, he’s a five-star recruit, a McDonald’s All-American, the Mountain West Conference Preseason Freshman of the Year and the guy tasked with turning around the UNLV basketball program. But he’s had to work for it, and he’s proud of that.

“It took me a long time to get good at basketball,” McCoy said.

Now 6-foot-11, McCoy was originally drawn to boxing as a kid. His mom didn’t love the idea of her son trading blows in the ring, but as a career military woman, she appreciated the disciplinary benefits that came with the training. So she signed off on her son’s first passion.

By the time he reached middle school, however, McCoy was beginning to gravitate toward basketball. He had a natural ability for blocking shots, and he was usually the fastest player on the floor, an unusual combination of skills that made him an intriguing up-and-comer.

But McCoy didn’t fully invest in basketball until high school, when his mother sent him to live with a guardian in San Diego. Getting him out of a violent environment in Chicago was her No. 1 priority, but a secondary effect was immersing McCoy in a culture where he was able to focus on basketball in a serious way.

“I always loved basketball,” McCoy said. “It brought me joy. But when I came (to San Diego) it kind of overtook me. I started living, eating, breathing basketball. Once I moved to California, I decided basketball was going to be my life.”

McCoy started logging serious hours in the gym and gradually improved. He also grew seven inches between eighth and ninth grade, shooting up to 6-foot-9. Suddenly, he was a legitimate Division I prospect.

During McCoy’s freshman year at Morse High School, he received his first recruiting letter. Arizona was interested. It was a proud moment, but he really burst onto the scene his sophomore year.

Having grown to his current height, McCoy dominated with 19.7 points and 18.3 rebounds per game while leading his team to the state championship game. He transferred to Cathedral Catholic after that season and spent the next two years perfecting his craft. He may not have been a natural-born baller, but McCoy continued to put in the time in the gym, extending his shooting range, tightening his handle, developing his post game. And when it all came together, he discovered he was having a blast.

“It got way better,” he says. “Once I started getting good it got way more fun.”

By the time his senior season began, he was having a ball and he pretty much had his pick of Division I colleges. Arizona was still interested, as were top programs like Oregon, Michigan State and San Diego State. It was a little late in the process when UNLV jumped in, but McCoy connected with Rebels head coach Marvin Menzies, who had been on the job for just two months before reaching out to McCoy.

“He said, ‘We’re not the best school on your list, but we’re going to push you,’ ” McCoy recalled. “He was real with me. ‘We’re going to push you, and you’re going to learn the game out here.’ ”

Menzies also told McCoy about building his offenses at New Mexico State around big men who went on to professional careers. McCoy began to seriously consider the Rebels, and he was pragmatic about the situation. When UNLV went 11-21 in a rebuilding season, McCoy wasn’t deterred.

“It didn’t really affect me because each year is different,” he said. “One year you can win the NCAA championship, the next year you can be the worst team in the nation.”

After putting in so much work over the years to build his game from the ground up, McCoy is ready to show off the results. Though he’s built like a true center, he envisions himself contributing in all facets of the game and bristles when he hears himself described as a “traditional” big man.

“I just don’t want to be put in that box of a ‘regular big man’ who just sets screens and plays defense,” McCoy said. “I want to be that big man like Joel Embiid or Demarcus Cousins, those types that play defense and offense. … I can bring the ball up, I can shoot, I can dribble, I can post up, I can do all that. There’s no limits to my game.”

If McCoy is as good as advertised, the Rebels could be in store for a remarkable campaign. They finished last in the Mountain West in 2016-17, but McCoy’s goals for this season are a league championship and an NCAA tournament berth. It would be a turnaround for the ages, but McCoy doesn’t mind setting the bar that high and raising expectations for himself in the process.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “I just want to contribute to the team and help us win. That’s all that’s on my mind.”

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