While no preseason predictions suggesting that Tracy McGrady
would become a top-10 scorer have been uncovered, it is safe to say that savvy basketball veterans expected him to at least be good. Orlando Magic executives certainly had great expectations, which is why they paid T-Mac the maximum salary allowed.
But this good? All-Star starter? Twenty-six points a game? Could anyone have anticipated greatness this fast?
Well, yes. At least one person: Tracy McGrady, who is only four years removed from high school. In his first season as the featured player for the Magic, McGrady not only has led the team in scoring, but has also ranked second in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. And he's done it all in a smooth, graceful style that is reminiscent of Bob Love, Scottie Pippen
and his idol, Penny Hardaway
All of that from a mere babe, who, at 21, is barely old enough to order something stronger than ginger ale.
"I would love to take credit for a young talent like T-Mac emerging as he has," Magic coach Doc Rivers said. "But the truth is that he's much better than I thought -- and I already thought he was very good. I can see how he was frustrated in Toronto because he has all the skills. This is about T-Mac taking the opportunity to show the kind of player he is."
McGrady has turned out to be a dynamic all-around force, as he said he would when he left the Toronto Raptors and All-Star cousin Vince Carter
. There, the 6-8 Florida native believed he could not fully flourish playing alongside and under the imposing shadow cast by Carter. So, McGrady signed as a free agent with Orlando, which also inked All-Star forward Grant Hill
last summer. Playing with Hill, McGrady felt he would have the freedom to unleash a limitless arsenal that would have been suppressed had he stayed in Toronto. Also, McGrady wanted to return to his home state, where family and friends surround him.
So T-Mac is not surprised at the success he has enjoyed this season.
Tracy McGrady enjoyed his first season with the Magic, an All-Star season.
"I've always had this game," he said, "but I'm just going through a maturing process, getting bigger and stronger. Plus, I'm in a different system now from Toronto. I have a chance here to be an all-around player, to keep getting better."
If the unselfish and polished Hill had not undergone season-ending ankle surgery, there is no telling how much better McGrady would be this season. In their four games together, they functioned off of each other so breezily, both men deferring to the other in an outward attempt to form a cohesive and frightening duo. Hill's injury stung the team, but it signified to McGrady that he would have to up his play even more. Turns out, the absence of the perennial All-Star Hill has only magnified McGrady's brilliance.
"I knew he could play, but he's so much better than I thought," Hill said. "This kid's a star. You could say he really stepped up and answered the call. He has that youthful cockiness going right now, and it's great to see. This is his time."
Indeed, Rivers said McGrady has been so marvelous this season that the role of lead player would remain his -- even when Hill returns.
"I'm going to love our team next year," Rivers said. "Grant will handle the ball more, with T-Mac at the shooting guard position. You get those two in the open court, and, man, so much can happen. But Tracy's development already this season has been so great, I wouldn't be surprised if Tracy is the guy and Grant plays off of him. Grant just wants to win. Tracy wants to win. And with them both being so talented, so much can happen for us."
Rivers said he could not believe the jump shot McGrady brought to Orlando with him. In fact, his entire offensive repertoire was more than Rivers anticipated.
"I didn't know he was that good offensively," he said. "His shot is better than Grant's. Grant is better in the open court and getting to the basket. But both have that great feel for the game and can do so much to control a game. It's going to be a great duo."
McGrady acknowledges as much, but he remains respectful of Hill's stature.
"I guess I'm the go-to guy," McGrady said. "That's all right; that's my job. Until Grant gets healthy, I'm up to playing a bigger role."
Only four years ago McGrady was a senior at Mt. Zion High School in Durham, N.C., a raw but talented player actually unsure of his place in a league of men. Joe Hopkins had no doubts. Hopkins, McGrady's high school coach, was so certain of McGrady's skill level that he took the unusual step of urging McGrady to skip college and declare himself eligible for the NBA Draft.
"What Tracy is doing is no surprise to me," said Hopkins, now the coach at Shaw University. "I told people he was ready when nobody else believed it. Not even Tracy. Not even his family. I went out on a limb big-time to convince Tracy that he had the ability to go to the NBA without going to college. I wanted what was best for Tracy and his family. I took the heat for recognizing his talent early. I got a lot of criticism. But now that he's playing great, no one says anything about it."
Hopkins said he was the first to force his young star into a workout regimen. "The bottom line is he is where he is because I trained him hard, taught him the fundamentals, got him a personal trainer [Wayne Hall] that he still has. Now, I'm not trying to take credit for Tracy's success. He has done that with his skill and hard work. But I had to push him to make a big step. Now that he has, I could not be more proud. Proud because he's a genuinely good kid."
McGrady remembers Hopkins' faith in his ability. "It took a couple of months for him to convince me, for the simple fact that I didn't feel I was ready at the time," McGrady said. "He kept telling me I was. My family, at first, didn't think it was the right idea. They thought I should go to college, but we finally just realized it was the right decision for me. I felt I could make it in the league when I finished high school, after my senior year. It was just getting it through my head that I could do it, getting more and more confidence in myself and my game."
Mission accomplished. The transition, however, was not always so smooth. He played sparingly with the Raptors as a rookie, which tested his faith. And he learned that if he was going to blossom, he would have to handle more than the games.
"The first year is definitely a learning process," he said. "This is a man's league. You have to learn about the business side of things, you learn that no matter where you go, you're always in the spotlight. It's mentally and physically tough, and it's not an easy transition. There are things you really have to learn. It's crazy that it's already my fourth year. I've been through a lot."
He's been through more this year than he thought. He anticipated sharing the leadership role with Hill, and the two leading the Magic toward the playoffs. Even still, without Hill the Magic went into the All-Star break over .500 and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Orlando was in the midst of a six-game winning streak at the break that stretched to nine games, ending on February 20.
McGrady's offensive reportoire surprised Coach Doc Rivers at the start.
"It's tough. Night in and night out, you go up against great players in this league," McGrady said. "I have to keep on doing what I'm doing, and that's going out there and playing both ends of the court hard as hell and trying to carry the load. But I have 11 other guys with me, and I believe that they are going to step up now and take this thing to a whole other level."
McGrady capably handled the hoopla around the highly anticipated confrontation on January 23 against his old team (Toronto) in general and his cousin in particular (Carter). In the end, Carter outscored McGrady 33-22, but Orlando won. And the comparison quickly began between the two dynamic talents.
"Right now, I'd give the edge to Tracy, and not because I'm playing with him," Magic guard Darrell Armstrong
said. "He plays defense, and he can do so many things. His whole game isn't at the offensive end."
Carter took offense to some parting words McGrady had to say about the Raptors last year, and the very close relationship turned rocky. But as McGrady has righted a Magic team that seemed doomed without Hill, the two supernovas are once again speaking, thanks to Toronto forward Charles Oakley
. Without telling Carter who was on the phone, Oakley interrupted a conversation he was having with McGrady and handed the phone to Carter. Just like that, the cousins squashed the tumult.
"We're cool," McGrady said. "Everything's OK now. And that's the way it should be."
McGrady had a bad shooting day in that game against Carter, but he continued to perform with an urgency of a leader. Indeed, his teammates have been impressed with McGrady's determination.
Example: In early December, a case of the flu did not prevent McGrady from scoring 25 against Boston in an Orlando win, effectively dousing the Celtics' plans of limiting him via double teams. The effort did not go unnoticed by his teammates.
"He showed how tough he was, coming back like he did, being sick when his legs were wobbling," veteran teammate Monty Williams
said. "He's just one of the best I've ever seen at this age. He has a poise on the court you don't see very often at that age."
And yet, McGrady's true maturity might be in how he has received the reviews on his play. "We won; that's what counts," he said. "I came out in the second half and just felt like I had to take over the game for us to win. That's what I tried to do. That's what I need to keep doing."
Remarkably, he has. With every team coming in with ambitions on holding down McGrady, he continues to conquer.
"Tracy has to learn how to play against the double teams, which he is seeing every night," Rivers said. "He has such great floor presence that once he handles that consistently, there's no limit to what he can become."
On facing extra defensive attention, McGrady says he has a plan. "It's all about taking what the defense gives you," he said. "You can't force it against the double team. I'll do all the work, but it's the easiest job in the world to hit those wide-open shots from the weak side. And when they hit them, the double teams will stop."
McGrady has been doubly conscious of his conditioning. In his $6 million home, formerly owned by the late golfer Payne Stewart, McGrady works hard at building his body to endure the taxing rigors of playing in the NBA.
"Of course, you're going to play the season with some nagging injury," he said. "I don't know a player who goes 82 games without something nagging them on their body. Staying healthy just comes from staying in shape, continuously working out. You just have to fight through the nagging injuries."
His idol Hardaway has been unable to beat major injuries that have kept him sidelined much of the season. When healthy, Hardaway certainly has the kind of fluid game that a similarly built player like McGrady would admire.
"I looked at the way he played, how at his size he was able to handle the ball and run the show as a point guard and I liked it," said McGrady. "Penny could play outside or inside, and his style was smooth. It was like I wanted to be. I remember him dunking on big guys, like Patrick Ewing
. And he did everything on the court without looking like he was going very hard -- it was all just so smooth. So, it is a dream that I will be playing on the same court that he once played on [in Orlando]. I hope that I can give the fans of Orlando a fraction of the excitement that Penny gave."
Said Phoenix Suns guard Jason Kidd
, a Hardaway teammate: "I can see why Tracy would like Penny's game and I can see the similarities. If someone's surprised by Tracy's play this year, even though he's so young, they shouldn't be. I saw he had the skills. He left Toronto for a chance to show it every night. That has to be the first thing: wanting your own team. Now, there's no looking back with him. He's tremendous."
And he's only 21, which makes Rivers smile. "In two or three years, Tracy McGrady could be the best player in the league," the coach said.
Such talk does not faze T-Mac. He insists his ultimate ambition is to win. But even he had to admit, "the sky's the limit."
"But," he added, "the biggest thing is to win games. It's a team game. There are 11 other guys on the team; it's not just me. I mean, I'll get my numbers, but I also need to help make them better so the team can get better."
Spoken like a true veteran.
CURTIS BUNN is the NBA writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is also a regular contributor to this magazine.