McKinnie had parlayed a training camp invitation after toiling overseas and in a Mexican 3-on-3 league — with a brief cameo for the Toronto Raptors last season — into not only a roster spot, but a guaranteed contract with the two-time defending NBA champions. There was no shortage of well-wishers for the Marshall Metropolitan High School alum.
There was one person, though, who couldn’t make it: McKinnie’s maternal grandfather, Gerald Bryant. After undergoing chemotherapy and missing his grandson’s first swing through his hometown, he’ll be in attendance on Wednesday when McKinnie and the Warriors go for a first-round playoff series clincher against the Los Angeles Clippers at 7:30 p.m.
“For him to be able to come out now, to Oakland, to see this, it’s something special,” McKinnie said on Tuesday after practice.
After going undrafted out of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2015, playing in rec-league gyms with grown men in Luxembourg, the only American on the East Side Pirates, and then playing for Rayos de Hermosillo in a 3-on-3 league south of the border, McKinnie paid $150 to try out for the G-League Windy City Bulls in 2016.
McKinnie would land one of the 10 roster spots available, earned a starting role only a few weeks in. He averaged 14.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while shooting 57% from the floor, and was selected as a G-League All-Star.
After going through several mini-camps for NBA teams, he landed with Toronto on a non-guaranteed contract, making the team out of training camp. He played in 14 games.
During the regular season with Golden State this year, McKinnie averaged 13.9 minutes, 4.7 points and 3.4 rebounds over 72 games. In late March, though, McKinnie went through a five-game stretch where he played just 8.4 minutes per game. He was still shooting 71.4% from the field, but he’d fallen out of the regular rotation. Over the final seven games, though, he averaged 17.4 minutes, 3.0 rebounds and hit 40% of his 3-pointers. His defense improved.
After seeing little time in Games 1 and 2 against the Clippers, he averaged 15.4 minutes over Games 3 and 4, posting a net plus-11. On Sunday in Los Angeles, McKinnie provided two key plays down the stretch to secure an eight-point win.
“I think, for me, I feel like I’m learning each game,” McKinnie said. “I’m just learning how to rotate on defense better, and I’m learning where my spots are and where I should be in certain situations on the floor. That’s really what it is.”
With 1:57 to go in the third, McKinnie snared an offensive rebound off a Stephen Curry miss, and found Curry again at the top of the arc for a 3-pointer, highlighting a 10-2 run to close the quarter and putting the Warriors up 85-82.
Klay Thompson missed a step-back try with 9:41 to go in regulation — his first miss from beyond the arc on the night — but McKnnie was right there for the put-back.
“Zo has been great these first four games of the Playoffs,” head coach Steve Kerr said on Sunday. “He has the athleticism to not only hang in an NBA playoff game but even to stand out in a playoff game. He gets a lot of offensive rebounds. He’s good defensively. He’s smart. And I thought he gave us huge minutes tonight.”
Kerr’s trust — and the extended minutes he’s given him — means a great deal to McKinnie, who had never been a true star at any level, and was lightly recruited out of high school.
“It lets me know that the work I’ve been putting in is appreciated, and it’s being put to use,” McKinnie said. “Those two plays were pretty much just me being myself, crashing the glass and getting offensive rebounds. It’s me just being in the right spots, being out there and being able to help when I can.”
McKinnie reflects daily on his unorthodox path from his humble beginnings to where he is now.
“It’s always in my mind,” McKinnie said. “I know my journey. I know everything that I’ve gone through, and everything I’ve had to overcome … Not too many guys can say they started where I started, and ended up in this type of situation.”
His family has hit him up about next year’s All-Star game in Chicago, and he says he may wind up having to wrangle about 15 to 20 tickets to the event.
“I think I’m going to have to set a budget or something, getting tickets to that game,” McKinnie said. “It should be a fun experience for everybody in Chicago. It’s something that’ll give Chicago some positive feedback. There’s been a lot of stuff going on in Chicago. I think the All-Star Game will bring some energy around the city.”
Wednesday will be all the more special because McKinnie’s grandfather played basketball at a high level during his youth, and has been a fan of Golden State. McKinnie had his mother come out during the final regular-season games, and had family come out for the first two games in Oakland, but having Bryant will mean much more.
“He’s a big Warriors fan, before I even came,” McKinnie said. “It’s kind of hard not to be a Warriors fan when you’ve got Steph, Klay and KD and all those guys playing together … From the stories I’ve heard, he was pretty good back in the day. I’m excited to get him out here.”