June 17, 2013
By Alex Cate, UTsports.com
Six in the morning is early - maybe too early for some - but not for rising-senior Tennessee guard Jordan McRae. Everyone knows he'll be at the gym, and there's an open invitation to join him.
Two years ago this "gym rat" persona would have been uncharacteristic of McRae. But since the arrival of head coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff, McRae has steadily developed both on the hardwood as a player and off the court as a man.
"We could see the raw potential in him (when our staff got here)," Vols assistant coach Kent Williams said of the long and athletic Midway, Ga., native.
Williams quickly realized McRae could be a game-changing playmaker on the court, but Williams has more recently been impressed with McRae's maturity going into his senior season.
When the team's freshmen and newcomers arrived on campus this summer, McRae was one of the first to embrace them and make sure they got acclimated to college life.
Recruited out of Liberty County High School, McRae earned first-team Georgia All-State honors while averaging 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as a prep senior.
He saw action in just 10 games as a freshman in 2010-11 and was, at times, his own worst enemy. Adversity often led to anger or self-pity.
Then, in the spring of 2011, Martin and his staff arrived in Knoxville. And with them came a new attitude and outlook for the fiery McRae.
McRae appeared in all of UT's 34 games and had 15 starts as a sophomore. He averaged 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game. He made several strides in his development. Still, both McRae and Williams saw room for improvement.
"It's a lot of hard work, more than I thought going into my sophomore year," McRae said. "Going into that sophomore year I was trying to get by on the talent I had, but that talent wasn't always enough so I had to learn to work harder and be smarter my junior year."
Being more intelligent on the basketball court is something that Martin and company have stressed to their players. They took no exception with McRae and began by breaking down game film with him - pointing out areas in which they believed he could grow and improve.
"You start by making guys more efficient," Williams said. "You break guys' games down as you go year-by-year."
That's when McRae began to spend more time in the gym, a trait he picked up after watching former Tennessee teammate and current Orlando Magic standout Tobias Harris achieve success through superior work ethic.
McRae's added practice time, coupled with some advice from Martin, helped the rising junior put together a productive offseason as the Vols' headed into the 2012-13 season.
"Coach Martin really taught me that all of the players with confidence around the country work on their game every day," McRae said. "They know that if they miss a shot, just keep shooting that shot because it will eventually fall."
McRae began his junior year in the same role he occupied during the previous season - he was Tennessee's sixth man. Providing a spark off the bench was something McRae came to embrace.
Not only did he embrace it, but as a junior he flourished, impacting games more and more as the pre-conference schedule rolled along. So much so that after a 17-point performance in a win against eventual Final Four participant Wichita State - as well as a monstrous 26-point outburst versus Memphis - Martin and the UT staff felt it was time to re-evaluate McRae's role.
By the time Southeastern Conference play began, McRae was a member of the Vols' starting five.
"At the time I was relishing the role," McRae said. "I was trying to do that to the best of my ability. Coach Martin moved me to the starting lineup, and I wasn't aiming to go in there and score 20 or 25 points. I was just aiming to do the best that I could."
Williams, who himself was once a standout guard and remains the second-leading scorer in Southern Illinois history, said it ultimately came down to McRae leaving them no choice but to insert him in the starting lineup.
"Jordan was coming off the bench for some instant offense, giving us a lift there, but he just totally forced the hand and forced himself into the starting lineup by playing steady basketball," Williams said. "Once he was in that starting lineup, he just exploded."
And the blast radius was far-reaching.
McRae finished the season averaging 15.7 points and 4.1 rebounds in 33.6 minutes per game. He led the Vols in minutes played, scoring, 3-pointers made and attempted and 3-point percentage.
He was named first team All-SEC and was several national sportswriters' choice for 2013 SEC Player of the Year. UT honored him as its 2012-2013 Male Student Athlete of the Year.
Instead of declaring for the NBA Draft, McRae opted to return for his senior season, and he remains just as driven as he was before.
"Jordan's not intimidated by anybody," Williams said. "He's not insecure about (his role on this team)."
This summer, Williams and McRae are once again breaking down film in preparation for the upcoming season.
The first priorities on their list: becoming a better defender and taking care of the basketball.
McRae will have a chance to gauge his progress and sharpen those skills against some of the best wings in the country at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy June 28-30 in Washington, D.C.
"Everything I was good at last year, I'm trying to be great at this year," McRae said. "Everything I was bad at last year I want to be good at. Each year I just want to add something to my game so there is improvement each summer."