By Harrison March
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Never under coach Fred Hoiberg has a player quite like Jameel McKay trotted onto the court at Hilton Coliseum donning the Cardinal & Gold.
“Showtime McKay,” as he’s known on Twitter, checks in at 6-foot-9, and although that makes him the tallest player in Iowa State’s rotation, his height pales in comparison to his 7-foot-4 wingspan. With his shoulder-length dreadlocks pulled back, McKay wastes no time skying into the air in an attempt to send any shot his opponent takes right back to where it came from.
As his outstretched arm closes in on the shooter, the Cyclone fans packed to the rafters can celebrate that their team has found perhaps its most imposing post defender and, as a result, one of the best defenses of the Hoiberg era.
“You can get out and pressure a little more defensively when you have a guy that can block shots in the back,” Hoiberg said at ISU media day. “We were 6-6 and 6-7 most games at the four and five last year… so it didn’t allow us to get out and pressure as much because we didn’t have that guy.”
McKay’s rejections send the crowd into a frenzy, the excitement perhaps sweetened by the fact that he almost never became a Cyclone.
Upon finishing his basketball career at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, the two-time NJCAA First-Team All-American elected to head home to Milwaukee to join Marquette’s basketball squad.
Just one problem: his homecoming didn’t pan out how he had envisioned. Before playing a single game, McKay decided he needed a new place to call home for the next two seasons. At that point, the choice was clear.
“[Iowa State] recruited me out of JUCO and they were actually number two on my list after Marquette so it became easy for me once I decided to transfer,” McKay said. “The success they’ve had with transfers played a big part and just the relationship I already had with the coaching staff played a big part.”
Now that he’s at ISU, the defensive dynamic he adds to an already potent offensive team has made the Cyclones a well-rounded team on both ends of the floor.
“That’s big time. For the last two years, we’ve been a small team,” said former Indian Hills teammate and current ISU teammate Dustin Hogue. “We’ve never really had a presence in the paint being able to block shots. Sometimes he doesn’t get the block but he changes up shots to where we can get the rebound.”
His 2.2 rejections per outing put McKay on track for the fourth-best season ever by a Cyclone in the block column. The denials make the record book, but no statistic measures the number of times McKay’s outstretched arm has forced an opponent to reconsider a shot or give it a little more arc than originally planned, as Hogue alluded to.
Being one of the league’s best shot blockers is certainly no small feat, and while his services provide the Cyclones with their best rim protector in years, his ability to run in transition has also turned heads.
Take, for example, his rim-rattling throw down on the alley-oop pass from point guard Monte’ Morris in transition that landed him on highlight reels across the nation after Iowa State’s 86-81 victory over Kansas on Jan. 17.
“He can really run,” KU coach Bill Self said after the game. “More than anything else I thought he really ran and I thought he did a good job of protecting the rim, too. He gives them a taller athlete – you know they’ve got good athletes without question, but not tall athletes. So he gives them a tall athlete that can do some different things physically that’ll help them on both ends.”
Even though the hype surrounding McKay was largely related to his defensive prowess, Hoiberg noticed early on in the recruiting process that he also had a knack for flashing the paint and finishing at the rim to round out his overall game.
“With his ability to get rim to rim, I think he saw how much we play in transition and we were fortunate to get him,” Hoiberg said.
The highlights are easy to remember, but the play that McKay prides himself on most is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s not flashy or emphatic, but rather it’s a gritty hustle play.
With just over a minute left to play and the Cyclones nursing a 70-69 lead against Kansas State in Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 20, a missed K-State jumper resulted in a loose ball. This time, instead of making a play above the rim, McKay dove to the hardwood to secure the rebound and threw his hands together to call a timeout.
On the ensuing possession, Morris iced away the win with a floater in the paint.
“That was a big time play and it helped us get the win,” McKay said. “I wanted that game bad and when I saw the ball on the floor I knew that if I was the first person on the ground I could get it, and that’s exactly what happened.”
That kind of effort is what has poised McKay to have one of the strongest defensive seasons in ISU history while still establishing himself as a player who can make opponents pay for the smallest lapses of focus on defense.
Just a dozen games into his Division I career, McKay is less than one rebound from averaging a double-double per 40 minutes played, making him the latest transfer to find success with Hoiberg’s squad. He quickly found the way to be an impactful post player in a loaded conference, and Hogue thinks the best is still to come.
“Jameel has always been a special player,” Hogue said. “His motor – people talk about my energy, but people don’t realize that he’s just as energetic as I am. Cyclone fans haven’t really seen how far Jameel can get. I’ve seen him for two years, I’ve seen his potential. When he reaches his peak, I think a lot of people are going to like his game.”