The NBA off season is well under way, with the majority of attention centred on Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, who headline one of the deepest and most exciting drafts in years.
However, the draft is not the only avenue to sign new players, with free agency often allowing teams to grab an undrafted talent, experienced veteran or an unknown international. Last season, Toronto managed to snatch Anthony Parker away from his career in Europe, installing him as their starting two-guard with plenty of success. Will the Raptors pull a similar move this season? Bryan Colangelo is certainly trying to, and Sam Mackinnon is firmly in his sights.
Sam Mackinnon is a versatile swingman from Australia, measuring up at 6’5” and 229 pounds. At nearly 31, he has been playing professionally since 1994 as a defensively-oriented small forward. However, it is important not to pigeon-hole Mackinnon as just a stopper. He can do anything on the hardwood, not just defend, and is more than a small forward. Mackinnon often spends time at guard, where his controlled handles and court vision make him the ideal play maker, while he can also suit up as a forward-centre. Last year in the NBL (the Australian national league), Mackinnon was his team’s starting power forward and often played as a centre in the clutch minutes of games despite his lack of height. This is important to note, as Mackinnon can play the 2, 3 or the 4 even though he is shorter than most NBA players.
He is coming off his best professional year, having led his team to a championship while winning the MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies. Since then, a number of NBA franchises (including Toronto and San Antonio) have been scouting out Mackinnon for a possible role next season. As such, he will be heading to America for many off season camps and will probably play in the summer leagues, keen to make the most of his last NBA chance.
Sam Mackinnon has spent 13 years in the NBL, but when scouting his NBA chances, it is most relevant to consider his numbers from the last four seasons.
The resume of Sam Mackinnon is absolutely jam-packed. His greatest NBL season was last year, where he forged himself as one of the greatest Australian players in history. He has been a consistently good player in the national league over a long period of time, averaging 15-8-4 with four teams over 13 seasons. During that time, Mackinnon has won two NBL championships and has a whole string of individual honours next to his name.
Mackinnon has also been a regular member of Australian squads. He won a gold medal with the U-22 squad at the World Championships in 1997, and has since been a starter for the senior national team, the Boomers. Over his career, Mackinnon has represented Australia at two Olympics (finishing fourth in both Atlanta and Sydney), and many other tournaments. In 2006, he won the Gaze Medal as Australia’s international player of the year ahead of Andrew Bogut and Brad Newley. This award recognised his gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, as well as his performances at the World Championships where Mackinnon averaged 8-6-3 to lead Australia to a very respectable performance.
Defence – Certainly, defence is the key to Sam Mackinnon’s chances of making the NBA. Teams will want to play him as a perimeter stopper, and there is no doubt that he could pull this off, even against the likes of Kobe and D-Wade. He has proved this time and time again against the best offensive players in the NBL (where he won last season’s Defensive Player of the Year award), and as well as at the international level – at last year’s World Championships, Mackinnon had 8-7-2 with two steals and a block, while holding LeBron James to just five points. As well as the ability to guard scoring wings, Mackinnon has also shown that he can lock down on virtually any other player. In last season’s NBL Finals, where Mackinnon led his team to victory, he was frequently matched up on the opposition’s two best players – their point guard, and a seven-footer who could score on the block and hit the three. Mackinnon stopped both in their tracks. If any further proof is needed, just take a look at his numbers again – ten boards, two blocks and two steals – and remind yourself that Mackinnon can definitely play D.
Veteran leader – Sam Mackinnon is currently the captain of his NBL club, the Brisbane Bullets. Last year, he won every individual prize in the game while taking the Bullets to a 28-5 record and the championship. Along the way, they won 21 games straight and cemented themselves as the best professional outfit ever seen in Australia. Going on the numbers, one would assume that Mackinnon was the dominant force on this team. Yet it was the complete opposite – Mackinnon played every position, took over games in the clutch, cleaned the glass, shut down scorers and did anything else his coach asked of him. Mackinnon can bring the same qualities to the NBA, as he will do anything to make a roster and will be giving 110% in whatever capacity that a coach sees fit for him. This will make Mackinnon the perfect team player, a great leader and a role model for younger players to learn from.
Athleticism – Throughout his career in Australia, Mackinnon has always been acknowledged as the most athletic player in the land. He’s not the kind of guy to throw down huge dunks or pull out crazy moves, thus his highlight reels are often quite boring, but Mackinnon is certainly a great athlete. He has a lightning first step and can easily beat defenders, will jump over big men with ease, is very fit and can run all day long (as evidenced last season, where his team played a full-court press almost every night) and is as strong as they come. Even though Mackinnon doesn’t have the hops of many college products, he is much more athletic than other international prospects and will be able to compete with younger NBA swingmen.
Free-throw shooting – It can’t be spun any other way. Sam Mackinnon is not a good free-throw shooter. He has averaged 57% throughout his NBL career, with only one season above 70% and a low mark of just 43%. It’s going to come up every time an NBA team looks at Mackinnon, and frankly his work at the stripe is just going to be part of the package. Mackinnon is pretty clutch at the line, usually hitting the big free-throws for his team, but it’s common knowledge that he is just not that good. This is not to say that he can’t improve – after all, he turned himself into a devastating three-point shooter in one off season – but after a whole career of mediocrity from the line, this is one consistent weakness in Mackinnon’s game.
Range – For a small forward, Mackinnon isn’t much of a shooter. He has improved dramatically, with the addition of a three point shot (that led the NBL last season) greatly adding to his game. However, there are certainly question marks over his range. While Mackinnon hits a high percentage of his open looks from downtown, it remains to be seen whether he can convert his remarkable change in shooting form last season into legitimate NBA range. This is something many Australian prospects have struggled with, and Mackinnon is no different. However, his shot is improving all the time and after the way he fashioned himself into a shooter as well as a slasher in 2006/6, it would be no surprise to see Mackinnon become a reliable commodity in the land of the NBA three-ball.
Age – This is certainly what will put NBA teams off Mackinnon. By the time next season begins, he will be 31 and if signed, could probably contribute for three or four years at a maximum. With the logjam of young and talented swingmen in America, it would be a much easier option to sign someone straight out of college. However, don’t let Mackinnon’s age completely sway you. Sure, he’s on the wrong side of 30, but while in the NBL, Mackinnon would not have played more than 50 games each year. The NBL season is only 33 games, plus the playoffs, and Australia does not have very regular international commitments. So he is a lot fresher than NBA players at his age, and would certainly be fit enough to play through the 84-game grind that is the NBA season.
Sam Mackinnon will never be a star in the NBA, and he would even admit that himself. But strangely enough, that could be one of his greatest strengths. Instead of heading to a franchise and trying to score on every possession and dominate as a starter, Mackinnon just wants to play. This is his last chance to make it to The Show, and there’s no doubting the fact that he will do anything possible to crack a roster and be part of a winning team.
Right now, it’s hard to say whether Mackinnon will be signed or not. He is a coaches dream – tough, good on both ends of the floor and with an ego that doesn’t need feeding – but many GMs will probably overlook the Aussie because of his age and history. Signing a player who will be 31 next season will draw all sorts of criticism if it doesn’t end up working, and frankly, most people around the league would be more inclined to choose a younger, more exciting player who can be moulded to suit the team’s needs.
That’s not to say the interest isn’t there for Mackinnon. San Antonio has been following his progress for a few seasons, even inviting him to a couple of camps this summer. Brett Brown, a Spurs assistant coach, used to work with Mackinnon in his early NBL days, and will no doubt be pressing hard to add the Australian to San Antonio’s international flavour. He would suit perfectly here and Gregg Popovich would love him, but on a team with plenty of aging wings in Bowen, Finley and Barry, the Spurs will probably look to add youth over summer.
Toronto has been the other destination mooted so far. Like RC Buford and the Spurs, Bryan Colangelo has shown he is more than willing to sign international players with plenty of experience – Anthony Parker is the perfect example, and perhaps Toronto would be interested in trying to pull off another successful left field signing. Mackinnon would be a more than capable player for the Raptors, probably coming off the bench to fulfil the need for a defensive stopper who can hit his shots, and a starting role for a couple of seasons would not be completely beyond him. But can Colangelo find a spot for Mackinnon? Even if he decides that he wants him onboard as a cost effective solution to the team’s primary hole, it’s going to require some wheeling and dealing. Mo Peterson, Joey Graham and Luke Jackson are currently the main players at small forward, and at least one of them would have to be moved for Mackinnon to join the fray. Will it happen? Who knows – but if it does, Mackinnon will repay Toronto in spades.