This guy was on another level - Warriors swingman McKinnie's humble beginnings in Luxembourg's second division

This guy was on another level - Warriors swingman McKinnie's humble beginnings in Luxembourg's second division

Alfonzo McKinnie will take to the biggest stage in basketball on Thursday when the Golden State Warriors face the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals, which could not be any farther of a cry from where his professional career started.

A regular part of the Warriors' bench rotation, McKinnie will be playing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy in front of raucous crowds at Scotiabank Arena and Oracle Arena, a tough scenario to envision when he began life as a pro playing before crowds of between 25 and 75 people in Luxembourg.

Undrafted in 2015 after a college career hampered by injury, McKinnie came to the attention of then East Side Pirates coach Christophe Ney. After the Pirates' promotion to the second division, Ney performed analytical research in pursuit of a professional player, and that led him to lure McKinnie to Luxembourg.

"I did some statistical models to go through all the stats of NCAA Division I players that finished their college careers and were theoretically able to play as a professional player and based on some criteria there was a list of players coming out of this model and he was one of them," Ney told Omnisport. 

"I was looking for a guy who is a good offensive rebounder and who can shoot three-point shots at least a little bit. I wanted someone who is able also to handle the ball himself and create his own shot."

McKinnie's three-point shooting and rebounding has been a prominent feature of his success with the Warriors. After a season with the Pirates, McKinnie moved on to Rayos de Hermosillo in Mexico before playing for the Chicago Bulls' G-League affiliate and then landing with the Raptors, who he will now face after a maiden season with the Warriors in which he has shot 35.6 per cent from deep.

He made a three-pointer in each game of Golden State's Western Conference Finals sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, snagging nine rebounds in a superb Game 3 performance.

McKinnie's talent was obvious to Ney upon his arrival in Luxembourg, but he never anticipated him becoming a regular contributor for the NBA's gold standard.

However, Ney does believe McKinnie's time with the Pirates helped provide him with the confidence needed to progress to such a level.

"First practice immediately you could see that this guy was on another level," he added. "In general, if you recruit players like this in Europe you base yourself on video and highlights and more often than not the players when they arrive they are not as good as advertised but he was different, he was better than advertised. 

"My explanation of this is that in college he was not the first option, there were other players that were in front of him in terms of shooting volume and touches and he was a pure role player. When he arrived with us he was the go-to guy, he was the guy who got all the touches and had the green light on offense. He adapted really well to this, he got some confidence out of this. 

"Now he's back to his role-player role but you saw immediately he could play on a different level, of course you didn't think he could play on this level where he is right now. You couldn't imagine he would be an NBA player or an NBA player with the best team in the world. That took everyone by surprise afterwards even if you thought he could play on a better team than the Pirates.

"We helped him to develop in terms of being able to understand how he can play. He could see that being that kind of scorer that's something he can do.

"The main thing though was probably the mental approach, we didn't win many games, despite that he was always working, and he was always positive mindset. Being more or less alone abroad helped him develop his personality and his focus on what he wants to do.

"He was extremely easy to coach, very nice person, very respectful to everybody. He was open to taking advice and he was also open to give advice to the other players. During the game and during practices he was very enthusiastic and always very professional. He was very, very coachable and I think that's the main thing on why he has reached what he has reached now."

McKinnie's sole season with the Pirates ended in relegation but for Ney it was still one worthy of being proud of.

"We were more or less the worst team in the league despite having the best individual player," said Ney. "Even if the sports results were not great, the season I think was a success in the sense that all the players, including him, developed and became better basketball players and at the end of the season our whole starting five was recruited from other teams. For me as a coach being focused on development of players that was a success."

Teams from Luxembourg regularly sign American players. In that sense McKinnie's story is not unique, but his remarkable progress in the years since is. Ney, though, does not necessarily feel McKinnie's success should lead even more American players to take a chance on moving to lesser-profile European leagues.

"It always depends on the person and the level the player has," Ney explained. "It has to be the right fit for everyone, it has to be the right for the professional player and it has to be the right fit for the team."

Results on the court aside, McKinnie and the Pirates proved the right fit for the player and the club. Should the Warriors complete a three-peat and McKinnie lift the Larry O'Brien trophy, Ney and a small team in eastern Luxembourg can claim to have developed an NBA champion.