McRae passed up an opportunity to enter the draft and instead returned to school for his senior season. The 6-foot-5 guard hasn’t looked back since.
“I never wavered,” McRae said. “I said I was coming back, and it was what it was. ... Seeing the draft, it didn’t affect me. I’m here to stay.”
Although he won’t begin his pro career for another year, McRae already is getting the opportunity to work alongside two of the NBA’s greatest players.
McRae spent last week at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy, an invitation-only gathering in Washington that attracts the nation’s top college wings. Now he’s been invited to the LeBron James Skills Academy, a four-day event starting Friday in Las Vegas that features 80 of the nation’s best high school players and 20 top college performers.
The invitations give McRae a chance to measure himself against his peers while also allowing him to perform in front of scouts from just about every NBA team.
“What else can you ask for?” McRae said. “(You’re) playing in front of everybody. They’re watching you do skill work, watching you play games, watching you walk around. Anything you want, it’s right there. It’s up to you to go get it.”
This already has been an extraordinary year for McRae.
After beginning the 2012-13 season in a reserve role, McRae developed into one of the Southeastern Conference’s most improved players. He averaged a team-high 15.7 points per game while playing every position but center at one time or another. He earned first-team all-SEC honors and ranked third in the conference with 19.2 points per game in league competition.
He wants to carry that momentum over to his senior year.
“Last year, from the maturity that came, he started going to the gym every day religiously,” Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said. “If that work ethic can catch on to the rest of the team, I think we’ll be great. His improvement this past year is amazing.”
That progress helped McRae earn those invitations to the Durant and James skills academies. He savored the chance to work out with Durant, receive advice from the all-star and even try to score against him on occasion. He’s looking forward to having similar opportunities with James this week.
“I saw (Durant) on me and I saw a side cleared out, and anytime you have an opportunity to score on one of the world’s best players, I have to take advantage of it,” McRae said. “I scored (against Durant) once. The second time, he’s got long arms and he got a piece of it.”
These academies also gave McRae a chance to learn more about other notable college players, both in the SEC and elsewhere.
McRae said he wasn’t particularly familiar with many Big Ten players before last weekend and returned home impressed with Michigan State’s Gary Harris, Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III and Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross. He roomed with Mississippi’s Marshall Henderson, who took the SEC by storm last season with his big shots and brash antics.
Henderson was reprimanded by the NCAA last week for behavior at the NCAA tournament that included directing both middle fingers at an opposing fan. McRae said he saw a different side of Henderson at the Durant academy.
“He’s a cool dude,” McRae said. “He’s a normal guy. It kind of surprised me how normal he was.”
Henderson earned the NCAA tournament bid that eluded McRae’s team last season. Tennessee went 20-13 and settled for a second straight appearance in the NIT, where it lost to Mercer in the first round.
McRae’s only NCAA tournament experience came in his freshman year, when he averaged just 5.3 minutes per game. When he announced his plans to return to school, McRae said he wanted to be one of the “main pieces” of an NCAA tournament team. He’s trying to improve all facets of his game and is attempting to become more of a leader.
Getting a firsthand look at Durant’s work habits only strengthened his resolve.
“Seeing a guy like that just makes you strive so much to get better,” McRae said. “His shots don’t even really touch the net. Seeing that for three days makes you want to work so much harder. ... As soon as I got back, I was happy to tell the team just how much harder we’ve got to work if we want to be on that level.”