With each step along the way he had the feeling that none of this could be true. But the good things kept happening because he was making them happen. By the end of his far-fetched rookie season, just one month ago, Patrick McCaw found himself celebrating under a cold shower of champagne in the locker room of the NBA champions.
At age 21 he had come off the Warriors’ bench for 12 crucial minutes in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Three of those minutes had been played in the tight fourth quarter alongside Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Just one year earlier it would have been fair to ask whether McCaw belonged in the picture with them. Now it was understood why he was there.
“I really was living in the moment,” McCaw said. “I was like a little kid. I couldn’t believe that I could do it myself.”
Just 14 months earlier McCaw had been making the difficult choice to enter the NBA Draft amid no assurance that he would be picked in the first round. (He wouldn’t be.) Here were Durant, who had waited 10 seasons to win his first championship, and David West, who had needed 14. And here was McCaw, having played in every game of the NBA Finals, dancing under the champagne with them.
“I was excited for him, I was happy for him, but at the same time I was telling myself he has no clue,” said Warriors assistant coach Willie Green, who as an NBA shooting guard had won a single playoff series in his dozen seasons. “He has no clue what just happened.”
Throughout his short life in basketball, McCaw had been the teammate who observed and practiced the laws of the game religiously. His concern for the fundamentals – his humility – had contributed to the appearance that he was lacking in upside, that there was little NBA future in him and his game.
One NBA team had a different point of view. McCaw turned out to be exactly what the Warriors were seeking. They were looking for a teammate, and in so doing they may have found a future star.
Laying down foundation
“Being a young guy like me, you’d think it’s all about how many points you score or how many assists you get or your stats,” McCaw said. “Really it’s about playing the game the right way and helping your teammates get better. My dad taught me how to play the game the right way.”
His father, Jeff McCaw, was a basketball coach in St. Louis, where he and his wife raised their six children. He happened to be the assistant coach at Christian Brothers College High School for Patrick’s sophomore and junior seasons there. His faith in his father guided Patrick to abide by Jeff’s emphasis on teamwork, even though it wasn’t paying off instantly.
Teammates and rivals were always rated more highly than McCaw. He was the prototypical late bloomer who learned the game as a point guard before a high school growth spurt shot him up to his eventual NBA height of 6-7. McCaw was ranked No. 231 nationally in his high school class, and No. 6 on his own AAU team.
But he refused to stray from the long-term investment that he and his father were making in his game. After Jeff lost his job as part of a larger coaching change, Patrick transferred for his senior year to Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md., the high school of his future teammate Durant. He lived with a host family even as he missed his own family. His father reminded him that he was rounding out his basketball education. Jeff McCaw saw the potential in his son, even if the rest of the basketball world was slow in catching on.
“I felt like I belonged with all of the best players in my class,” Patrick McCaw said. “That’s the confidence kids need to have, regardless of the situation and the accolades and things like that. If you’re chasing your dream, you’ve just got to continue to work to make it happen.”
The first round of the 2016 NBA Draft had passed him by, and McCaw would insist that he was not at all upset. Patience and faith had been conditioned into him. Having gone to college as the fifth-best player of a UNLV recruiting class that was rated No. 4 nationally, McCaw had been viewed one-dimensionally as a lockdown defender. Then a knee injury to Rashad Vaughn – the lead recruit who would become a 2015 first-round pick by the Milwaukee Bucks – had enabled McCaw to fill in with three games of 20 points or more. More headlining recruits had been brought in for McCaw’s sophomore year, and coach Dave Rice had been fired amid a slow start to their disappointing season, but McCaw had emerged as the Rebels’ best player while leading them in points, 3-pointers, assists and steals.
“I was anxious and having an anxiety attack, just waiting for my name to be called,” he said of the night he spent in St. Louis with his family and friends for the 2016 NBA Draft. “I was just anxious that my name would be called.”
He had believed in his own investment. He had decided to turn pro early. And when he heard that the Bucks had chosen him with the No. 38 pick overall, McCaw didn’t care that he was a second-rounder with no contractual guarantee written into his future.
“When I got picked by Milwaukee, I burst out into tears,” he said. “I was crying for about 30 minutes, and everyone around me was just sharing the same emotion. Once my name got called it was a huge relief. All of these emotions were flowing, and I couldn’t believe it. All of that hard work, all I’ve been through with my family, it finally came into fruition of being an NBA player.”
It was maybe 20 minutes into his emotional release that he answered a call from his agent Bill Duffy. It turned out that the Bucks had made the pick on behalf of Golden State. The Warriors, coming off their record 73-win season and their Game 7 loss in the NBA Finals, had paid $2.4 million to Milwaukee for the right to acquire McCaw.
“I’d just been watching the NBA Finals,” McCaw said. “Never in my mind did I think about Golden State.”
The next morning, he was at the press conference in suit and tie with Bob Myers, the Warriors’ GM who had found him with the equivalent of a no-look pass. One surprise was followed by the next, including a message from Durant.
“He texted me the next day,” McCaw said. “And he was like, ‘I want to take you under my wing and look after you like a big brother. Whatever you need, I’ll be there for you, no matter what.’ And for a second, I didn’t believe it. I read the text over and over again because I didn’t really know how to respond. I didn’t know if this was actually Kevin Durant texting my phone. So, I was in shock for about 15 minutes, and I finally responded.”
There were no false promises from the Warriors.
“The entire team embraced me,” McCaw said. “I can reach out to anybody right now if I have a problem or an issue, and they’re there to talk to me.”
They were there for him, from Durant and Stephen Curry on down, because they knew that he could help them. From their first days on the court together, even before training camp, they could see for themselves what Myers had told them. McCaw knew how to move into space away from the ball, when to screen and when to separate, when to show and when to rotate, when to pass and how to shoot. He was a lively slim body with the versatility and know-how to defend multiple positions.
When Durant was sidelined by a knee injury, McCaw started 20 games. He averaged 4.0 points and 1.1 assists, but of far more relevance were the 15.1 minutes he earned in 71 games for a team that demanded the highest standards at both ends of the floor.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing out there,” coach Steve Kerr was saying weeks before the playoffs.
McCaw played in all but two of the Warriors’ postseason games, and he started three of them.
“I wasn’t a flashy scorer or a strong, athletic dunker,” McCaw said of his high school career not so long ago. “I think that’s why I didn’t get noticed. I was just somebody who played the game the right way. Knocked down shots, made the right passes, played defense.”
The Warriors will be favored to win against next year. McCaw, thanks to his slide into the second round, will be a restricted free agent in 2018 with the opportunity to be rewarded with big money a couple of years earlier than the first-rounders. And by then he may own two championship rings.
“My dad told me to be greater later,” McCaw said. “I asked him, ‘What exactly does that mean?’ And he was saying, ‘Be greater later. It’s exactly how it sounds. You’re not being seen right now. Nobody knows who you are. But just continue to work, and one day that work is going to pay off.’
“’Be greater later,’ I always say that in the back of my mind. I’m going to continue to work. I’m going to be greater later. Whenever that later comes, I’ll be ready for it.”
It’s coming, all right, and faster than he and his father dreamed.