McKay shifts from powerless to powerful as Division 1 debut approaches


Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Redshirt junior Jameel McKay dunks over a team manager during the dunk contest at Hilton Madness on Oct. 18.

Max Dible

Jameel McKay has been sidelined at tournament time during his previous two seasons, forced to watch helplessly as his chances of being a champion on both the junior college level and the NCAA Division 1 level were ripped from his grasp.

He is done watching.

The 6-foot-9-inch redshirt junior is eligible to play Dec. 20 against Drake in the Big Four Classic and he is fully prepared to release his frustrations in what will be his first career appearance in a Division 1 basketball game.

Those frustrations began mounting nearly two years ago in Ottumwa, Iowa after McKay played his final junior college game for Indian Hills Community College in February 2013. An incident occurred in an earlier contest, which resulted in the barring of Indian Hills from the junior college national tournament.

“We were on like a 25-game winning streak at the time and had won every game by double-digits,” McKay said. “We got into an altercation with one of our rivals. One of our players got arrested and the President [of Indian Hills] bailed him out.”

The President’s actions, while not malicious in any way, were against regulations. The resulting punishment kept McKay and the rest of his team, which included current ISU senior forward Dustin Hogue, out of a tournament they believed was theirs to lose.

“It was probably the worst news I have gotten in my life outside of family issues,” McKay said. “It was devastating because we were so good and we had our minds made up that we were going to win a national championship and be remembered forever. It hurt.”

McKay’s pain was just beginning on that cold February day as his accomplished career at Indian Hills drew to an unceremonious close. The next 22 months of his life would put his character to the ultimate test.

McKay, the only two-time first-team All-American in Indian Hills history, transferred to Marquette, lugging impressive career averages of 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game with him.

Yet, a swift realization swept over the Milwaukee, Wis. native that going home again is not always as magical as one might expect.

“The excitement of being home, I could not pass it up,” McKay said. “Once I got to Marquette, I loved it but I realized that being home was not always the best thing for me.”

A multitude of reasons contributed to McKay’s abbreviated tenure at Marquette. He said they included more distractions, more pressure and a slower style of basketball.

The manner of basketball Marquette employed was not conducive to highlighting McKay’s skills, which include bounding up and down the court with long, smooth strides that allow him to keep pace with smaller, quicker players.

“We will not have to worry about pace with Jameel,” said ISU men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg. “He is going to run and he is going to do it every time.”

Still, the primary reason why many get nostalgic for home was the primary reason McKay knew Marquette simply would not work. He had too many friends residing in the area who were not associated with the basketball team.

McKay struggled in high school with his grades, which were too low to gain entry into a Division 1 program immediately after graduation. That knowledge was what prompted his journey to Indian Hills in the first place.

Only two years removed from high school, McKay worried about his friends’ presence distracting him from a more mature set of priorities he needed to assert to achieve his hoop dreams.

“There were things I did not look into,” McKay said. “I just got all caught up in the excitement of going home. I had friends that already lived in Milwaukee and that kept me a little distant from the team.”

McKay hunted for a new opportunity, ironically seeking out a friend during that search. The difference was that this friend shared the same aspirations as McKay and valued the same priorities.

That friend was McKay’s former teammate at Indian Hills, Dustin Hogue.

“Dustin played a huge role in my choice,” McKay said. “Me and Dustin are really close. He is like my brother. We have seen each other grow and we click instantly when we get on the court. I could not pass up another chance to play with him.”

The two tore up the NJCAA together as front court counterparts on one of the best junior college teams in the country, forging a brotherly bond through battle before their chances to make history were hijacked by an unsanctioned post of a teammate’s bail.

McKay said part of his raging fire to win burns for himself and part of it burns for his team as a whole, but one part of it burns solely for his friend Hogue.

“This is Dustin’s last year,” McKay said. “I want him to go out with a bang. I want him to be remembered at Iowa State for the rest of his life for winning a national championship, so that is a big goal of mine.”

The river of affection and concern McKay espouses for his now four-year teammate is not at a lack for reciprocation. It flows both ways.

“If I had to go to war with anybody on this planet, Jameel would definitely be one of those people,” Hogue said. “We bled together, we fought together, we lost together and we won together. He knows what makes me tick and what makes me off. To have a guy like that who can talk me back in the right direction will be huge for me and for this team.”

Hogue’s presence was not the only recruiting element that drew McKay to Iowa State.

Hilton Coliseum’s “mayor” and resident magician also had a heavy hand in influencing McKay’s decision, with the brand of basketball offered at Iowa State being a particularly enticing feature to McKay during his selection process.

“It was the history of transfers [at Iowa State],” McKay said. “I knew this would be the perfect fit for me because of Coach Hoiberg. Who does not want to play for a coach like that? He gives you freedom and he is going to put me in positions on the court I need to be at to succeed.”

The culture Hoiberg has created around the ISU program coupled with McKay’s relationship to Hogue helped to ingratiate the transfer into the Iowa State fold almost immediately.

McKay said those factors were paramount in helping him combat the paralytic monotony and distress of parking himself on the sideline while his team sped up and down the court to one of Iowa State’s most accomplished seasons ever.

“I feel like the transition here was easier than it would have been at a lot of places because they treat you like family and they always kept me involved,” McKay said.

Still, the more than a year-long trudge toward eligibility has been a quest that McKay admitted has been difficult to brave.

“As a competitor it has been hard, especially knowing that you can help a team out,” McKay said “I am not saying that I am a savior or the best player, but I feel like I can help the team out and that is the toughest part.”

McKay said that perhaps the most difficult aspect was waiting and watching as Iowa State captured the Big 12 Tournament title and began navigating its way through the complex and treacherous maze of March Madness.

He said spectating his squad winning was a challenge because he wanted to be a bigger part of it, but that spectating his team losing was simply agonizing. He knew he was a weapon in Hoiberg’s arsenal that could have changed the team’s fortunes if only he had been loaded with the ammunition of eligibility.

“It was tougher last year around tournament time, especially when Georges [Niang] got hurt because I knew I could have made a difference,” McKay said. “With a loss, you always ask, ‘What if?’ I am not saying I could block every shot, get every rebound or score every point but there are just times where you think if you had been out there that things could have been different.”

Patience has not been a virtue for McKay during the last 22 months. It has been his life. 

For the first time in three years, McKay will have a say in how his team’s season ends. He said that is a gift he cannot wait to unwrap.

He joins an ISU team that is already 8-1 and ranked 13th in the country, bringing with him elements on offense and defense that have been foreign to Iowa State throughout Hoiberg’s tenure.

“I feel like I can give a dimension to the team we have not had this year,” McKay said. “We can go bigger, faster and cause a lot more mismatch problems because I can score the ball as well.”

McKay’s dual prowess on both ends of the floor will alter the Cyclones’ composition, and likely the starting lineup eventually.

Hoiberg said McKay’s presence will add nuance that should improve Iowa State in all aspects of the game, including an aspect of rim protection that Hoiberg said he has never had.

However, it may take a few games for McKay to adjust after being absent from competitive basketball for so long, which is something the team is aware and preparing for.

“I think we need to be a little patient with him because he has been off for a year and a half, but he is one of those kids that will impact the game with his energy,” Hoiberg said. “He is going to be back there to protect the rim when we get beat. We will not have to double the post as much with Jameel out there, so I am excited.”

Leading the charge of excitement from a player perspective is Hogue, who will be reunited with his partner in the paint at long last.

Hogue said McKay’s greatest impact will be limiting the manner in which opponents can attack the ISU defense.

“With that type of size and that type of athleticism and that type of heart, it is going to be tough for any guys to come in and shoot layups and have their way with us like they did last year in the post,” Hogue said.

The defense will be able to extend more to the three-point line, needing to worry less about guards dribbling around its perimeter outposts and probing the paint effectively. That is solely because McKay’s 7-foot-4-inch wingspan and dynamic leaping ability will be there to cut off high percentage attempts around the bucket.

McKay’s presence should also allow Iowa State to rebound more effectively, leading to more fast-break opportunities that result in the transition points that serve as the lifeblood of the ISU offense.

McKay will most definitely block shots, but he said his purest value will likely not even show up on the stat sheet.

“Defensively, I feel like my length bothers a lot of people,” McKay said. “I think people get caught up on the statistic of shot blocking. Not every time are you going to be able to block a shot, but as long as I can alter and change up shots…that is helping the team.”

Helping a team reach unknown heights of greatness is all McKay has ever wanted. At Iowa State, he finally has his chance.

The addition of McKay to the ISU roster completes the the team for the first time all season. It is the last variable in an equation that McKay said has the potential to add up to a Final Four berth and beyond.

“Since I stepped foot in college, I have always wanted to play on a team that could win a national championship,” McKay said. “I truly feel that way with this team.”