It’s not the path Justin McKie thought he would walk.
But every minute he plays as a South Carolina senior, especially while starting his first game on Sunday, makes him appreciate the work it took to get here.
“It hasn’t gone the way I pictured it coming in, but at the same time, the way it has gone has made me a better man,” McKie said. “It’s taught me to persevere, through the injuries and the hard times, and I think these four years are going to carry me a long way in the rest of my life.”
McKie started against Florida International because Sindarius Thornwell didn’t. Yet McKie’s impact for the No. 19 Gamecocks is apparent – he plays close to 20 minutes per game, when his previous average was just over 11; and he gets around four points and three rebounds.
He’s not a big-time scorer because USC has big-time scorers. He’s not a great rebounder because USC has great rebounders. Anything McKie does, there’s probably another teammate who does it better, but McKie knows what Frank Martin wants each trip down the floor.
“In a day and age where people just get up and leave and pout and complain and blame, I think he’s handled that pretty good,” Martin said. “I think he’s handled waiting his turn and accepting where he needed to grow up and embracing what this is all about.”
McKie was never going to be South Carolina guard Justin McKie. As soon as he committed, he was “Son of BJ McKie, South Carolina’s Career Leading Scorer.”
His dad was an amazing player who could score anytime he chose and played on two of the best teams in school history. His retired No. 3 banner flutters above the Gamecocks’ court and it seems fortunate that it faces away from USC’s tunnel – that way, Justin doesn’t have to see it every time he comes out to play.
Don’t take that the wrong way – Justin loves and admires his father, and said he never felt pressure to be BJ. Yet every time he wasn’t playing or wasn’t playing well, it wasn’t hard to hear the frustrated sighs
“Any comparisons, or ‘He didn’t do this, his dad did that,’ that’s for other people to do,” Justin said. “My dad loves me regardless, he coaches me up, so I never felt any pressure with that. I’m Justin, he’s BJ.”
There are moments. That spinning move into the left side of the lane, finishing the layup with the right hand. The hustle to follow the trail man on a 2-on-1 break and swat the ball off the glass. When Justin showed up with a bald head (fraternity deal), he couldn’t wait for his hair to grow back, but if he’d had a mustache, he would have been the spitting image.
“When Justin was here, basketball folks remembered BJ, but the general student body didn’t,” said Tim Whipple, who coached Justin and his dad at Irmo High. “It was when he went to USC that a lot of people made those comparisons. They’re two totally different types of personalities and players. Those expectations weren’t realistic.”
McKie’s development at USC was slow, first by learning Martin’s system and then by injuries. Every time McKie got going, a concussion or hamstring pull yanked him back.
Frustration mounted, and Justin saw other players transferring. He was South Carolina Mr. Basketball and never lost a game as a high school senior; surely he could find another spot.
“Those type thoughts, I guess, entered my head here and there, but one thing I always remembered was coach Martin was extremely loyal to me during the process of recruiting me,” he said. “So I stayed loyal to him. And also I was raised to never give up, no matter how dark the situation is.”
“We talked about it, especially the first couple of years,” said BJ, associate head coach at Charleston Southern. “I said it’s always the easy way out, and I think that’s what’s wrong with our society today. You fight through adversity, and that’s what life is all about.”
BJ knew that USC was in Justin’s blood. Hadn’t he been courtside, when BJ was filling the bucket? Hadn’t Justin been immediately accepted into the family when he came to visit his dad at college?
He couldn’t give up. Now it’s paying off.
“He quit worrying about trying to be better than his dad. I think that was the biggest thing,” BJ said. “He was trying to get his own identity, and the only way to do that was to be himself. Not breaking records, not for his family, just for him.”
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A few combinations the No. 19 Gamecocks need in Sindarius Thornwell’s suspension-related absence :
Justin McKie starts
He did against Florida International, and while he didn’t score, he played 13 minutes with a steal and an assist. McKie’s a senior and knows all of USC’s sets and schemes, which makes him an integral piece.
Has and Rah
Hassani Gravett and Rakym Felder bring different strengths to the point guard spot, Gravett a speedy scorer who can get into lanes on defense and Felder a steady, ball-control player who can shoot when necessary.
Sedee Keita reported to USC as a defense-first player, and his minutes have been upgraded. Somebody has to replace the rebounds Thornwell could get, and the 6-foot-9 freshman is a natural candidate, especially if Chris Silva gets in foul trouble.