Shepard: One High School Phenom Had More Upside Than LeBron, Kobe

In his latest column, David Shepard put Tracy McGrady's greatness in context

CBS Sports Radio Weekend
May 25, 2020 - 12:09 pm
Tracy McGrady

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The title above is not misleading if you happened to watch basketball in the early 2000s. There is only one player who jumped from high school to the NBA that has won two scoring titles before the age of 25. Care to guess who that is? Hint: It isn’t LeBron James, and it isn’t Kobe Bryant. It’s Tracy McGrady, aka T-Mac. 

McGrady turned 41 yesterday. He hasn’t played a regular-season game in more than eight years, and we often forget how great and unstoppable he was early on. It’s McGrady, not Kobe, who made two All-NBA first teams by the age of 23. That's something that Patrick Ewing and Dominque Wilkins, two NBA legends, cannot claim for their ENTIRE careers. Former LSU QB Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft, hasn’t taken one snap at the NFL level. He is 23 by the way.
Speaking of Kobe, here’s what he very recently said about McGrady: “Tracy McGrady was the single hardest match-up I had in my career, he could just do about everything on offense,” per ESPN. Kobe played TWENTY seasons in the NBA; he had his fair share of players to choose from. This is as high praise as it gets when it comes to the game of basketball. That's the MAMBA saying this!
We know McGrady put up the numbers, but what about the winning?
Yes, winning matters, but no matter how great you are, you need the right pieces around you. Michael Jordan may very well be the greatest athlete to ever live. It took him seven seasons just to get to an NBA Finals. Speaking of Michael, at 21 years old in the 1985 postseason, he averaged more than 8.0 assists per game. The only other guard to have done that at the time was Magic. McGrady joined that elite company when he was 21. McGrady also put up an NBA best 34 points per game in the postseason at 21. Not too shabby. He was at Jordan’s level when it came to scoring, while passing at a Magic level. I was still in college at age 21 for the record. I assume most of you reading this were as well.
McGrady pushed a Pistons team with SIX All-Stars to seven games in the 2003 postseason. McGrady’s starting lineup was Drew Gooden as his second best player, Jacque Vaughn, Gordon Giricek and Andrew DeClercq. This isn’t to take anything away from Giricek and DeClercq, but I would have a 50-50 chance of guessing which one is which if you stood them next to each other. And we think LeBron didn’t have help? McGrady almost single-handedly beat a team with six All-Stars in a seven game series while having ZERO All-Stars on his squad. 

It was supposed to be him and Grant Hill as a one-two punch for the Magic. However, Hill had a myriad of injuries and ended up playing less than 50 games with McGrady in their four-year stint together. When McGrady was with the Magic, he had more postseasons of averaging at least 31 points per game than any other player in the NBA. In every postseason with the Magic, he averaged at least 31 points per game. He was done in Orlando by the age of 24. What he did by the age of 24 was simply unmatched at the time for anybody that age. No one that young has surpassed that since. McGrady almost won in spite of what he had.
He had more "Magic" after he left Orlando
McGrady, in his first season with the Rockets, might have had the greatest finish to any NBA game in the 74-year history of the association. He dropped 13 points in 33 seconds. I have never seen an explosion like that to WIN a game. That was against a Spurs team that won the title that very same season. Manu Ginobili, a first-ballot Hall of Famer on that squad, has a career average of 13 points per game. Again, McGrady had Ginobili's career average in 33 seconds. 

Not MJ, Kobe, LeBron or any other player has had a performance like that to end a game. He demonstrated like he did with the Magic that you could not stop him. He was too long, too skilled, too explosive and simply too good. Later in his Rockets tenure, he took a Rockets team without Yao Ming and won 22 straight games, at the time the second longest winning streak in the history of the NBA. He accomplished this without a single All-Star.
Injuries marred what could have been one of the greatest players of all-time
McGrady dealt with severe shoulder injuries, knee injuries and missed a significant amount of time due to back spasms throughout his career. He played his last regular season by the age of 32. LeBron, at age 35, is still easily one of the best players in the world and came directly from high school as well. Kareem played until 42, Jordan 40, Duncan 40, Dirk 40, Garnett 40 and even Kobe hobbled by injuries at the end played until 37. Do you remember one game that McGrady played for with the Knicks, Hawks or Pistons? I don’t either.
The caliber of McGrady in terms of size, overall athleticism, skill and explosiveness had never been seen before. Even LeBron in his early 20s was nowhere near the scorer that McGrady was in his early 20s. When McGrady made up his mind, he could pass like LeBron. McGrady, at his size, could get his shot over the top of anyone he wanted. He could drive to the hole against anybody with his hops and quickness. 

When we think of the most promising players of the 2000s in the NBA, you can make a significant case for McGrady over any other player. He was done being an All-Star-caliber player in his mid-20s and still was a first ballot Hall of Famer. There are so few guys we can say that about in sports. We often throw around the LeBron/Kobe/Jordan comparisons. McGrady was well on his way to being at the heart of that debate but settling for a first-ballot Hall of Fame career will have to do. For that, I think a very happy 41st birthday is in order. Happy 41st birthday T-MAC! 

CBS Sports Radio producer David Shepard is a former ESPN researcher, a former Division I college basketball practice player, and the host of The Good Shepard YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter @TheGoodShepard_.