As the end of the 2022 The Basketball League (TBL) season approaches, it's time to start thinking about the 2022 awards, such as MVP, DPOY, MIP, and of course, Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, in a league with 48 different teams, it's easy to overlook guys that are playing phenomenally. Guys that could be TBL All-Star selections may not be simply because the TBL is young and doesn't have a ton of media coverage. Some franchises aren't even a year old at this point.
Today, I'm going to take you through James McKelvin's journey to the TBL, and why he is making a very convincing case for himself to be Rookie of the Year.
The first thing to know about McKelvin is that he's a 6'5" shooting guard for the Raleigh Firebirds, and one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. When I watched the Firebirds' first day of training camp, McKelvin immediately stood out to me. When the team did ball handling drills, McKelvin's handle was quicker, tighter, and more intense then anyone else's. You could see the determination to be great all over his face.
This is the man that team owner Wade Harris gushed about. Harris took McKelvin with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2022 TBL Draft. There were many players to scout at the TBL Draft Combine in Indianapolis, but Harris was quickly amazed by how silky smooth McKelvin's jumper was. The other thing that sold Harris on McKelvin was his defense. Harris told me about how he watched McKelvin pick up a player full court during a scrimmage, as it was the last possession of the game. McKelvin flustered his opponent so much that he forced him into committing an eight-second violation. That, according to Harris, was the kind of player the Firebirds needed.
It was clear immediately that McKelvin wasn't going to take long to adjust to the TBL pace and level of play. In addition to starring on the court, McKelvin is every player's number one fan on the bench, hyping up his guys after every bucket, steal, and block.
McKelvin isn't often alone, which is something that stemmed from his childhood. Born in Atlanta, McKelvin would spend his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, with his two brothers and two sisters. His father James worked for Pepsi, while his mother Shalonda worked in the Home Healthcare industry. Unfortunately, McKelvin didn't get to see a lot of success around him as he walked through the early stages of his life.
“Just me coming up and not seeing a lot of success around me. That drives me to be successful. Just makes me want to do something that I’ve never seen done with my own eyes.”
The one place where success could be seen was on the field and court, as McKelvin was very gifted athletically. Basketball was McKelvin's favorite sport, and he would play AAU Basketball for the St. Louis Prospects. Once he began attending Hazelwood East High School, McKelvin knew exactly what he wanted to do for a living -- play basketball, and one day make the NBA. During his senior year at Hazelwood, McKelvin averaged 17 points and 9 rebounds per game, but colleges didn't come calling. Instead, McKelvin decided to attend Missouri Baptist University (MBU), a school that played in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Still, going to MBU delivered no promises. McKelvin wasn't recruited by the school, and if he wanted to continue his basketball career, he needed to earn his spot on the team.
During MBU's tryout, there were lots of transition drills and games of five on five, which McKelvin excelled at. There were also continuity drills to see how he moved, played with others, and ran the floor. McKelvin impressed the coaches so much that he not only made the team, but earned a full ride scholarship soon after!
McKelvin was in a more complementary role during his first two years at MBU, as he adjusted to college life and basketball. He majored in Exercise Science, but wasn't sure what job he wanted post basketball. Going into a medical field was in the cards, as McKelvin thought about pursuing a career as a nurse.
In the meantime, McKelvin kept getting better on the basketball court. One man that helped stimulate McKelvin's improvement was Jahmouri Roberson, another incoming freshman in 2016. An undersized 5'8" point guard, Roberson was also from St. Louis, and got along with McKelvin wonderfully. Roberson was a phenomenal passer, and McKelvin later said that Roberson was the best teammate he'd ever played with. This made the adjustment from high school to college basketball easier. According to McKelvin, some of the main differences between the two levels were the athleticism of his opponents, and how incredibly fast the game was. When McKelvin was in high school, there was no shot clock. Now, he had to adjust to much shorter possessions.
During the 2018-19 season, McKelvin's junior year, he saw his minutes increase from 15 to 21 per game. McKelvin logged 38 steals on the defensive end and shot 35% from three, while helping to lead MBU to 20 consecutive wins! During that amazing season, he would help MBU come back from down 20 points against their biggest rival. McKelvin would score 15 second half points during the game, and hit the go-ahead three to win it all.
During the 2019-20 season, McKelvin would average 11.4 points and 5.5 rebounds on 45% shooting from the field, while starting in 16 of 24 games. Post college, McKelvin knew he wanted to continue his basketball career, so he spent a year playing for the St. Louis Spirits of the American Basketball Association. It was during that time when McKelvin had one of the best moments of his pro career. During a game that came down to the final possession, McKelvin hadn't been playing well, but was still entrusted with the ball in the game's most crucial moment. McKelvin launched a three to win the game, and it bounced three times on the rim, a la Kawhi Leonard, before finally dropping in. Making the game even more memorable was that McKelvin's mother was there to see it live.
If we fast forward a year in time, McKelvin is a key player in the Firebirds rotation, a knockdown three-point shooter, and a mature young man who gives back to the community. Every weekday, McKelvin will make time to help younger kids with their games, and improve alongside them. He does this at the Larry Hughes Basketball Academy, working as a camp counselor.
The 11 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.3 steals McKelvin is averaging per game don't do justice to his importance on the court. To understand McKelvin's magnitude, you have to be at John Chavis Memorial Park and see him live. You need to watch him throw down one of his electrifying one-hand dunks, and listen as the crowd goes crazy. You need to watch his smooth jump shot, and the sigh on opposing teams' faces. You need to see the energy that McKelvin brings off the bench, as he encourages his teammates and brings that energy, on and off the court.
"My greatest strength is my hustle"
If you ask someone about the name James McKelvin, you probably wouldn't be surprised if they gave you a blank stare in return. But don't expect that to be the case for too much longer.
James McKelvin is coming, and he isn't being quiet about it.
*Thank you to Missouri Baptist University Athletics for all pictures of James McKelvin in college and the picture of Jahmouri Roberson.