A day before a breakthrough performance, Jordan McRae was just an observer.
While the Washington Wizards were in London to play against the New York Knicks on Thursday, McRae, a 27-year-old guard signed to the team on a two-way contract, took in the game with a friend at a Chinatown restaurant. The nature of his contract has relegated McRae to a bystander with the Wizards — he has appeared in only eight games, at the end of blowout wins or losses — while spending the majority of the season with the Capital City Go-Go of the G League.
But as he watched the Wizards defeat the Knicks over a plate of buttered garlic noodles, McRae started to think about his own upcoming game with the Go-Go. The team was coming off a loss and wouldn’t have the services of its other two-way player — Devin Robinson was invited on the London trip but didn’t play. McRae knew he needed to step up.
“It’s time for me to get a 50 piece,” McRae declared to his friend.
The next night against the Maine Red Claws, McRae made good on his word: He scored 54 points, the most in the G League this season.
McRae’s performance off the bench came from shot diversification and efficiency. He connected on 18 of 31 shots from the floor (58 percent) and mixed in only nine three-point attempts while staying aggressive against the Red Claws' defense (13-of-14 shooting from the foul line).
For McRae, who set the league’s single-game record with 61 points Jan. 26, 2016, while he was with the Delaware 87ers, it was the latest example that his game is anything but minor league. His season average of 29.5 points per game with the Go-Go leads the G League. Through eight games in January, McRae is averaging 36 points on 49.2 percent shooting. The Go-Go has gone 7-1 over that span.
The Wizards, meanwhile, must add a player by Monday to meet the NBA roster minimum of 14. But instead of converting McRae’s contract — two-way deals don’t count toward the NBA roster minimum — and signing him for the rest of the season, Washington is expected to sign a free agent to a 10-day contract, according to a person familiar with the team’s plans.
The reason McRae hasn’t found a permanent home with the Wizards could be a combination of trying not to stifle the player’s development while avoiding adding to the team’s bottom line.
McRae, who played in 37 games as a reserve point guard for the 2016-17 Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers, experienced hiccups early in his time with the Go-Go as his body readjusted after he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. His body did not respond well to the yo-yoing between the Wizards and the Go-Go, and McRae had to sit out several early practices and games to recover.
“My body wasn’t used to it at first,” McRae said. “Just the most frustrating part of this whole year is the fact that last year I was hurt, it’s kind of like prove myself again.”
Over time, McRae adjusted to the heavy minutes with the Go-Go and the frequent travel to join the Wizards, and it showed in big scoring games in the G League. But on Jan. 9, when McRae was temporarily called up after scoring 43 points with the Go-Go, he didn’t leave the bench until the final 2½ minutes of the Wizards' 123-106 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Before that game, Coach Scott Brooks was asked why McRae hasn’t latched on with the Wizards.
“There’s opportunities to play more down there. That’s what he needs,” Brooks said. “He didn’t play a lot last year. This is giving him an opportunity to play, and he’s played well.
“It’s hard to get minutes. It’s hard to get opportunities in the NBA,” Brooks continued. “But he’s making the most with our team, with the Go-Go. He’s scoring a lot of points. Those are the things that he needs to do down here. But when he comes up here, he’s going to have to defend and rebound and play-make and score when necessary.”
Another reason behind the Wizards' handling of McRae could be financial. If the Wizards gave him a guaranteed minimum contract for the rest of the season, then the team would have to pay him close to $2 million. On top of that, McRae’s contract would add $1.2 million to the Wizards' luxury tax. A player on a 10-day contract would affect the bottom line far less, and the Wizards have made several cost-cutting deals already this season to lessen their luxury-tax bill.
McRae will spend the upcoming week with the Wizards but will soon return to his role with the Go-Go. He wants to learn during his time in the minor leagues so that one day he won’t be an outsider looking in at the NBA.
“I’m just trying to do what everybody is telling me to do. I just have to keep going,” McRae said Saturday afternoon ahead of another game in the G League. “I’m just trying to have good games night in and night out. And not just scoring … I want to get better at everything.”