People often tell recently signed 36ers import Kenyon McNeail that Adelaide is a small town. Having grown up in Conway, Arkansas, attended college in Ruston, Louisiana, and spent last year playing in Oliveira de Azeméis – a Portuguese town of 20,000 people – he begs to differ.
“I’m from a really small town, and to me this a big city,” McNeail told Downtown in an empty, dimly lit Titanium Security Arena. “It doesn’t usually take me twenty minutes to get places like it does here, it takes five minutes where I’m from.”
While bigger isn’t always better, McNeail’s shift from small town living to the big city is symbolic of how far he’s come since graduating from college just 16 months ago.
As Arkansas’ top rated high school guard in 2010, McNeail caught the eye of the then Louisiana Tech Bulldogs head coach, Kerry Rupp. Leaving nothing to chance, Rupp enlisted the help of good friend and former Louisiana Tech great Karl Malone, who helped recruit the talented youngster.
Malone invited McNeail to his Louisiana home – which was decorated with a wide range of hunting trophies – and quickly instilled a desire in the young combo guard to not just put on a Bulldogs jersey, but to work tirelessly while wearing it.
“Karl Malone didn’t use crazy post moves, he just outworked his man, beating him down the court, getting easy buckets and setting hard screens,” said McNeail.
“That was a big thing for me coming into college, working hard like he did, staying in the gym and doing the little things that make a big impact.”
McNeail went on to enjoy a stellar four-year career at La. Tech. In his senior season he averaged 11 points per game, shooting a team high 40% from beyond the arc.
That season, the Bulldogs finished the regular season on top of their conference with a 29–8 record, reaching the conference championship game for the second consecutive year (eventually going down to Tulsa).
McNeail set the school’s single season and all-time records for three pointers, won the Conference USA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, and gained a cult following in the process.
He once started a game against the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) by shooting an ill-advised, contested air ball. For most players, starting a game with an air ball is like starting a play by forgetting your lines. One’s focus tends to shift away from performing and towards searching for a hole to crawl into.
While many coaches would’ve come close to self-combusting before fastening McNeail’s shorts to the bench with a two-part adhesive, head coach Kevin White encouraged his young guard to keep shooting.
McNeail proceeded to rattle off 34 points – including nine threes, tying a 17-year-old school record – and just in case he hadn’t made his point, knocked down the game winner as well.
When asked about his favourite college memories, McNeail offered a surprising response. Rather than pointing to game winning shots, individual accolades, or any singular moments, he was quick to highlight practices in general as his fondest memory.
While Kerry Rupp recruited McNeail – via Karl Malone – it was his successor Kevin White who made practice such an enjoyable experience.
“Coach White was a great coach,” said McNeail. “He was quite young, so he brought a lot of energy to practices. He made everybody get nice and loud.”
“So some days when you weren’t feeling it, you had a paper to do or whatever, there was still so much energy out there which brought a lot for you to just live off of and go the extra mile.”
After graduating college, McNeail’s agent busily worked the phones while he worked on his game. Since sixth grade, the Louisiana Tech standout has spent his summers in Memphis where his uncle cuts various celebrities’ hair, including Penny Hardaway’s.
The former Orlando Magic star first offered to help McNeail with his game over ten years ago, and the two have since made it an annual tradition. Hardaway also regularly invites McNeail to pickup games that are overflowing with elite talent, including past and present Memphis Grizzlies like Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen.
“Every time there’d be different guys there,” McNeail said. “It would always be good quality basketball, a great experience to get in there and see what good guards look like, what good wings look like, and just what professional basketball looks like.”
Despite his long list of accolades, the legacy he left at Louisiana Tech, and endless summers spent honing his skills against elite talent, McNeail was still without a professional contract four months after graduation. Remaining positive for the most part, doubt still crept into his mind occasionally.
“I really didn’t know how the whole process worked, but I was thinking I’d be able to find something pretty easily because of everything I’d done at Louisiana Tech,” said McNeail.
“It gets kind of nerve-wracking, because you don’t know what can happen; you don’t know if you’ve done all the right things.”
McNeail had multiple offers from European clubs, but each one fell through early in the negotiation stage. Import spots are limited, and when it comes to professional basketball, supply vastly outweighs demand. Pinning down a guaranteed deal can be challenging.
Eventually, the moment arrived. Portuguese team UD Oliveirense offered McNeail a contract, which he grabbed with both hands. McNeail averaged 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game and was named the MVP of his team.
It was his first major trip overseas, and the language barrier provided an instant obstacle.
“It definitely got me some days, that was really tough,” said McNeail. “Almost no one spoke English. Luckily my teammates spoke some, but practice was the only time I heard it.”
McNeail’s coach spoke broken English, but both men soon remembered that basketball is a language in itself – one in which they are mutually fluent – and soon were able to treat the language barrier like Sally Pearson would a regulation hurdle.
“With basketball, you can really read body language and emotions, and the ideas and theories within the game,” said McNeail. “Additionally, I’d already been through the same style of coaching, so I knew the kinds of things he wanted.”
Language barrier aside, Portugal provided the Arkansas native with a pleasant lifestyle, as well as a generally enjoyable first overseas experience.
“It was a great time and a beautiful country,” recalled McNeail. “I got to see a lot of their beaches. It reminded me of Florida, with restaurants and bars built right on the coast. There were really nice surroundings and a great vibe to just hang out and enjoy the moment.”
Little known to McNeail, on the other side of the world, his game had caught the eye of Adelaide 36ers coach Joey Wright. Wright was on the lookout for an aggressive guard who possessed blistering speed and could shoot from distance. He thought he may have found his man.
While McNeail fitted Wright’s criteria and looked impressive on film, the championship-winning coach wanted to see him in person, and in mid-July drafted McNeail onto his team at the Worldwide Invitational tournament in Vegas.
The former La. Tech guard was Wright’s first pick overall and the Sixers coach gave him every opportunity to prove his ability to not just score, but to lead his team.
Wright wanted to see how McNeail would handle the pressure of having his every move scrutinised, how well he could learn plays on the fly and get his teammates into position, and whether he could quickly gain the respect of a group of guys he’d met just hours earlier.
The crafty coach piled on as much pressure and stress as possible in an attempt to see what his young guard was made of, like taking a new four-wheel-drive off road for a brutal test drive through the jungle.
“He spoke to one of the guards on the other team, and the referees, to let them foul the mess out of me,” explained McNeail. “Just to let them hold and grab me, and I guess Joey liked my ability to not let that phase me.”
McNeail excelled under the pressure and earned more than just his teammates’ and coaches’ respect. He earned a dream contract to play pro hoops in Australia.
The second that Wright gave the official green light, McNeail bid farewell to his wife and one-year-old son – who will be visiting in November – and jumped on an unreasonably lengthy, four leg flight to Adelaide.
He didn’t have long to recover from jet lag, and quite literally hit the ground running – and running, and running – thanks to Joey Wright’s up tempo system, which emphasises the importance of conditioning more than a Garnier Fructis commercial.
The constant running was fine by McNeail, who was coming straight from the slow, structured, and methodical style of typical European basketball.
“For me, that’s a little bit too slow,” laughed McNeail. “If we can get the rebound, push it down the court and score within five seconds, it makes my job a lot easier and puts a lot of pressure on the other team.”
Kenyon (pronounced Keyon) is enjoying the change of pace on the court as much as he is off of it, and says life in Australia is living up to what his new coach promised it would be.
“Joey always said it’d be a little bit different to Europe, that I’d get to really enjoy the city, enjoy the people and have relationships with people who speak the same language,” said McNeail.
“Europe was tough because you just can’t interact like you want to interact, with the team, the fans and everyone around you. Since arriving, I’ve been enjoying it from day one. I get to do something I love on the court and share it with the fans and the community.”McNeail is quick to rave about his new teammates, especially Anthony Petrie and Daniel Johnson, whose mobility and soft hands provide a welcome change from many of Europe’s more traditional big men. Adding to McNeail’s excitement is his neat fit with fellow fast break enthusiasts Ebi Ere and Adam Gibson within Joey Wright’s up and down system.
When McNeail speaks about his new basketball home, the satisfaction audible in his voice shouldn’t be confused with contentment. His laid back nature can be deceiving, as his general relaxed disposition lies in stark contrast with his ambitious nature.
“I want to win,” McNeail said, not one to mince words. “I want to win championships, and I told Joey that. I told him that I won state in high school, AAU nationals, college conference championships two years in a row, and that the next step is to win as a pro.”
While on-court proceedings are flowing smoothly after a month with his new team, McNeail couldn’t help but laugh when recalling moments of confusion caused by some of his overly Australian teammates.
“I can understand the average person, but then there are guys like Peach (Anthony Petrie),” said a smiling McNeail.
“He has a deep accent and I have to get up real close when I’m listening to him. Usually I can understand words based on the context, but with Peach I have no idea. He and Creeky have some freaky words that they like to use.”
McNeail enjoys the distinctly Australian flavour of his team’s locker room banter, and hasn’t had any trouble adjusting to the local sense of humour.
“The people are very laid back here, and I like to think I am, too,” he said. “They tell me that if people here don’t crack jokes on you or talk smack to you, then they probably don’t like you.”
As much fun as his first month of Australian life has been off the court, for McNeail, it’ll be icing without the cake if he isn’t winning games once the season begins.
“I would hate to lose on this floor, especially in front of our fans,” McNeal said, glancing at the thousands of seats immediately behind him. “I hate seeing the fans let down.”
Adelaide diehards can take comfort in the fact that McNeail has done very little losing during his young basketball career to date, and doesn’t plan on starting now.