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Pops Mensah-Bonsu waits until Jordan McRae is out of earshot. Sitting in his usual courtside seat at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on a recent Friday night, Mensah-Bonsu laughs as McRae makes eye contact with him before sprinting into the locker room during warmups.
Only a few minutes remain before the start of the matchup between the Capital City Go-Go, the Wizards’ G League affiliate, and the Greensboro Swarm. Instead of suiting up with the Wizards to play the Charlotte Hornets in front of thousands of screaming NBA fans, McRae, the G League’s scoring leader, is getting ready to fight through double teams in front of a sparse crowd on this late February weekend.
But in this moment, McRae cracks a smile knowing that Mensah-Bonsu, the general manager of the Go-Go, is likely praising him.
“He’s an NBA player,” says Mensah-Bonsu, a former NBA and G League player. “He’s the best player in the G League by far. Maybe just because of the situation, he hasn’t had much of an opportunity yet, but when his time comes, he’s going to be a very, very good NBA player. I haven’t seen many guys who can potentially score the ball like he does … Offensively, he’s one of the most complete scorers I’ve seen in awhile.”
The stats back up Mensah-Bonsu’s claims. McRae leads the league with 30.8 points per game. He also averages 5.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He can score in all three facets of the game—from the mid-range, in the paint, and beyond the arc. He played for the Cleveland Cavaliers briefly in 2016 and 2017, and has an NBA championship ring from his time as a reserve on the 2016 team, which included LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
McRae has seen the mountaintop of professional basketball, but lives the daily grind of a journeyman on the fringes. Less than an hour after the Swarm game, the team boarded a bus for a six-hour ride to Erie, Pennsylvania, to play the BayHawks. “It reminds you of AAU,” he says. “Being on the bus, clowning, we watching movies, we all talking crap to each other. So that just makes it fun. [But] around the fifth hour, you’re ready, like all right, let’s get off this thing.”
Last season, McRae opted to play in Spain with EuroLeague team Saski Baskonia, where a shoulder injury sidelined him for months. Back in the States, the 27-year-old has had to prove all over again that he can play in the NBA.
“I just think this year, being out last year, my biggest thing is trying to come back and just showing people I belong back in the NBA,” he says. “Work on your game everyday, trying to improve, that’s the key.”
He signed a two-way contract prior to the season after a standard NBA contract never materialized, says his longtime agent Derrick Powell. In the NBA collective bargaining agreement signed in 2017, the league introduced two roster spots where teams can sign players to a “two-way contract.”
The deal allows players to play with the NBA team that signs them for up to 45 days, and the rest with the G League affiliate. Time with the NBA team is not certain, but the contract guarantees far more money than a regular G League deal. According to the G League website, “two-way players are paid a corresponding daily amount based on the number of days they play in each league.” McRae is making around $300,000 this season, his agent says, while the G League minimum salary is $35,000 for the five-month regular season.
It may also be keeping McRae from getting an NBA contract this season. The Wizards likely will not sign McRae to a standard contract because of their luxury tax situation—the Wizards have only recently dipped under the luxury tax threshold, and signing McRae would likely push them over.
McRae has only nine days left in the NBA before he hits the 45-day limit, according to Powell. And unless the Wizards waive him, he is not allowed to sign with another team. Some agents have cautioned their clients about signing a two-way contract for that reason.
“That’s just how the two-way works for the most part. It gives the team leverage if they need the leverage,” says Powell. But, the agent doesn’t regret telling McRae to sign the contract. “If Jordan was on an average G League deal, he probably would’ve been called up already, but put on a two-way, he’s making $300,000, has the NBA stage, and showed that he is an NBA player.”
McRae is averaging 4.3 points points in 19 games with the Wizards this season.
Despite the team’s luxury tax situation, Wizards coach Scott Brooks hasn’t shut out the possibility of signing McRae—with some caveats.
“There’s always a chance,” Brooks says. “He’s our two-way guy and he’s earned some opportunities and he’s had some opportunities, but right now he just has to focus on getting better on both ends of the floor. We all know he can score the basketball. That seems to be he has a pretty good gift there, but yeah, we have a lot of guys right now.”
Relayed Brooks’ comments, McRae responds diplomatically, saying that he’s trying to become a better 3-point shooter and defender. “Whenever the time presents itself, I’ll be ready,” he adds.
But after scoring 33 points to lead the Go-Go to a 111-108 victory over the Swarm, McRae sounds disappointed in the situation. “I mean, I got a lot more work to do, apparently,” he says in response to a question about whether he deserves an NBA contract. “So I’m going to keep trying to do everything I can do.”
Mensah-Bonsu understands where he’s coming from. During his decade-long professional basketball career, the 35-year-old London native bounced around between the NBA and the G League, and also played in Europe. They talk often, and have formed a close bond.
“Me and Pops, we have great relationship,” McRae says with a laugh. “The advice I can get from him, he’s been through it. I trust him … One of the biggest things he tells me is control what you can. I can’t control the tax situation that I’m in, I can’t control me being here. The only thing I can control is being with the Go-Go and trying to win games.”
His Wizards teammates understand his frustrations and are ready for his help as they make the final push toward the last playoff spot. But McRae will be ineligible to play in the NBA playoffs if he remains under a two-way contract. The NBA regular season ends on April 10, while the G League regular season ends on March 23.
“From the Wizards side, it’s kind of hard, a lot of stuff going on, it’s hard to give him that contract,” Wizards rookie Troy Brown Jr. says, “but I definitely feel like he deserves it for sure.”
Adds point guard Chasson Randle, who spent time with the Go-Go earlier in the season before the Wizards signed him: “He’s got a knack for scoring, man. He’s an incredible basketball player, offensive end. I think his time will come for sure very soon.”
Powell is confident the Wizards will sign him this season. “Oh, for sure,” he says. “I promise you this, if the Wizards do not sign Jordan, I have at least 10 other teams that will sign him.”