McNeal's risk paying off in quest for NBA

Jerel McNeal’s professional basketball career has hit more bumps than he would have anticipated two years into it.

His adversities began from the start with the NBA draft on June 25, 2009, which he calls was one of the hardest days of his life. Coming off a solid senior season at Marquette, McNeal was confident his name would be one of the 60 announced that evening. He sat in front of his television and waited for hours for a call from a team. It never came.

Crushed, McNeal ended up signing with Dexia Mons-Hainaut in Belgium. He averaged 15.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in the Ethias League, Belgium’s highest level, and his future looked bright. But late in the season, he faced another trying day, and this time it was his own doing.

McNeal tested positive for marijuana, and Dexia Mons-Hainaut sent him packing. McNeal, a former Hillcrest High School star, returned home to the Chicago area, and again wasn’t sure where his career was headed.

McNeal landed NBA summer league opportunities with the Charlotte Bobcats and Chicago Bulls, but his minutes were limited, and he never felt he was given a fair shot. In Las Vegas with the Bulls, he didn’t play in either of the team’s first two games, and he became so fed up that he departed for home.

McNeal’s professional career was just over a year old, but it was already a mess, and he faced another crossroads. His choices were to go back overseas or play in the NBA Development League. Playing internationally meant more money, but the D-League presented the potential for an NBA call-up.

McNeal opted for the latter. He understood the D-League was a risk, but it was one he was willing to take.

“I felt like people knew I could play, and I knew I was good enough to play on that [NBA] level,” McNeal said. “That was one of the hardest things for me -- seeing guys on NBA rosters and knowing I’m better than some of these guys.”

McNeal chose wisely.

In the D-League playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, he has excelled. He was among the league’s most balanced players, averaging 19.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.3 steals in the regular season. Now in the playoffs, he’s taken it to another level, averaging 25.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists and leading the Vipers into the D-League finals, which continue on Wednesday

“I feel like everything happens for a reason for me,” McNeal said. “I had this opportunity to come back and make it to the NBA and prove myself. Even taking a financial hit, everything was worth it for me. I feel like this year I have proved to people who had doubts or questions I could play.”

Former NFL player Tai Streets has known McNeal since his earliest basketball days. Streets coached McNeal in club basketball throughout his high school career, and one lesson he learned was never to doubt him.

“The kid doesn’t take no for an answer,” said Streets, who runs the MeanStreets club program. “He just puts his mind to it. All the things they say he can’t get done, he gets it done. I’m one of the guys who thought he shouldn’t go to Marquette. I was like, ‘Man, maybe go somewhere smaller, somewhere easier than the Big East.’ I was dead wrong. He was exceptional.”

Just as important as McNeal’s numbers this season has been his play at point guard. The one constant question about him has been whether he could play the position at the highest level. He was a 6-foot-3 shooting guard his entire career, and NBA teams needed him to be more.

McNeal has convinced Vipers coach Chris Finch this season he’s capable.

“I think he’s been one of the most underrated and under-the-radar guys in the D-League in terms of his production and us winning,” said Finch, whose roster also includes former Illinois Mr. Basketball Jon Scheyer. “Jerel’s a basketball player. He can play either guard position. He can score. He can create. We need him on the floor. We ask him to do a lot.”

The Charlotte Hornets were impressed enough with McNeal’s point guard play that they signed him to a 10-day contract when Chris Paul suffered a concussion in early March.

Just as McNeal will never forget the day of the 2009 NBA draft, his memory of receiving that phone call from the Hornets is as memorable. After overcoming so many early trials in his career, McNeal finally saw things turning his way.

“It was an unbelievable feeling for me,” McNeal said. “It was probably one of the most special days in my life. After four hard years of college, I felt like I had put the work in and had the numbers to back it up. First year coming out of college, I thought it would happen, and it was a big letdown. Ever since, it’s been a long, grinding road to get that point.

“For it to happen that way, I felt like I got there the hard way, but it made it that much sweeter for me. I felt like I earned it. After I got the phone call, I just sat there for awhile.”

McNeal didn’t see any game time during his stay with the Hornets, but he returned to the D-League confident it wouldn’t be his last NBA tour. Finch agrees.

“We tell all of our guys getting to that next level is a process,” Finch said. “The more teams he gets in front of, the more he can show what he can do. I really believe he has the game to play at that level.”

Facing the closing days of his second professional season, McNeal is reflective of his journey so far. He has his regrets, especially what happened in Belgium, but he also has learned from those mistakes. His career has hit more bumps than he would like so far, and he’s optimistic his future is bound to be smoother.

“I think it was good for me,” McNeal said. “I feel like I matured a lot. It’s part of being a professional. I took full ownership of it. You live and learn. You make mistakes, but it’s how you react to them. That’s why this year was so important to me.”