While the basketball season may be over for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the offseason has already been highly eventful for Jordan McLaughlin. Earlier this week, J-Mac posted a series of photos on Instagram of himself in cap and gown, walking with his classmates after graduating with a Master’s of Communication Management from the University of Southern California.
McLaughlin deserves congratulations for his achievement. Not only did he receive one of the highest honors in education, but he did it while playing in the NBA. That’s a truly incredible achievement because most college students barely have time for a part-time job and six hours of sleep a night, much less an 82-game regular season, a playoff series, and all the practices in between.
To better explain how uncommon and difficult of a feat this is, only one other widely-known player is on the record as having completed a master’s degree, or an equivalent degree, during their NBA career. Shaquille O’Neal earned a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix in 2005 while playing for the Miami Heat. O’Neal then earned a doctoral degree in education from Barry University in Florida in 2012, and graduated with a 3.81 GPA one year after retiring from the NBA.
Cam Johnson is reportedly working on his masters degree last season. However, he has not finished it yet. Isiah Thomas went back to school after his career was over and received his master’s degree in education from UC Berkeley in 2013. Dikembe Mutombo has three honorary doctorate degrees for his humanitarian work and philanthropy following his basketball career. Still, the list of former NBA players who continued education after their bachelors degree is not much longer than that. McLaughlin’s simultaneous dedication to education while grinding for a spot in the Wolves rotation exemplifies his nearly unrivaled work ethic.
J-Mac was not guaranteed minutes at the beginning of the season, or the beginning of his career. Just like Patrick Beverley, McLaughlin went undrafted and had to fight his way into the NBA to get the respect he deserved. However, this year he took a bigger leap on the court than many expected and became one of Minnesota’s most important bench players. It all cumulated in the playoffs when he hit 4 threes and won the game for the Wolves, according to Anthony Edwards.
In basketball terms, it’s fitting that J-Mac received his degree in Communication Management. A large part of being a point guard is setting up the offense, reading defenses, and communicating your analyses to your teammates to get a strategic advantage. Many of the league’s best point guards act as on court managers, and coaches rely on them to implement the systems they’ve created on offense.
McLaughlin implemented Chris Finch’s pace and flow strategy better than anyone else on the team. J-Mac had the highest PACE of any player in the league who played over 60 games (105.44) and was a big part of why the Timberwolves led the league in PACE (101.47). McLaughlin spoke about the pace he and the bench play with after a 129-114 win over the Golden State Warriors on March 1st.
“Coach tells me that’s what we need,” he said, “Especially coming off the bench. … He told me to push the pace every time I’m in there, and that’s when we play our best.”
However, Finch is not the only influence on McLaughlin’s fast pace and game sense. In an interview with Marney Gellner for Wolves+, J-Mac told a few great stories about how he crafted his game and gained his basketball IQ growing up. McLaughlin highlights two experiences that were particularly enlightening for him. He discussed going to the park with his dad to play pickup games against people his dad’s age, and playing one-on-one in his driveway in middle school against people from his older sister Amber’s high school. When Marney asks him how he beat all the people who were older than him, McLaughlin responds that it was because he was “faster and smarter.
“You know, that’s how I’m able to do some of the things I’m able to do now,” he said. “When I was younger, I was always playing against taller older people.”
McLaughlin’s basketball IQ and ability to execute the team’s systems perfectly is part of what makes him so exciting to watch and an essential part of the team. He’s constantly zooming up and down the court, cutting passing lanes, and trying to get his bench mates the ball in the right position. He spoke about how good defense can create a fast pace in the same interview.
“When we’re able to get stops, we’re able to run out in transition, and guys know that I’m looking for them,” he said. “Beas [Malik Beasley] and Taurean [Prince] for sure, and Naz [Reid], me and him you know have a good connection on the pick-and-roll, so we all know what we’re looking for, especially on that second unit.”
McLaughlin’s commitment to helping his teammates play fast and finding openings to score allowed him to become an effective game manager. Even though he speeds up everyone else on the court, he rarely makes mistakes. This season J-Mac’s assist to turnover ratio was 4.74 — third in the league amongst players who participated in at least 60 games. For reference, that puts him only behind perennial AST/TO crown barer Tyus Jones (7.04) and his brother Tre Jones (5.07), and just above Chris Paul (4.59).
In many ways this season, McLaughlin was to the bench mob what Patrick Beverley was to the Wolves defense: a spiritual leader. They may not be as physically gifted as some of the other players on the team, but every time they step on the court, they compete harder than everyone else because they know nothing has been guaranteed to them. They often win matchups you’re not expecting them to because of their knowledge of other players’ tendencies, and ability to surprise people with their speed. J-Mac leads in a much more reserved fashion, primarily by example.
Ultimately, preparing for life after basketball is always smart. Players commonly retire in their mid- to late-30s if they’re exceptionally healthy throughout their career. Even the strongest of all ironmen don’t stay in the league much past 40. It’s amazing to see that J-Mac is ahead of the curve in that respect, and building a foundation for his future through continued education.
No matter what he eventually uses his degree for, he is now an expert in both communication management and basketball. That combination of expertise sounds suspiciously like the foundation for being a great coach in the future, something McLaughlin expressed interest in doing after his playing career in the Wolves+ interview. Regardless, McLaughlin deserves congratulations for earning his master’s and leading the league amongst active players in a new counting stat: degrees.