Even though it is halfway across the world from his home in Australia, sophomore guard Max Mackinnon said he knew he was making the right decision when he committed to Elon University.
Head coach of the Elon University men’s basketball team Billy Taylor said when Mackinnon committed, he knew he was getting a young man who was determined to take on a new challenge.
“He wanted to do something unique, you know, go a long way from home to prove himself here in the states,” Taylor said. “It’s a very different game internationally than it is here.”
Mackinnon played professionally in Australia’s National Basketball League when he was 17. During his professional career, he played in the International Basketball Federation, also known as FIBA. Mackinnon said because FIBA play does not involve a lot of isolation, it has been a rather smooth adjustment to the offense Taylor has used dating back to his coaching days at the University of Iowa.
“Being FIBA basketball, it wasn’t really isolation ball, the ball’s always moving,” Mackinnon said. “Whereas to here … I’ve just learned the ball kind of sticks and it’s more isolation plays. So, it’s been great transitioning to Billy’s motion. Going back to Iowa, it was a great system where they just moved the ball and people were cutting and flowing, so there’s a lot of space. ”
Mackinnon said while there are plenty of pros and cons to movement and isolation offenses, he believes the isolation style prevalent in the states has created a multitude of crafty, dynamic scorers that are difficult to guard throughout the modern college basketball landscape.
“Everyone can get an isolation bucket,” Mackinnon said. “So that’s something that’s been an adjustment for me is that you got to be able to sit down and guard two to three dribbles. Everyone here is really just elite scorers.”
Mackinnon said while the international game is different, he feels like the adjustment period to the more “structured, systematic and compact” game of college basketball has not been too difficult because of his experience playing professionally in the NBL.
“I was playing against grown men when I was probably 15 or 16,” Mackinnon said. “That really helped me in the transition coming from Australia to America because I’m used to the physicality.”
Taylor said Mackinnon’s NBL experience helped in establishing Elon’s tempo for the better last season.
“Max is someone that thrives with ball movement,” Taylor said. “That’s how he played the game growing up in Australia. For him coming into our team, he affects it because we’ve got to move the ball, if the ball isn’t moving, if multiple people aren’t touching it, then the game just doesn’t flow the right way.”
With the NBL’s shorter 24-second shot clock, compared to college basketball’s 30-second clock, Taylor said he thought Mackinnon would be able to effectively help the Phoenix push the pace on its offensive attack.
“You have to see plays, you’ve got to capitalize, you’ve got to attack,” Taylor said. “There can’t be that hesitation when you have six less seconds on the shot clock to make a play or a decision.”
Taylor said Mackinnon’s international experience against veteran-laden rosters allowed his future guard to think about the game in different ways and to see plays before they developed. Taylor also said with Mackinnon’s ability to always be an extra read ahead, he believed Elon would provide the perfect structure for his future guard to flourish.
“You could see his game was very mature, playing against older competition,” Taylor said. “And we thought he could really be successful.”
Elon ranked fifth in average assists per game with 12.16 in the Coastal Athletic Association last year and finished with 389 assists on the season.
Mackinnon ranked second for Elon in assists, dishing out an average of 2.4 per game.
While he did not start immediately in the 2022-23 season, it did not take long before the CAA’s future rookie of the year cracked his name into the Phoenix opening five. After Mackinnon took the floor as a starter in an Atlantic Coast Conference matchup during the first month of play, Taylor never looked back, and started him in their 26 remaining contests.
“By his fifth game in college, he was in the starting lineup, thrown right in there against N.C. State,” Taylor said. “Your first career start on the road against an ACC opponent, and he played 39 minutes and looked like he belonged. There was no fear, no hesitation, no anxiety from him.”
In the last 10 games of the CAA regular season, the Phoenix racked up six wins. Taylor said it was no coincidence that Elon’s late-season victories correlated with high level games from Mackinnon.
“As he continued to play better and play with more confidence and assert himself, that certainly led to our team being more successful,” Taylor said.
When Mackinnon’s on-court talent elevated late in the season, Taylor said he encouraged him to be more vocal when it came to calling out plays that had the potential to create an advantage, such as exploiting a defense.
“If he saw an action, he would look at me and say, ‘Hey, I think we can run such and such,’” Taylor said. “Great, we’ll call it. We definitely have that kind of relationship where if he sees something on the floor, he’s not just going to call an action for himself, he’s gonna call an action that he thinks can help the team.”
While averaging 11.7 points per game and 49% from the field, Mackinnon managed to rack up four 20-point performances throughout his freshman year.
While the combo guard did not finish the season as the leader in any statistical category for the Phoenix, he still managed to take home CAA Rookie of the Year honors. Taylor said he continues to be impressed by Mackinnon’s multidimensional game that seems to flummox so many opposing teams’ strategies.
“You can’t necessarily go in and just say we’re gonna game plan for Max as a scorer,” Taylor said. “Or as a distributor or a playmaker because he’s going to do a little bit of everything. He’s gonna read basically what the game calls for and then really cater his game to whatever the team needs.”
Taylor said while he thinks Mackinnon’s all-around game will continue to improve and develop, he wants to see his sophomore guard take on a larger, more vocal role in the upcoming season. With six new freshmen and the departure of key veterans, Taylor said he wants to see Mackinnon fill some of that leadership void.
“Guys look up to him,” Taylor said. “Whether it’s new guys that we have on our team, that look up to Max and want to be like him and aspire to play like him or achieve some of the things that he has achieved, or some of the older guys that come in and say, ‘Hey man, you’ve been here, you’ve done it before, you’ve been successful.’”
Mackinnon echoed Taylor’s messaging and said if he holds his teammates more accountable, it will not only help him but will also help the team. With Mackinnon seemingly waiting in the wings to step into a larger leadership role, he also said his coach will be holding him more responsible for setting up the offense in-game and or giving his input on how to help the team win.
With honors in his back pocket – such as being named to the all-CAA pre-season second team Oct. 19 – Mackinnon said he thinks the biggest adjustment during his rookie to sophomore jump will be having to deal with more pressure from defenses since opposing teams now have a whole season of tape on him.
“Now people know the scout and people know where you’re trying to get to and what spots you’re trying to get onto the court,” Mackinnon said. “So, I would say people would definitely try to be more physical with me this year.”
In order to spread the floor more to create more attacking lanes for himself and teammates, Mackinnon said a lot of the offseason was spent working on the consistency of his 3-pointer. On 28% from beyond the arc last season, he cashed in on 23 of 81 attempts.
Mackinnon also said he worked a lot on getting to his spots in the mid-range during the off-season, mainly because of the wide variety of actions he can initiate within that area. After watching film of players such as Cleveland Cavaliers’ Ty Jerome and Los Angeles Lakers’ Austin Reaves who Mackinnon said were like him — not “the most athletic guys but they play at their own pace” — Mackinnon said he felt like he got better at playing off two feet when making in-game decisions.
“I know when to make the right read,” Mackinnon said. “Say I’m penetrating, and I know two are collapsing, I know there’s going to be a kick out to another guy.”
With late season success still fresh and an off-season of “adding to his bag” behind him, the messaging from the reigning CAA rookie of the year is clear when it comes to Elon’s goals as a team for the upcoming season.
“We just want to win,” Mackinnon said.
Elon is scheduled to open their season in Winston-Salem as they look to a matchup against Wake Forest University at 8 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.