University of Missouri

Mizzou lands St. Louis’ Mario McKinney as first 2019 pledge; is E.J. Liddell next?

Men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin got a late birthday present on Monday as Mario McKinney became the first Missouri pledge for the 2019 class.

McKinney’s commitment is gigantic for the Tigers, as he checks a lot of boxes for a program still being molded under Martin, who turned 47 on Sunday.

McKinney is a 6-foot-2 point guard from St. Louis, a city Missouri has struggled to recruit until Martin was hired in April 2017, and his commitment keeps the Interstate 70 pipeline rolling.

“He’s very explosive out of transition. When he gets the ball, watch out.” said Corey Frazier, McKinney’s AAU coach with Bradley Beal Elite. “He’s in a position where he’s going to learn a lot from Cuonzo.”

Missouri enters the 2018 season with Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett, Jeremiah Tilmon, Ronnie Suggs and Mark Smith on its roster — all are St. Louis-area natives.

McKinney is a relative of former Tigers point guard Jimmy McKinney, arguably the last big recruit Missouri landed from St. Louis until Martin arrived. In the past, Missouri has failed to land blue-chip recruits like Devin Booker, Victor Bailey Jr., and Tyler Hansbrough, who all had fathers who played at Missouri.

On the court, McKinney fits Martin’s vision of “positionless basketball.” At Vashon High School, he primarily plays point guard, while on the AAU circuit he was mainly used as a shooting guard. On the Bradley Beal Elite team, he played alongside point guard Yuri Collins, a St. Louis University pledge, which allowed him was able to play off the ball.

Martin is trying to avoid labeling players at specific positions and wants his backcourt players to be able to well-versed at both guard spots. McKinney fits that bill.

Frazier said McKinney is going to have to tighten up his ball-handling as he transitions to the college game. He will need to learn more about the guard spots, as more is asked from them in the college game.

Vashon coach Tony Irons said he’d like to see McKinney be more of a playmaker this year for Vashon after being relied on as the team veteran last season.

“It’s perfect because the stuff he’ll need to work on this year was the stuff he was already going to need at the next level,” he said.

With the late addition of Christian Guess, Missouri now had one available scholarship remaining for the 2019 class but could add another, assuming Jontay Porter goes pro at the end of the season.

Rated a four-star recruit by ESPN and, McKinney chose the Tigers over Auburn, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Iowa State and VCU. His lead recruiter was assistant coach Chris Hollender, who serves as Martin’s first lieutenant in the St. Louis-area. With McKinney on board, the next domino to fall could be top-target E.J. Liddell.

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Liddell just wrapped up his final official visit to Illinois and has played with McKinney since second grade. They’re best friends and have talked about possibly playing together in college if they find a good fit for both of them.

While McKinney just became a Tiger, he also just became a recruiter with Liddell’s decision looming.

“I think he’s definitely going to make a pitch,” Frazier said. “Why not have someone you consider a brother come with you?”

Alex Schiffer

Alex Schiffer covers University of Missouri athletics for The Star.