Chris McCullough is growing up at the right time for the San Miguel Beermen

The evening after winning Game 2 of the 2019 PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals — a double overtime classic — Chris McCullough of the San Miguel Beermen tweeted this:

Other fans could have brushed it off as an athlete motivating himself a day after big game. But it could also have meant something else. It was his way of assuring himself that there was nothing wrong with how he performed the night before and he should keep it up. 

Despite tying the series at 1-1 during Game 2, McCullough had a rough finish to an otherwise solid performance. Looking at his stat line alone, he seemed to have a good game. He put up a usual McCullough performance: high volume scoring (32 points on 23 shots), lots of rebounds (22 to be exact), and some stout enough defense (two steals and one block) to aid San Miguel. But there’s one more thing that’s usual from McCullough; his youth.

It’s quite the unusual scenario to have the import — often the best player in a PBA team — to be the youngest player of a PBA team. More often than not, teams tap proven commodities who have the experience, resume, and the requisite professionalism to mesh well with their teammates. Not the Beermen, however. 

After their attempt at recapturing magic with Charles Rhodes failed, the Beermen opted to go with McCullough as their replacement. Was he an NBA caliber player? Yes. Someone with immense talent? Absolutely. But at the same time, he was young and was thrown into a scenario where results were expected immediately. Growing pains were inevitable, but immediate results were expected nonetheless. He was about to play for the San Miguel Beermen, the winningest franchise in PBA history, chasing a historic Grand Slam. Anything less than a championship would have been a failure. 

To be fair to McCullough, he made a great first impression for his new team. In his first game, he erupted for 47 points against the NLEX Road Warriors. While he wasn’t able to replicate that kind of performance again in the elimination round, his seemingly seamless fit with the team provided SMB fans plenty of comfort with their new reinforcement. Unlike Rhodes who spent a lot of time clogging the paint and taking away some of June Mar Fajardo looks down low, McCullough preferred to play along the perimeter. As a result, the vaunted flow of San Miguel’s offense returned. They were starting to play like a championship team again. McCullough was a huge reason for that. 

With McCullough on board, the Beermen were able to achieve their first of many goals that conference; to make it back to the playoffs. While they wound up with the seventh seed and a twice-to-win disadvantage facing the NorthPort Batang Pier, it didn’t worry the Beermen one bit. They continued to chug along as they overcame the disadvantage and quickly followed it up by winning the first two games against the Rain or Shine Elastopainters during the semifinals.

Up 2-0, SMB had a chance at sweeping Rain or Shine to book a ticket to their third straight Commissioner’s Cup Finals. It was the perfect opportunity for the Beermen to further establish themselves as the league’s premier team. For McCullough, however, it meant so much more than that.

The goal ever since for McCullough has been to get back to the NBA. San Miguel was never meant to be a permanent home for McCullough down the line. He came into the team with the dream of making it back to the world’s premier basketball league and a stint in the PBA was expected to be a stepping stone towards that. There isn’t anything wrong with that. It’s the reality of the business of basketball; the NBA is the number one option for any player.

Game 3 of the Semifinals should have been a step forward to that dream for McCullough. That stage was set for him. That same week, McCullough expressed interest in becoming a naturalized player for Gilas Pilipinas Men’s. In that same Rain or Shine game, watching McCullough was current Gilas naturalized player Andray Blatche. This was it, a platform of McCullough to show his talents and strengthen his case as a legitimate NBA talent.

His statsheet alone should have done the talking already. 51 points on ultra-efficient 18/32 shooting, 14 rebounds, and a block and steal each. It was a scorching display by McCullough, who showed just how much of an NBA-caliber talent he is. Others even went as far as to compare how he played to a locked in Kevin Durant; smooth, skilled, effortless, efficient, and deadly. That should have been it, Chris McCullough’s moment that would have solidified his return to the NBA, and his case as next Gilas Pilipinas Men’s naturalized player.

Except, it wasn’t. Talking points were about Rey Nambatac’s inspired performance in the clutch, as well as Beau Belga’s killer hesi pull-up jimbo that sealed the game for Rain or Shine. The Elastopainters staved off elimination, winning 112-104. McCullough’s monster performance was wasted, as it turned from shining moment to mere bullet point. 

Because the Beermen lost that game, the monster 51-point performance wasn’t celebrated. Instead it was scrutinized. What everyone fixated on wasn’t the awesome offensive show. Instead it was McCullough’s immaturity and the poor decision-making during the end game.

This brings us back to the end of Game 2 of the Finals. Despite putting up a solid 32-22-7 statline, McCullough’s performance in the clutch left much to be desired for San Miguel fans. It wasn’t the production which fans focused on. Once again, it was how McCullough was getting his points which was the point of criticism.

The way he was attacking was not sustainable. From being a large part of the Beermen’s renewed flow during the end of the elimination round, he turned into the reason their offense bogged down in the first two Finals games.

The most questionable thing with his way of attack was how he opted to hold the ball for long periods of time before making a move. McCullough is talented, he can gets baskets no matter what situation he’s in. The problem was, it wasn’t a reliable way of winning basketball games, as it turned San Miguel into an iso-heavy team relying on individuals more than its team play. San Miguel has talent, yes. But they became a dynasty because of their team play. 

Adjustments clearly had to be made. McCullough was in a nothing can stop me season but what about the rest of the team?

Fast forward to the final period of Game 5, the San Miguel Beermen found themselves in a 16-point hole against the TNT KaTropa. The series was tied at 2-2, with a win by either team would put them a game away from winning the Commissioner’s Cup championship. Things weren’t looking good for San Miguel.

Slowly but surely, the points started to pile up for the San Miguel Beermen. A layup here. An undergoal stab. A three splashed in. All of a sudden, the lead of TNT was down to just five points. The funny thing was, it didn’t feel like a heroic uprising being done by the Beermen in that moment. It felt sustainable. There wasn’t anything extraordinary to what they were doing. It was San Miguel Beermen basketball at its very best was being played. 

It started with a spark. It came from Chris McCullough. He was living what he tweeted. He was in a nothing could stop him mindset. The beauty of it was, he was doing it within the flow of San Miguel’s offense. 

Ever since that Game 2 win, McCullough’s adjusted by using less isolations coming from the perimeter. Instead of forcing drives, he’s pounced on smaller guards by posting them up or using his size to overwhelm them when cutting to the rim. He’s still getting opportunities to score, a lot actually. The difference is, the way he’s scoring is much more sustainable and fit within the team’s offensive flow. Less isolations, more cutting and passing to keep the San Miguel engine going. The result: 19 points in the 4th quarter alone and a big Game 5 win, putting SMB a game away from winning the Commissioner’s Cup. 

More than his play on the basketball court which has impressed a lot of people, it’s his growth as a person which has been more evident throughout his stay in the Philippines. 

It is true he’s here in the Philippines to chase his dream at making it back to the NBA. But he’s acted nothing like a mercenary. McCullough has looked fit to be a Filipino, immersing himself within the unique and colorful culture of the country. From refusing to do the customary greeting of fans after a game, he’s now voluntarily inviting diehards to watch, basking in the love he’s being given.

There’s a certain sincerity that he naturally has. McCullough brings a youthful energy that’s welcome in any organization. For a group that’s aging like San Miguel, it’s been more than welcome. It’s that electricity that may catapult them a step closer to the Grand Slam dream. 

Whether San Miguel completes their championship tonight or not, McCullough will likely be taking his talents to another league as he travels the road back to the NBA. But there will always be a connection between McCullough and the Philippines. The country gave McCullough the opportunity to grow up and go beyond what his career goals are. Nothing can stop this; McCullough’s samahan with the Beermen, and even Filipinos, is as genuine as it can be.