by Ryan Jones | portraits Brady Fontenot

We played phone tag with Mitch McGary back in August, not long after he returned home to Indiana following a hectic, cross-country summer hoops schedule, and a couple weeks before he went out to California and broke a backboard during warmups at the Elite 24.

When we finally spoke, McGary had just come back from an afternoon tubing on his buddy’s speedboat. It makes for a pretty compelling mental picture: a 6-11, 260-pound dude hurtling along the water in an inner tube. Imagine being a fish in that lake—it might give you some sense of what it’s like to see McGary coming into the post.

The beastliest big man in the Class of ’12, McGary is a top-five player who has earned his spot among the nation’s best. His lofty place in the rankings is all the more impressive because, as recently as a year ago, absolutely nobody thought he would stand among the ’12 elite. Originally a member of the ’11 class, McGary reclassified as a junior when he transferred to Brewster (NH) Academy last year. At the time, he looked like a good, if not program-changing, prospect with a history of academic struggles. Now, he enters his post-grad year at Brewster as a monster and with his grades on lock.

The left-handed McGary can’t exactly explain his great leap forward, beyond saying that hard work, focus and being away from home all helped enormously. He admits he needed to grow up a bit and says a previously undiagnosed attention-deficit issue slowed him down as well. He’s got his diploma now, leaving the next few months to focus on picking a college and improving his already intimidating game.

Colleges? Yes, he’s got a short list, although the home state options of Butler, IU and Purdue aren’t on it. Instead, as of late August, McGary was down to Duke, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan and North Carolina. Whichever school lands him will get a player compared favorably (if not very creatively, given their skin tone and Hoosier state roots) to Tyler Hansbrough. McGary doesn’t seem to mind the Psycho T comparison (and where his on-court motor is concerned, it’s accurate), but those who’ve seen him play should appreciate the guy McGary tries to emulate.

“This past year, I really modeled my game after Lamar Odom,” McGary says. “He’s a 6-10 lefty, runs the floor, handles the ball. I’m trying to work on everything—shooting off the catch, hitting 15- to 18-footers, then when kids come out at me, I can take one dribble to the rack.”

He doesn’t have LO’s court vision or passing skills—how many near 7-footers do?—but McGary has a surprisingly solid handle and looks comfortable running the floor. As he continues to polish his right hand and fine-tune his post moves, he’ll only be more of a nightmare at this level and the next. Whether that “next” level is college or the NBA remains to be seen.

Because he reclassified, and because he’s got his degree in hand, the 19-year-old McGary says he’s been told that he will be eligible for the 2012 NBA Draft. He laughs off accusations that he made the class switch solely to avoid college, since he wasn’t even on the NBA’s radar when he made the decision last summer. “If I hadn’t gotten so much better,” he says, “I never would’ve been thinking about the Draft.”

He is now.