Bismarck may not have been Rob McClain Jr.'s first choice of college basketball destinations.
But based on his results over the past two years, it's pretty clear McClain made the right call.
Originally pegged to attend St. Thomas University in the Twin Cities, finances caused McClain to reassess his options. Already having a relationship with United Tribes Technical College head coach Pete Conway, the Red Wing (Minn.) High School graduate decided to join the Thunderbirds.
After two stellar seasons for United Tribes, McClain will have another decision to make soon. Where to play next, and his options are growing.
"He's getting a lot of attention. He's already got some D-II offers and D-I teams are starting to contact him," Conway said. "He deserves it with the type of kid he is. In the classroom, off the court. With Rob you're getting the total package."
Despite heavy interest from college programs, McClain is keeping it all in perspective.
"For me, the goal is to play at the Division I level, but other things factor into it. Ultimately, I want to make the best decision for me and my family not just in terms of basketball, but also educationally for when the ball stops bouncing," McClain said. "You want to find the right fit competitively and academically and just make the best decision."
McClain's play on the court is the key to it all.
After averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 steals, 2.8 assists and 1.7 blocks per game last season – while shooting a whopping 68 percent from the field – he's managed to take another step up this year.
Through 14 games, the long and athletic 6-foot-5 sophomore ranks sixth in scoring (23.9) in the NJCAA, ninth in rebounding (11.4) and fourth in blocked shots (2.7). Conway wanted McClain to add range on his jump shot this season. Check. McClain's made nearly half of his 3-point attempts and is shooting 60 percent overall.
There's no secret to the additions in his game.
"I put in a lot of hours over the summer, usually three hours or more a day to try and get better," McClain said. "I just wanted to do the most I could to maximize this opportunity."
Conway said McClain, "flew under the radar," in recruiting circles coming out of high school. Conway had tracked McClain at Native American youth tournaments around the region.
McClain's measurables and statistics check all the boxes, but Conway said it goes deeper than that.
"He can jump out of the gym. We've never measured him, but he's probably got a 6-9 or 6-10 wing span but beyond that you hear a lot of talk about motor these days and that's what I think sets him apart," Conway said. "He plays hard."
McClain, a member of the Muscogee Tribe, is happy with how his path has unfolded.
"It's worked out way better than I could've hoped for," he said. "I really have enjoyed playing with the guys we have. It's been an honor to play for Pete and he's taught me a lot. Playing at Tribes has been a great experience for me."
McClain plans to study psychology or education wherever he decides to go next. Before that he's hoping to lead the Thunderbirds to a big season in the Mon-Dak Conference. Off to an 8-6 start against a difficult schedule, United Tribes is off through the holidays before hosting Oglala Lakota College on Jan. 5. Mon-Dak action kicks off Jan. 10 at home against Dawson Community College.
McClain has gotten plenty of help this season. Fort Yates' Montel Carlow ranks 10th in the country in scoring at 23 points per game. Joe Sazue III (10.3) and Chayton York (10.1) are also averaging double figures for the Thunderbirds, who rank fourth in scoring at 101.2 per tilt.
"We definitely have the goal of a winning a conference championship. I really like the guys we have on our team. We work hard, we're unselfish, I think we have a lot of potential," McClain said. "I'm excited to get back to campus and get to work."