From walk-on to scholarship, Pierson McAtee reflects on K-State basketball career

Then-senior forward Pierson McAtee is announced as a starter before K-State's Senior Day game against Iowa State in March 2020. (File Photo by Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

One year after graduating from Kansas State, former men’s basketball player Pierson McAtee has had some time to reflect on his time in Bramlage Coliseum.

Throughout his career, McAtee finished with three Academic All-Big 12 First Team awards and nine Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll awards. He also received the 2019 Dr. Gerald Lage Academic Achievement Award, which is the highest academic award in the Big 12 Conference. McAtee was also on the team that won the Big 12 Championship in 2018.

A Manhattan resident for most of his life, McAtee wasn’t your average basketball player growing up.

“I moved to Manhattan when I was one, so Manhattan is all I know,” McAtee said. “In high school, I was always super skinny so I knew I was always playing behind the ball there. As I started to go through summer [Amateur Athletic Union] tournaments and stuff like that in the summer going into my senior year, things just started to click.”

K-State wasn’t the only place McAtee considered playing at — he also received looks from NCAA Division II schools like Washburn, Missouri Western and Northwest Missouri State.

McAtee put all of those schools behind him and decided to walk on at the school he had grown up with his whole life. In his first season on the team, McAtee redshirted to help improve physically. This was crucial for him to get the time he needed to play at his peak performance with other collegiate athletes.

“I knew coming in that it was going to be a four-to-five-year plan for me to start seeing some good time on the court,” McAtee said. “I had a great strength and conditioning coach [in] Jimmy Price who ended up leaving and we got coach Ben O’Donnell. It was just a matter of leaning on our staff, which was so crucial to put on weight and become more explosive, and then being able to maintain it throughout the season as well.”

While many walk-ons come and go without receiving any financial aid, all of McAtee’s hard work paid off. He was put on a full scholarship with the Wildcats in August 2019.

“I’m just getting chills here thinking about that,” McAtee said. “As a walk-on especially, a lot of guys aren’t getting as much recognition. It’s a lot of hard work and I understand why you’re in that situation, but when moments like that happen and you receive some recognition and when those moments do happen, it makes it all worth it.”

Although McAtee wasn’t on the court as much as other players, he was called, “the ultimate team player” by head coach Bruce Weber during the Senior Day press-conference late last season.

“I was thankful to have parents that taught me the game the right way,” McAtee said. “I had AAU, high school and college coaches that all taught me the game the right way. How I play the game is how I would like to speak the game in just doing the little things to make the team better. I utilized what I had which was knowing the game well and helping younger guys instead of being envious of them because at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team and we all have the same goal.”

McAtee credits a lot of his success on and off the court to Weber during his years with K-State.

“The biggest thing I have to say about coach Weber is that he is a genius,” McAtee said. “He’s a basketball guru through and through and he loves the game. The biggest thing about him though is that he loves his players. He wants them to succeed off and on the court.”

The crowning moment for McAtee came in 2018 when the Wildcats won the Big 12 Championship, although McAtee had a hard time picking a favorite moment from that once in a lifetime season.

“You know it’s tough to pinpoint one moment,” McAtee said. “The guys that I played with were a lively bunch off the court. We would joke around and play 2K, mess with each other on road trips or play UNO on the planes to games. If there is one thing I miss the most though, it’s the camaraderie that we had. They say that iron sharpens iron and being around a group of guys like that can only make everyone better.”

One member of that Big 12 Championship team is still on the roster this season, the lone senior Mike McGuirl.

So far this season, McGuirl has proven to be a driving force on the team, leading the team in points per game (13.4) and steals per game (1.1). He is also second in assists per game (2.9) and is third on the team in free-throw percentage (76.2 percent), as well as three-point percentage (40 percent)

“What can’t I say about Mike,” McAtee said. “He’s a stud off the court, on the court, a super-intelligent guy, and he’s one of my best friends. He was more of that six-man energy guy coming in off the bench his first two seasons and he’s come into the season and hasn’t missed a beat at all. He’s been shooting the ball with a high clip and he’s just stepped up his game in every realm that he can.”

McAtee has kept his eyes on the Wildcats this season, and while they have struggled in the early going, he says he understands that the biggest issue with the team is the youth. One freshman, in particular, Nijel Pack, has stood out in McAtee’s mind though.

“[Pack] shoots the ball with a really high clip,” McAtee said. “[Pack] seems very level-headed for a freshman and he is very mature for his age and I wish I got to know him more during the recruitment process of bringing him in.”

McAtee also believes that playing in a global health crisis has taken its toll on the team.

“You think about it and these guys didn’t get the summer and fall workouts that you normally get leading up to playing your first collegiate game,” McAtee said. “These guys are getting more playing experiences though because you can try to simulate a real game with drills but it’s just not the same thing. Getting these guys in more game-like situations is the best possible thing for them right now.”

McAtee believes this team is going to be fine down the road, even though it might be hard right now for fans to see that.

“We have a very solid core,” McAtee said. “Just continue to stay patient, but on social media just remember that these are young college kids who are just learning the ropes. Just remain positive and trust the guys on the court and trust coach Weber.”