After overcoming wrist injury, TJ McKenzie is scoring and leading the Norse to wins

By Nate Thompson

NORTH MUSKEGON – North Muskegon fans never got to see the real TJ McKenzie last season.

During the Norsemen’s first game against Muskegon Catholic Central, the then-sophomore point guard couldn’t land cleanly in traffic after elevating for a layup, and on his fall to the hardwood, McKenzie braced himself with his hand.

The nasty fall resulted in a broken wrist, which meant that instead of directing the Norse’ offense and scoring his share of points, McKenzie was left to cheer for his team, and be like another assistant coach on the bench, for the next six weeks.

“Even when he came back late in the season, his hand was healthy, but his shooting wasn’t where it needed to be,” said North Muskegon head coach Chuck Rypstra.

McKenzie said it was frustrating to be on the sidelines, unable to help his team during the tough games, and not be at full strength during the Class C district tournament at the end of the season.

The Norse went into the 2016-17 season with high hopes, but finished with a 16-7 overall record and a 9-5 mark in the West Michigan Conference.

North Muskegon’s TJ McKenzie. Photo/Jason Goorman

North Muskegon was knocked out in the district finals by rival Muskegon Heights, 64-47.

“I didn’t have full strength with my shot, and I wasn’t able to help my team as much as I would’ve liked,” McKenzie said. “It was real, real hard.”

But there was a silver lining headed into the 2017-18 season. Because of the injury and long layoff, Rypstra knew McKenzie wasn’t likely to be on many opposing team’s radars this season.

“But I knew he was ready to break out,” the coach said.

Through two games, McKenzie has done that and more.

Mixing a blend of tremendous athleticism and great size at the point guard position ( 6-foot-3, 190 pounds), McKenzie has helped North Muskegon collect a pair of lopsided victories this season — a 30-point triumph over Muskegon Catholic, and a 20-point win against West Michigan Conference rival Oakridge.

McKenzie poured in a combined 48 points in the two wins –  including 27 points in the season opener – and led a pair of stifling defensive efforts.

North Muskegon will host Mason County Central in a conference game on Thursday night.

“Everything about his game has improved,” Rypstra said. “He’s a little bit bigger, a little stronger, and he’s more seasoned on the court. He really worked hard on his shooting this summer.”

McKenzie played AAU throughout the summer with the Grand Rapids-based Michigan Basketball Academy, where he not only improved his overall offensive game, but developed his ability to distribute the ball and make those around him better.

His top strengths are attacking the rim off the dribble, or elevating in traffic for a pull-up jumper. But he didn’t always take full advantage of those strengths.

Rypstra says opposing defenders often dare McKenzie to beat them with his outside shot, and too often he takes that challenge.

TJ McKenzie guards Muskegon Catholic Crusader point guard Cameron Martinez. Photo/Leo Valdez

Against Oakridge, he was just 1-for-8 from 3-point range in the first half, so Rypstra challenged him to adjust.

“I basically told him, ‘No more,’” Rypstra said. “Then in the second half, he was 7 of 9 from the field and he was attacking the rim. That’s when he’s at his best.”

“When I get going downhill, I’m tough to stop,” McKenzie added.

Last season Riley Fairfield was the undisputed leader of the Norse, and one of the top players in the area.

With Fairfield now playing at Hope College, McKenzie has stepped in as a team leader for the Norse, both in production on both ends of the court, and also as a vocal leader.

“I want to be a leader at point guard,” he said. “Somebody that gets my teammates motivated and keeps them constantly up throughout the game.”

More than anything, McKenzie wants to experience a different feeling in districts in March than the Norse experienced  last season.

“We’re capable of a lot of victories,” he said. “We had some personal battles as a team last season, but I feel there’s a closer bond this year. If we stay together as a team, we’ll be fine.”

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