As Brendan Haywood quietly sits with ice packs on both knees, legs bent and sore, his eyes dart around the visitor’s locker room searching for a connection.
The question concerns his frontcourt running mate, Byron Mullens, an unorthodox big man whose game leaves Haywood searching for comparisons, flickers of similarities and differences visibly going off in his head. He’s only played 14 games with his fellow 7-footer. He looks across the cramped room at the fourth-year player out of Ohio State, who is parked next to the team’s mini-buffet and donning a dress shirt, and shrugs his shoulders.
“Uh, guys that shoot like that?” Haywood asked, rhetorically. “Dirk (Nowitzki) shoots the ball like that. I mean, it’s a little premature to compare him to Dirk right now at this stage in his career but I think that’s where he has to head to.”
Mullens is not Nowitzki. Everyone agrees.
However, the Charlotte Bobcats’ forward is experiencing another season of improvement, the second consecutive year in which his name has floated under the radar among NBA circles for Most Improved Player considerations. The quirky, dangerous combination of length and range — at seven feet tall, he’s shooting 29 percent from 3-point range this season — is averaging 12.9 points per game in 2012-13.
Last season, in what was overall a forgettable campaign in the Queen City, Mullens raised some eyebrows when given more playing time, improving his scoring average by 7.4 points after coming over from Oklahoma City, where he was a scarcely-used reserve. He played 6.5 minutes per game for the more-talented Thunder.
He was afforded an average of 22.5 minutes last season.
So when new coach Mike Dunlap arrived as an assistant coach from Rutgers, he already had a plan for his skilled big man: Make him a big man. In his first meeting with Mullens this past summer, then throughout the NBA’s Summer League, Dunlap did not want to talk offensive skill sets, shooting mechanics, off-the-ball movement, pick-and-roll logistics or post moves.
He wanted to talk about things that transpired in and around the painted area.
“We didn’t even worry about the offensive side. He said defense and rebounding, which I knew after last season that’s what I needed to work on,” Mullen said. “With me being the four it’s kinda harder for me to get rebounds just because I’m playing other fours. But yeah, the rebounds are coming.
“These guards are stealing some of them, too.”
Mullens’ rebounding has, to say the least, shown improvement, especially on the defensive end. His renewed focus has yielded an increase of more than three boards per game. An increase in playing time would suggest direct correlation to his numbers jump, but Mullens’ efficiency has shown marked progress: Entering Friday night’s game against the 76ers, he was snatching 14.1 percent of available rebounds when he was on the floor this season (albeit in a limited sample size), as opposed to 12.9 percent in 2011-12.
It’s an unremarkable, gradual outline of his improvement, but such is the norm with project players.
He ended up with 10 points (3-of-12 shooting) and six rebounds in a 104-98 loss versus the undermanned Philadelphia front line. It was an off night, but those do not come as a surprise to the Bobcats’ staff.
“We’re trying to reshape how people view him, and a lot of that is that there will be some setbacks,” Dunlap said. “But there’s been way more successes than failures with him.”
By no means is Mullens without his flaws, particularly on the defensive end where his offensive repertoire does little to help match up with some of the league’s best forwards. Though his defensive efficiency has improved under Dunlap’s tutelage, statistics show the Bobcats allow nearly four fewer points per 100 possessions with Mullens on the bench. Through 14 games, the team is ever-so-slightly more efficient overall with him sitting on the sidelines, too.
A star? No, at least not yet.
Not even close.
A valuable commodity with room to grow on a 7-8 team that has already matched its win total from last season? Yes, certainly. He’s posted scoring nights of 27, 19, 18 and 24, respectively, this season; he’s logged double-digit rebounding numbers in three games. There are signs.
“I mean, it’s not my team, but I think that with a player like that I would definitely play through him,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said after Wednesday night’s task of occasionally checking Mullens. “You got the pick-and-pop, you gotta honor it, you gotta honor his shot. He can drive. He’s athletic enough where he can finish at the rim. It just adds another dimension to playing defense on him.
“He’s young, so it’s only gonna get better. He’s gonna be in this league for a long time.”
Brendan Haywood, icing his knees after that loss to the Hawks, was not ready to make a leap of faith with Mullens. No one is. But the potential is there: Dunlap, Haywood and Smith, along with others around the NBA, can picture it. All seven feet of it.
He’s got a long way to go.
Luckily for Mullens (and his playing time), so do the young Bobcats.