Mullens looking to make most of brief court time
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)
Game after game, Byron Mullens took his seat on Oklahoma City's bench, knowing it was unlikely he'd play that night.
Since the Thunder got Mullens last June in a draft-night trade, he's had the ``project'' label attached to his name, with few expecting the 7-footer out of Ohio State to contribute. His first NBA appearance was a brief one, less than a minute in the final stages of a blowout win at New Jersey on Dec. 28.
But twice in the last week, coach Scott Brooks has put the 20-year-old Mullens in the lineup for extended stretches, including a seven-minute stint in the second quarter of a win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. Mullens scored his first NBA points on two 15-foot jumpers.
Brooks played coy when asked about Mullens' surprising appearance against the Pacers, calling it ``a feel thing. I thought Byron would give us a spark and he did.'' Mullens said he was told before the game to be ready.
Assistant coach Mark Bryant ``told me to make the most of my time, basically go in there and get tired,'' Mullens said. ``I ran and got back on defense real fast. I made good use of my seven minutes.''
Mullens, who was voted the Big Ten's top sixth man by conference coaches last season, has bounced around a bit since leaving Ohio State after his freshman year. The Dallas Mavericks grabbed Mullens with the 24th selection in the draft, then quickly traded him to the Thunder for No. 25 pick Rodrigue Beaubois and a second-round choice.
Mullens averaged 8.8 points and 4.6 rebounds while setting a record for Ohio State freshmen by shooting 63.8 percent from the field. But in Oklahoma City, he found himself at the bottom of the depth chart for big men, which meant no game action - until the Thunder sent him to the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League.
The Thunder own the 66ers and the Tulsa team uses the same sets and terminology as the Thunder. Mullens played 11 games with the 66ers, averaging 15.5 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Mullens said Bryant told him to work on ``rim-running and rebounding'' while in Tulsa. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said the goal was for Mullens to ``narrow his focus on what he's trying to accomplish there.''
``We weren't evaluating him on how many points he scores or how many rebounds he gets, but really more finer points and learning the system,'' Presti said. ``Being able to react on the floor and being able to replicate some of those actions by actually not having him on the practice floor in an individual setting is helpful.''
Mullens said his Tulsa experience proved invaluable in helping prepare him for the NBA.
``I was down there for almost a month basically,'' he said. ``If it wasn't for that, those shots that I hit, I could have been nervous, butterflies in my stomach, but I wasn't. (In) the D-League I had the green light to get shots up and those shots, the D-League helped me for that.''
Thunder star Kevin Durant admitted he was shocked when Mullens entered against Indiana, but he and another starter, Jeff Green, both praised him for being ready.
``The more he works, the better he's going to get,'' Green said.
Added Durant: ``I've got 100 percent trust in Byron when he's out on the floor.''
Although Mullens did play six minutes - and scored four points - at the end of a blowout win over the New York Knicks on Monday, consistent, extended playing time seems unlikely. Nenad Krstic is entrenched as the starting center, and Brooks has used Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka as his primary frontline reserves. Veteran Etan Thomas also is in the mix, although he hasn't played since Dec. 4.
``With Byron, it's going to be a step-by-step process,'' Presti said. ``He's learning the NBA. We're learning about him. There's going to be peaks and valleys. We're going to continue to try to work with him and put him in positions to be successful. He has to continue to put the time in and work in, and I'm confident that he will.''
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.