Mbakwe presents questions for NBA teams

MINNEAPOLIS — They’re folded up into the pockets of a maroon and gold letter jacket, those long, sinewy arms. It’s the day before Minnesota’s first and only Big Ten tournament game, a 51-49 loss to Illinois, and Trevor Mbakwe has just finished one of his last practices as a Gopher.
 
He keeps his arms jammed in those pockets the whole time, as questions of emotion are woven together with those of rebounding and responsibility, and you can’t help but wonder how he takes every one in fast-talking stride. You can’t help but wonder, that is, until you remember: Mbakwe has done this so many times before, and six years’ worth of media sessions are nothing compared to the character defenses and knee surgery, the rehab and accusations and the hard-nosed finagling that have all combined to put him right where he is now, finishing his fourth and final season at the University of Minnesota. 
 
Look at those arms, when he eventually unfurls them. That’s a 7-foot-4 wingspan – maybe an inch or two longer, even, depending who you ask – on a 6-foot-8 frame, an NBA coach’s dream for a player who can rebound and block shots with an ease bestowed by little more than freakish genetics. And consider that number, four. Fourth year means a senior, at least one would assume, and if that’s all there were to Mbakwe, a senior with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, this wouldn’t be a story. Things would be, if not easy, then easier, and certainly simpler.
 
But Trevor Mbakwe turned 24 on Jan. 24, the day after Northwestern upset his team on the road. Trevor Mbakwe has played at three different schools for three different coaches and in just one minute of one NCAA tournament game. He’s faced three different sets of legal problems and has suffered two separate knee injuries, one an ACL tear that killed what should have been his dominant final college season, 2011-12. 
 
Trevor Mbakwe was once a potential lottery pick. Trevor Mbakwe is now a living, breathing, basketball-playing red flag.
 
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To fully comprehend what could have been, it is important to understand who Mbakwe once was. He was no No. 1 recruit, no McDonald’s All-American, not as a senior at St. Bernard’s High School in St. Paul. He was a solid recruit, sure, but floating somewhere below the cream of the crop; Scout had him ranked as the 30th-best power forward in the class of 2007.
 
Rankings are flawed, though, and there was a good deal of untapped potential in Mbakwe as a teenager. When he transferred from Henry Sibley for his senior year of high school, Ed Cassidy, then the coach at the now-defunct St. Bernard’s said he’d heard of Mbakwe but had never seen him play. Cassidy had never coached a player who could play above the rim, never had a reason to teach his guards to throw alley-oop passes. And so on his first day of practice, the 17-year-old big man made an impression.
 
“He jumped up there, and he just about got his armpit on the rim,” Cassidy said. “Me and the coaching staff, we look at each other. Our jaws drop. And then I go, ‘Damn it, see. Throw way up there. He can get it.'”
 
Mbakwe eventually committed to play for Tom Crean at Marquette, and Cassidy remembers being awed when the coach would fly in on his jet, once taking the team by surprise in order to wish Mbakwe luck on his ACT. Crean admitted last month that at the time, he never imagined Mbakwe would have stayed in school more than two or three years. The NBA would have come calling for a talent like that, for such a high-energy, explosive player at a school with a decent level of exposure by virtue of playing in the Big East. The NBA would have come calling, should have come calling, except, of course, for everything that came after.
 
Everything is this, a timeline more dramatic when digested quickly: Mbakwe injures his knee early in his freshman season and doesn’t play until February, scoring a grand total of 17 points in 101 minutes. Crean leaves for Indiana, Mbakwe for junior college at Miami Dade in Florida. Mbakwe commits to Minnesota, heads north to play for the Gophers in his hometown. Allegations surface that, while in Miami, he assaulted a young woman. Mbakwe sits out the 2009-10 season, his junior year under normal circumstances, while he waits for the charges to clear up. They don’t.

Worried he’ll be banned from playing for another year in Minnesota, Mbakwe goes on an official visit to Memphis, considering a transfer to a team that will let him play. Eventually, he enrolls in a six-month pre-trial intervention program, has the charges dropped and gets to compete for the Gophers in 2010-11, when he averages 10.5 rebounds, leading the Big Ten. Just when things seem normal, he violates a restraining order in Ramsey County, causing another ruffle.

In November 2011, he tears his right ACL and misses the rest of the season. He’s granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA the next March, earning himself a sixth year of college, and he elects to take it. He’s charged with driving drunk in July 2012, is almost kicked off the team, but eventually isn’t. He leads the Big Ten in rebounding, yet again, with 8.7 per game, and here he is, in March 2013. A selection committee will decide the Gophers’ fate on Sunday, a cavalcade of scouts and GMs in the weeks that follow.
 
He’s a long way from that kid Cassidy watched spring over the rim in 2006, who made the coach wonder what on earth might be in store.
 
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In DraftExpress’ latest list of college basketball’s top prospects for the 2013 NBA draft, Trevor Mbakwe is ranked 73rd. Anyone with rudimentary counting skills can see that’s 13 spots past the last pick in the draft, 13 men behind Mr. Irrelevant. Granted, much will change between now and June 27, and even if he’s not drafted, Mbakwe will get his shot at the pros. But still. For a player who two years ago was touted as a first-round, even a lottery pick, that’s a long way to have fallen.
 
Mbakwe’s baggage is as heavy as it is plentiful, no matter that he’s nearly a year removed from his last scrape with the law and 16 months out from the ACL tear. Time can only heal so much, and when it comes to the power forward’s future, a shot at success is going to take a fair amount of forgetting.
 
Milton Barnes is a regional scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he’s been in the business of evaluating college players for years. Ask him about the process he goes about before every draft, and he has it down to a science. “For the most part… we look at all players regardless of their age or their year in school,” he said. “Obviously, part of the process is you have to weigh all the areas of what a player provides for the position you’re looking for, and then you decide on all the other criteria, whether it’s character questions, if there’s health questions, or whatever the case may be.”
 
Barnes’ checklist sounds good for Mbakwe at the beginning. He’ll get looks from teams despite the fact that he graduated from high school the same spring as did Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose — despite the fact that he’s just four months younger than sixth-year player and current NBA MVP candidate Kevin Durant. He’ll get looks, but as scouts delve further into the decision-making process, Mbakwe’s case will begin to falter when it comes to what Barnes called the “other criteria.”
 
Character questions? Check. Health problems? Check. They’re there, and they’re glaring.
 
It’s impossible to know which will haunt Mbakwe more in the eyes of the NBA, the brushes with the law or the injuries, but in general, health problems can pose a more immediate and unequivocal red flag. When it comes to the other stuff – the bumps in the road, as Cassidy calls them – it’s been years since the worst of the offenses, and Mbakwe has to hope that will help. There’s no way to know, really, which grievance might stand out more, which of his incidents might be the tipping point. To wonder would be for the 24-year-old to tie his brain in knots, and so it’s easier to defer to the mindset that Gophers assistant coach Vince Taylor has adopted. “Trevor’s case has been really, really complicated,” he says, and then he shrugs, and that’s about all there is to say. 
 
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There’s one thing, though, about Mbakwe that is the furthest thing from complicated: his skill set. In a system in which most of the best players come out of college into the NBA after a year, the league drafts on potential, rather than on clearly defined skills, Taylor said. He coached in the NBA before joining the Gophers staff in 2007, and so he’s been on the other side of the process. “In coaching guys, I think the NBA would rather have older guys, more mature guys, but they’re always afraid if (they) don’t draft this guy, someone else will,” Taylor said, and he’s fully aware of the flaws in that line of thinking. It’s in those flaws, in fact, where Mbakwe will find his best crack at the pros.
 
Mbakwe is a rebounder, a shot blocker, not so much concerned with scoring as he is with being an aggressive force on the court. Taylor gave him tape of Ben Wallace to watch toward the end of this season, showing Mbakwe a player of his size and skill set who made it in the league as an example of what he needs to do. He’s taken that video to heart, along with the words of advice from friends like Draymond Green and John Jenkins, who are finding their places in the NBA not through being highly touted lottery picks, but by working as hard as they possibly can.
 
“You come out of high school, and you say you’re going to be a star in college,” Mbakwe said. “I saw some statistic, and coaches always say, 90 percent of players in the NBA are role players.”
 
“There’s only so many Carmelos and Kevin Durants and LeBrons. Everybody else has to fill in.”
 
When asked if he knows his role, Mbakwe bursts out laughing. He better, he says, after this long in college. He better, after his game has stopped changing at the rapid pace of an 18- or 19-year-old’s. He better, because knowing it and sticking to it is his only hope of a chance at the NBA. 
 
As Taylor says, with Mbakwe, what you see is what you get.
 
“I think it benefits me, too, because they know I’m a mature guy, and I can come in and play right away, and I don’t need a couple years of development,” Mbakwe said. “I’ll be able to make that transition from college to the NBA a lot easier than the average 18- or 19-year old.”
 
And so maybe age will work against Mbakwe, but more likely, at least in a case as complicated at this one, it will provide the cushion. Last spring, once he was granted that extra year, there was some chatter as to whether Mbakwe would decline it and declare for the draft. Ask Taylor, though, and that’s all it was: chatter. No way could Mbakwe have turned pro, and no way was age a concern big enough to outweigh so many other factors that made returning to college necessary. Bottom line, Taylor said, the problem-plagued forward needed to prove to the NBA that he could behave and stay healthy for a full year.
 
And in what may be the first good news of Mbakwe’s college career, he has.
 
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Despite two dunks within two minutes of each other and seven rebounds from Mbakwe, the Gophers lost to Illinois on Thursday, putting their shot at an NCAA tournament berth at least a bit more in question. After losing 11 of its last 16 games, Minnesota, once ranked as high as eighth in the nation, finished the season tied for seventh in the Big Ten and on a decidedly downward trend. 
 
At this point, Mbakwe has to hope as much for himself as for his team that the Gophers have some good luck on Sunday, that they get a shot at another game – or another run. Mbakwe needs his exposure at this point as much as his program needs success, because from here on out, it’s an exercise in proving himself. The resume is there, the problems along with the successes, and as polished his schtick may be at this point, everyone he meets from this point forward will question whether it’s genuine.
 
Mbakwe seems to have grown up. Every sign points to it, every easy conversation and display of leadership, every infectious smile. But the next few months will be an audition of the greatest magnitude, and every player is prepped for it. Everyone has memorized his lines and his cues, when to smile and when to shrug and when to promise, swear, cross his heart and hope to die, that he’s changed. “You really don’t know,” Barnes said of interviews with players. “You have to kind of trust your instinct.”
 
And that’s what Mbakwe’s future will come down to. A gut feeling. An instinct. The talent is there, as is the maturity on the court. But what of the injuries and the accusations? What will they be worth when Mbakwe’s fate is weighed? “Your margin is very slim,” Taylor said, “if you’re him.”
 
At Minnesota’s senior day on March 2, the team’s most recent win, Mbakwe was the star. He’d had another such day the year before, despite watching from the bench, because his eligibility had yet to be determined. But this one was real, he said, and a lot to handle emotionally. It left him talking in loops – “It’s been a long six years of college, but I feel like it went by so fast,” he said – and stuck between that forever past and the hazy future. 
 
Once the game had ended and Williams Arena had cleared, after most of the seniors had retreated with their families, Mbakwe walked to center court. The stands were empty, no eyes trained on his every move. He bent down, then, and did what so many seniors do after their last home game. He kissed the maroon M and walked away.
 
It was a private moment, when most like it are for the cameras, for the fans, for the program. It was Trevor Mbakwe’s thank you, for giving him not one shot, not two, but three or even four. Other programs would have given up long ago on a guy like that, for whom talent becomes an afterthought in the worst moments, but Minnesota stuck with him, and he with it.
 
Now it’s time to see if there’s some other willing taker, and if this time around the burden he brings can’t be a little bit lighter.

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