MINNEAPOLIS — As an undersized power forward not that far removed from a major injury, Trevor Mbakwe has a lot to prove before he can establish an NBA career.
At least one prominent decision-maker doesn’t need to see any more. Flip Saunders has made plenty of first-hand reviews.
“He’s a defender, competitor, shot blocker, rebounder. That’s what he does,” Sanders said. “To play in this league and be effective, you have to have an NBA talent. Nothing that you do average is going to make you that much better in the NBA. It’s trying to take the things that you do well and try to do better at those.”
Mbakwe was in the latest group of prospects brought in by the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday to run through drills, the ninth of 13 workouts he has scheduled before the draft on June 27. Looking a little slimmer than the 235 pounds he played at last season for the Gophers, Mbakwe flashed his big smile several times as he spoke about how often he’s seen Saunders prior to the session on the Target Center practice court.
Saunders, the new president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves, was a fixture at Williams Arena during the winter while rooting for his alma mater and evaluating potential NBA players. Saunders was there on Feb. 26, perhaps Mbakwe’s greatest college game, when the Gophers beat top-ranked Indiana.
Mbakwe pushed around Hoosiers 7-footer Cody Zeller that night, a physically dominating performance that Saunders actually reminded Zeller of when he worked out for the Timberwolves last week.
“It was a good game for me to have with all the GMs and the front office people there,” Mbakwe said.
The 24-year-old’s eventful amateur career included stints at three different schools spanning six years, a lot of off-the-court trouble and one devastating tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. That happened in November 2011, but the time lost to the surgery and subsequent rehabilitation left him with only one full season on the rebuilt joint.
“I really believe he’s got the talent to play in the league, but he’s had some issues with his knees, and in the NBA … instead of playing 30 games, now you’re playing 82,” Saunders said. “That’s something you really have to look at.”
As much as Saunders would like a fellow former Gophers player to succeed, don’t expect the Timberwolves to favour Mbakwe over someone else they have rated higher if the native of St. Paul is available with one of their second-round picks.
“You can’t totally fall in love with your players. You respect them, but you have to make decisions and a lot of time tough decisions,” Saunders said.
On the other hand, all the extra auditioning Mbakwe has done for Saunders ought to help him more than it would hurt.
“You do understand, when you know somebody, what makes them tick. What motivates them. What problems they have. And so you take all that into consideration,” Saunders said.
Others evaluated by team officials on Monday included Reggie Bullock of North Carolina, Tony Snell of New Mexico, Deshaun Thomas of Ohio State, Carrick Felix of Arizona State and Jason Washburn of Utah. Mbakwe will regularly face players at the power forward position who are an inch or two or three taller than him, so he’ll have to rely on that deft rebounding ability and that tenacity around the basket more than ever. Saunders said Mbakwe has improved his mid-range jump shot, but he’ll never be asked to be much of a shooter in the pros. Mbakwe said he believes he’ll have to play at about 250 pounds once the season starts in the fall.
“Going to the next level, I’m not going to be bigger and stronger against everybody I’m playing against. That’s something I’m definitely going to have to improve on,” he said.