Canadian Mychal Mulder’s NBA path has been very much his own

Golden State Warriors' Mychal Mulder, left, lays up a shot past Los Angeles Clippers' Landry Shamet (Ben Margot/AP)

Life has been turned upside down for everyone in the space of a week, but few have had fate’s roller coaster loop up, down and back around again like Mychal Mulder, the newly minted Golden State Warrior from Windsor, Ont., Canada’s latest and most unlikely NBA success story.

This should have been the week of his basketball life.

After three years toiling in the G-League – the road even to that point filled with twists and turns – Mulder and the Warriors were scheduled to play in Toronto against the Raptors on Monday and – even better – against the Detroit Pistons Wednesday, just across the St. Clair River from where he grew up.

His basketball dreams were very much poised to come true. Wednesday was going to be his moment to share them.

“I had a lot of family members, old teammates – everyone I knew from the city of Windsor, really, they were really excited for me,” Mulder said in the midst of a 13-hour drive from Sioux Falls, South Dakota back home to Windsor – a far cry from the Warriors charter he would otherwise be travelling on.

“It seemed like everyone I knew was going to make that Detroit game and I have a lot of close friends who live in Toronto or live close to Toronto who were going to make [the Raptors] game as well. So everyone I knew was excited for that little homestand but we didn’t get to that point, unfortunately.”

No, no we didn’t. But there can’t be many athletes who have had their sport yanked from under their feet in the past week who will be missing a moment as potentially poignant and hard-earned as Mulder is.

He’s part of a record 19 Canadians to see time in the NBA this season – more than any country other than the United States – but almost inarguably the most unheralded.

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Not that he’s too upset. He’s still basking in the glow of it even being possible at all, which should tide him over for a while. Not to mention that instead of collecting the final instalments of the $85,000 G-League deal he was on – his $35,000 base salary was augmented by a $50,000 Exhibit-10 deal he earned from the Miami Heat – he’s getting through the NBA shutdown on a prorated rookie minimum of $898,310 which will pay him roughly $180,000.

It all happened so fast. It was barely three weeks ago that Mulder was a member of the Sioux Falls Sky force when got a late-night phone call from the Warriors asking him to jump on a 6 a.m. flight the following day to start his improbable NBA journey.

That in itself was a moment worth savouring, given Mulder was lightly recruited out of high school in Windsor; spent two years at junior college; struggled to find playing time in two years at the University of Kentucky; went undrafted out of college and was in his third G-League season when his first NBA break came.

His only previous NBA experience was with the Toronto Raptors in Summer League in 2017. Nearly three years and 134 G-League games later, he got his break.

“It was amazing. I had a really good experience over my 10-day contract with the Warriors,” he said. “I feel like the coaching staff and my teammates put me in a great position, made me feel comfortable, not just on the floor, but off the court. They took me in and helped me adapt. But coming in on a 10-day contract and coming out of it with that kind of success was a big compliment and a top moment in my career.”

Mulder’s best NBA skill is his ability to shoot from deep. He led the G-League in threes made before his call-up and had shot 40.5 per cent from behind the arc over his last two seasons. What impressed Warriors head coach Steve Kerr the most, though, was by what happened when Mulder kept missing.

He was 0-for-5 in his first NBA start and was 0-for-4 in his second NBA game, but Mulder’s determination to keep trying to make things happen caught Kerr’s eye.

“I didn’t know anything about him when we signed him, had no idea who he was and his second game against Phoenix he … starts out the game and he’s [0-for-4] and I’m feeling bad for him,” said Kerr, who won three titles coming off the bench to make threes for the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan and two more doing the same for the San Antonio Spurs. “You’re on a 10-day contract, you feel the clock ticking and you want to make an impact.

“I’ve been in that situation as a shooter, things can snowball on you and his response to that start was incredible. He kept firing, started knocking down shots. [Then] he went out asked to guard [Suns star] Devin Booker. … Most players don’t do that; most players walk the other direction from Devin Booker and he did a great job defensively and knocked down shots and helped us win the game.”

Mulder ended up making 5-of-12 from the floor for 14 points and used his 6-foot-4 frame and 6-foot-8 reach to help hold the high-scoring Booker to a 6-of-16 night.

“I could see why guys would fear that match-up,” he said. “[Booker is] a killer on offence, but I know him a little bit, I’ve played some pickup with him at UK and I saw it as an opportunity, really, to showcase I could guard, to show that I have some grind in me, a work ethic on the defensive end as well.”

Those that know Mulder weren’t all that surprised. The 25-year-old’s Mulder’s faith in himself was and remains rock solid. A few missed threes weren’t going to shake that.

University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari rarely has a year pass by when he doesn’t have at least one and often more players drafted by NBA teams. He knows what it takes. Mulder might have had a hard time finding playing time with the Wildcats – he averaged 10 minutes a game as a senior – but Calipari says he saw the qualities then that are needed to keep grinding away to make an NBA dream a reality.

“When I met with him I fell in love with him just because of the type of kid he was,” Calipari said on the phone from Lexington. “And here’s the thing, he was not afraid of Kentucky, at all. Just like Steve Kerr, that’s what encouraged me … this isn’t the place where someone can beg you to come or you have to encourage them. You either want this or you don’t. You have to know yourself.”

“The only one who sustains your confidence when you go 0-for-9 is you. I’m sure Steve Kerr’s not on the sidelines saying ‘you’re okay, keep shooting.’ You’re 0-for-9, do you have confidence in you, that you’re as good as any of these guys?”

Mulder knows he can play, and that’s what has always sustained him.

“True confidence is saying that no matter what happens – you could go 0-for-10, you could go 10-for-10 – you know yourself,” said Mulder. “So I know that at the end of the year I’m going to be somewhere around 40 per cent [from three] and just knowing that it allows me to go into games open minded, not worrying about whether I make or miss a shot.”

The data is on Mulder’s side. He was 0-for-5 in his NBA debut and had a 1-of-9 night in his last game before the season was suspended, but in the five games in-between he shot 40 per cent from deep on eight attempts a game. Over his past 81 G-League games spread over two seasons he’s shooting 40.5 per cent on nearly nine attempts a game.

The source of that confidence is a little tougher to pinpoint. It certainly wasn’t because of endless streams of external validation. There weren’t too many occasions – if any – as he was developing where Mulder was tabbed as a future NBA player.

“It would be a lie if I said I ever thought he’d play in the NBA,” said Peter Cusumano, Mulder’s high school coach who will miss out on seeing him in Detroit Wednesday. “But he definitely had something special. In 40 years of coaching he’s the only kid to play senior for me in Grade 9, so we knew he had something, but we didn’t see him in the NBA.”

The vast majority of Canada’s top talent has been on the radar for years before they hit the NBA. Even the Raptors’ Chris Boucher – who didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 18 and went undrafted out of Oregon – was an impact player on an elite college team, his story compelling enough he was featured in Sports Illustrated heading into his senior season before a torn ACL temporarily derailed him.

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Mulder’s path has been very much his own.

He never played for the Ontario provincial teams and was cut the one time he tried out for a national team – a U17 national team then coached by Roy Rana.

“I just told him they’d call my number on the national team one day,” Mulder said.

He was right as Mulder played for Canada during World Cup qualifying last winter.

Part of it was being from Windsor as opposed to being part of the Greater Toronto Area talent pool that has boiled over during the past decade.

Part of it was the lot of being a slightly undersized shooting guard – arguably the deepest position at any level of basketball.

Mulder has never let an obstacle hold him back.

Slim pickings for scholarships out of high school? No problem.

Mulder thought he’d have a better chance if he went to junior college and balled out. He enrolled at Vincennes University and got noticed after making 46 per cent of his threes in his second season, helping them to a 33-2 record and earning junior college all-American honours.

“It was a bet on yourself thing,” he said. “I just felt I had a higher ceiling than a lot of people might have saw for me and I thought I could have developed in my two years of JuCo … and thankfully it worked out.”

He used a similar strategy when he chose powerhouse Kentucky over offers at a number of less prominent schools where playing time would have been more readily available. With the Wildcats he struggled to find minutes behind future NBA draftees Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, but he remained undeterred. Similarly, not many players sign up for a third G-League season – that’s usually the point where they recognize the NBA might not happen for them and they seek more financial security in Europe or elsewhere.

“Thankfully he didn’t listen to me a couple of times,” said Cusamano, who remains in touch the player who helped win a provincial championship as a senior. “I didn’t think he should go to JuCo and when he finished at Kentucky I thought he should go to Europe because his window for making money was so small. But he knew what he wanted.”

“He’s taken the long road around, definitely,” Cusamano added in a conversation before Mulder signed his rest-of-the-season deal with the Warriors, and before the season was turned on its ear. “For a lot of elite guys it’s a pretty straight line. Not Mychal. But I couldn’t be happier for him. Just a great kid.”

“If he makes it to Detroit half of Windsor is going to be in that tunnel.”

Mulder did make it back to Detroit as an NBA player, but circumstances as they are he just passed through, hit the border and pulled into his driveway at home, another unexpected stop in his basketball journey.

When it was clear the season was headed for an extended hiatus Mulder decided to take the time to fly from San Francisco to Sioux Falls and gather up his belongings there and pick up the car he’d left behind to start his NBA adventure.

“With all the stuff going on within the city and internationally and being from Canada I felt it was important to get my stuff, get it back across the border while I still can,” he said. “I just felt like that was the best course of action at the time.

“But I’m hoping to get back in San Francisco as soon as possible, I can’t wait to get back in the gym with these guys.”

In the meantime, he can enjoy being home as an NBA player, even if the journey was one nobody could have predicted.

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