Big on Potential
Hasheem Thabeet and Bryon Mullens square off in the D-League.
by Pardeep Toor
Fourth meeting, third different location – 2009 first round picks Hasheem Thabeet (second overall) and Bryon Mullens (24th overall) battled in the depths of the D-League in Tulsa, OK last Friday, an unexpected locale for two highly scouted prospects.
Mullens started the game for Tulsa while Thabeet watched from the Dakota bench. After winning the opening tip, Mullens drilled a turnaround two in the post to give the Tulsa 66ers a 2-0 lead. Thabeet enters the game with 6:26 left in the first quarter and gets the defensive assignment on Mullens.
The two met twice in summer league and once again on January 22 when the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Thunder, 86-84. Thabeet had 9 rebounds and 4 blocks in 23 minutes in the game while Mullens played a tad less than five minutes and had zeroes across the board except a personal foul. With both producing below expectations this season and scavenging for minutes with their respective teams, the Dakota Wizards and Tulsa 66ers became suitable destinations for both big men. Thabeet became the highest draft pick in the history of the League to be sent down to the D-League.
“I was excited to have this opportunity. I wasn’t getting playing time and I was working hard and I wind up coming out here and that was cool,” Thabeet said. “They told me that I was working for so long and plus I don’t get enough minutes. They wanted me to come out here, play a couple games, so they can see the progress of what I’ve been working on and what do I need to work on.”
With 5:25 left in the first quarter, Thabeet rolls off Mullens in the post and puts downs a thunderous alley-oop jam while barley having to get off his feet to get above the rim. Mullens answers on the ensuing Tulsa possession, beating Thabeet baseline off the dribble, sliding underneath the basket while leaping for a one-handed reverse jam, putting the 66ers up 14-7 with 5:03 left in the first quarter. Thabeet finishes the first quarter with 3 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in just over six minutes. Mullens has 4 points, 3 rebounds and a block in 11 minutes.
Mullens is serving his second stint in the D-League but while he was sent down earlier this season, this time he approached Thunder General Manager, Sam Presti, and requested to be sent down to improve his game.
“There’s nothing like getting game-time experience, doesn’t matter who you are playing against, D-League or NBA players, you can’t get better just working in practice,” Mullens said. “Some people look at coming down to the D-league like ‘I’m too good’ but I look at it like a business move, I’ve gotta get better.”
Mullens played sparingly in his freshman season at Ohio State last year, averaging a modest 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 20.3 minutes a game. Despite his stats and lack of playing time, Mullens opted to go pro, opening himself to criticism from media and fans who are quick to pre-maturely correlate stints in the D-League with “bust” status.
“There’s going to be different criticisms on Thabeet and different criticisms on me just because I came out after my freshmen year, he came out, I believe, after his junior year,” Mullens said. “My critics are going to say that ‘he should have stayed another year, he’s wasn’t ready.’ Of course people are going to hate on me more than him, he was more NBA ready because his coach was using him more and he got more experience than I did in college.”
On back-to-back possessions in the second quarter, Mullens faces up Thabeet at the top of the key and drives left both times, beating him off the dribble but missing the tough finish at the hoop in traffic. On the second drive, Mullens is fouled and goes to the line, making one-of-two and cutting Dakota’s lead to 34-32 before sitting for the rest of the half.
Primarily a rebounder and shot-blocker in college, Thabeet found himself playing behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in Memphis – two of the most efficient scorings bigs in the NBA, shooting 58 and 49 percent from the field and combined, getting to the line about 11 times a game. With the strong perimeter play of Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo and the emerging Mike Conley, Thabeet was not expected to dominate the ball or become the focal point of the team as is usually expected of a top-five pick but just fill a role on an already talented roster.
“Running the floor, rebounding and block shots – I’ve always been known for that,” Thabeet said. “They want to see me run the floor, block shots, rebound the ball. They aren’t worried really about me scoring 20 or 10. They just want me to be ready so when they throw me the ball, I can do something with it.”
He’s struggled to fill that role so far in the NBA, averaging only 2.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in the 10 minutes a game.
With 7:37 left in the third quarter, Thabeet records his third block of the game, this time a massive swat on the driving Mustafa Shakur to protect Dakota’s 46-45 lead. Later, down by four, Thabeet converts an acrobatic and-one layup on the smaller DJ White to cut Tulsa’s lead to 55-54.
Thabeet doesn’t let the stigma and the hype of his departure to the farm system bother his approach or shake his confidence. On multiple occasions, he refers to his time in the D-League as an “assignment” — one that he has to complete in order to move forward in his career.
“I came out here to work hard and get this assignment done and I’ll bounce back,” Thabeet said. “I don’t really listen to critics and a lot of people who talk about what I do. I work on what I can work on and get better as a player and go back to my team.”
The game goes into double-overtime. Late in the first overtime, Thabeet misses three consecutive layup attempts around the basket, not going hard for a dunk on any of his chances. Down 92-89, Mullens answers on the other end with a drive and dribble on Thabeet to cut the lead to one, 92-91, with less than a minute to play. Thabeet taps in a put back on the ensuing Dakota possession to extend the lead back up to three. With the game tied 94-94 and less than five seconds to play, Thabeet receives the inbounds pass at the free-throw line with Mullens guarding him. Thabeet faces up and shoots a long-jumper which rims out to send the game into a second overtime.
Mullens’ goal with his assignment is to improve on the glass and specifically his rebounding instincts. Playing the 3-2 zone at Ohio State, Mullens said he was constantly out of rebounding position and needs to learn how to chase the ball out of his range. He’s willing to stay as long as he needs to in the D-League to make this happen.
“It’s my decision on that (going back after four games) which I’ll probably stay down longer,” Mullens said. “Going back up, I’ll probably just be going to sit on the bench again. We’ll see, I’ll talk to Sam about it and we’ll go from there.”
Thabeet averaged 13.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in six games with Dakota before being called back up to the Grizzlies on Monday. His call up was inevitable but success in the association is still in limbo.
“I’m just happy with this opportunity to come out here, play a couple minutes, get my conditioning up so when I go back up there, when they need me, I’ll be able to answer the call,” said Thabeet, prophetically, last Friday.
Tulsa wins 106-96 in two overtimes. Mullens finishes with 13 points, 8 rebounds and a block, going 5-15 from the field and 3-5 from the free throw line. Thabeet has 16 points, 18 rebounds and 3 blocks while going 5-12 from the field and 6-7 from the free throw line.