On The Golden Doorstep

by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer

Back in 2007, Trevor Mbakwe signed his letter of intent to Marquette and he punched “NBA Draft” into his GPS. But, the machine didn’t whip up the shortest route to his lifelong dream. Six long years later and now 24 years old, Mbakwe is finally on the doorstep of the League he’s fantasized about since childhood.

Mbakwe’s uphill battle took a tough turn just 11 games into his freshman season at Marquette. The big man just tore his left LCL and surgery forced him to miss the majority of his rookie campaign. But, during his rehab, Mbakwe received news that hurt more than a snapped ligament. His coach, Tom Crean was leaving Milwaukee for Bloomington, IN.

“Coach Crean left to take the Indiana job and at that time I was coming back from an injury that ended my season,” Mbakwe remembers. “I kind of just wanted a fresh start. By that time, if I was going to transfer, it was already really late in the year. So, I just decided to go to community college so more teams could look at me instead of the two or three that had offered me scholarships.”

Mbakwe took his talents and 6-8, 236-pound frame to Miami Dade Community College and the JuCo circuit for his sophomore season. But he wasn’t just going to get some serious exposure to college scouts. He was going to win.

“We were a pretty good team,” Mbakwe said. “That was one of the reasons why I went there. We had five or six guys who ended up transferring and playing at DI programs and a couple guys play overseas. We were ranked top-five all season.”

He bullied his opponents in the paint. Mbakwe averaged 16.3 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks while shooting 61 percent from the field as he helped lead MDCC to a 26-3 record. Intrigued by his dominant play, many DI programs lined up to be the home for Mbakwe’s return to the upper-echelon of the collegiate realm.

Tubby Smith was particularly interested in the big man’s services. Fresh off a 14-point defeat at the hands of Texas in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, Smith realized his team needed more size. Texas out-rebounded Minnesota 40-29 in the contest. Mbakwe was more than willing to join Smith in the north. The former Golden Eagle was ready to become a Golden Gopher.

“I’m from there and I saw how Coach Smith was changing the program,” Mbakwe remembers. “So, when I had an opportunity to go there and play for him and in front of my friends in family I took it. I wanted to help get the program back to wear it used to be, too.”

After redshirting the ’09-10 college season, Mbakwe returned to DI after a two-year hiatus with a bang. The forward put up 14 and 10 in just 18 minutes off the bench. He went on to be named Most Outstanding Player at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and to average 28.7 minutes per game the rest of ’10-11.

“Just coming in my freshman year, I had high expectations and it was really discouraging having to redshirt because of my injury,” Mbakwe said. “So, getting back there, it felt good when I finally got a chance to play and go out there. I had a pretty good season, I was able to earn second-team all Big Ten honors. So it was really a good feeling.”

Mbakwe took that momentum into the summer of 2011 and performed well at camps, even earning an invitation to Team USA’s World University Games camp. Practicing along big college names like Draymond Green, Scoop Jardin, John Jenkins and Ashton Gibbs, Mbakwe’s invitation revealed his national recognition.

Under head coach Matt Painter from Purdue, Mbakwe would go on to play well against teams from China, Lithuania, Japan and several other countries.

“It was a really great experience,” Mbakwe said. “Just getting the opportunity to represent the USA and go to a different country, it was just an all-around amazing experience to be selected for that team.”

But it would all come to a screeching halt.

After averaging 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game during Minnesota’s first seven games of the season, Mbakwe felt a sharp pain in his right knee similar to pierced through his left four years prior. This time, he tore his ACL.

“It was really tough. We were in Orlando in the Old Spice Championship game,” Mbakwe said tenderly. “There were a lot of GMs and scouts there. A lot of emotions went through my head. I thought my basketball life was over at that time. I had worked so hard and I had really good summer. I was invited to all the camps; I was with the USA Basketball team. I had high expectations for the season, so to be sidelined seven games into the season was a horrible season and I definitely didn’t know what the future was holding for me at the time.”

Then a soon-to-be 23-year-old, Mbakwe wasn’t sure he would ever be able to finish out his college career on a positive note and receive enough attention from the L to get drafted. But, he continued to work, never gave up and credits a nearby superstar from a different sport his motivation to return to the hardwood.

“I just wanted to come back strong and prove everybody wrong that had started to doubt me about my knees,” Mbakwe said. “Adrian Peterson and I tore our ACLs around the same time, so it was good to have somebody to look up to during the whole experience.”

Granted a sixth year of eligibility, Mbakwe was able to return to the hardwood for ’12-13 and helped lead Minnesota to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 10.0 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while being named to the Third-Team All-Big Ten by coaches and Second-Team All-Big Ten by the media.

Now 24-years-old, Mbakwe has left the college game and is preparing for the NBA Draft. But, he has a lot to prove as undersized rookie big man who will turn 25 mid-way through the ’13-14 season with a troublesome knee history. But he doesn’t think his age will be a factor in his draft stock.

“That’s more of a media thing,” Mbakwe says. “None of the coaches or front office people I’ve talked to have really raised that as a concern. I’m not the oldest in this Draft class, so I feel good about that. But, I don’t think that plays much into what teams think of me.”

He’s just focusing on what he does best.

“Teams like how hard I play, how physical I am, how I rebound the basketball and the intensity that I play with,” Mbakwe said. “I think I can be a high-energy guy in the League like a Kenneth Faried or a guy that I’m drawing a lot of comparisons to, Leon Powe, guys who come in and affect the game on the defensive end. That’s going to be my mission on the next level.”

One NBA scout who recently saw Mbakwe workout agrees with the comparison. He also thinks that the Minnesota graduate could have an instant impact on the court in an NBA game. If that’s the case, Mbakwe will be effective in the pros much sooner than it took him to even reach the League’s doorstep.