I’m not sure it’s possible to actually impress people at summer league, when you really think about it. But if you had to thumb one Thunder player for standing out, I guess it would’ve been Byron Mullens.
James Harden looked OK, but went 1-17 from 3 and didn’t really look “improved”. He just looked more comfortable and aggressive, which are definitely good things. Eric Maynor was great, but we already know that he can be a steady point guard. No flash, just a quality line. D.J. White was himself, Cole Aldrich didn’t play and Serge Ibaka only played a game.
So almost by the process of elimination, Mullens was a guy that caught some attention, if not just because he just looked better.
Last season, people wrote him off as a bust while Roddy Beaubois blew people away in Dallas. Sam Presti had to take a little guff because most thought he blew it. But as is the case so often in the NBA, no one was willing to be patient. Mullens was and still is young (just 21) and was always considered nothing more than a project. Heck, he still is.
But the Thunder wanted to bring him along. Last summer, I wrote that Mullens was a perfect example of how we’re seeing the traditional big man phase out of basketball. You have a 7’1 guy that calls himself a power forward and prefers to run the floor and shoot jumpers. He doesn’t want to play with his back-to-the-basket, doesn’t want to post and doesn’t want to rebound in the paint.
Fast-forward to last week. (Or rewind to last week. I’m confused.) Mullens was a whole new player. He talked a lot about how hard he was working this summer. How he was in the gym every morning working on his footwork, how he was getting stronger. And probably like me, you thought, “Yeah, yeah, they all say that.” But there actually was some improvement. He was aggressive in the paint. He played with his back to the basket. He posted. His footwork was improved. He ran the floor. He rebounded (a little). All in all, he just looked better.
Now of course, the disclaimer as always: summer league. It was against players like Josh McRoberts not Josh Smith. But the point is, Mullens showed a few flashes of what could be. He showed that maybe he’s not a completely wasted pick.
Which brings us to our current state. Where does he fit in? During all this talk leading up to the draft the consensus was, OKC needs a big man. Surely Mullens heard that and said, “Hey guys, I’m standing right here you know.” Maybe that’s why he went to work so hard. Nevertheless, OKC took its big man, not an offensively minded one however, and is ready to insert Cole Aldrich into the rotation post haste. The Thunder’s already got a bit of a logjam inside with Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, D.J. White and now Aldrich. Where does Mullens ever find time on the court?
Well, it’s looking unlikely that Krstic is in the long term plans, especially if Mullens progresses. There’s no reason Mullens shouldn’t be able to step right into Krstic’s role and shoot the pick and pop jumper and play a little defense inside. And honestly, with Mullens’ talent, he should be able to do it much better. If anything, Mullens might be Nenad 2.0. It’s up to you to decide whether or not that’s a good thing.
But currently, there’s no room. Aldrich wasn’t drafted to play offense. He’s there to rebound, play defense, set screens and throw outlet passes. However, Aldrich is going to play in front of Mullens. Aldrich fills the immediate need. But Aldrich doesn’t play offense (at this point). That appears to be Mullens’ gift. You can see a pretty good twin tower setting of Mullens and Aldrich playing together in the future, right? A little offense here, and a little defense there. Should work well. But that’s a ways off.
Right now, it’s probably back to the D-League for Mullens. He has to get better anyway. He’s not ready to play meaningful minutes for a 50-win, playoff team. The logjam will start to ease up as players begin to round their way out. D.J. White isn’t likely to find a long term home here (though I really like him). Collison is up for a new contract next summer and who knows if he’s here come November 2011. Jeff Green may not be a long term starting power forward. Serge Ibaka is here for the long haul, but is he a starter? A four? A five?
So Mullens is part of the future. Drafting Aldrich doesn’t necessarily affect OKC’s long term plan with Mullens. Immediately, yes. Mullens might have had some value this season had the Thunder not taken Aldrich.
But Mullens is still that seven-foot project. And if we keep talking crap about his game, hopefully he’ll keep improving and become that valuable back-to-the-basket offensive piece we need.