Trevor Mbakwe appears poised to finally achieve his dream after six years of challenges in college.
The former Gophers forward is expected to be selected in the second round of the NBA draft June 27, according to numerous mock draft websites.
His rebounding ability, strength and energy could be his ticket to the professional level.
“The one thing that always usually translates the best [to the NBA] is rebounding,” said Mbakwe, who led the Big Ten in rebounding last season. “I’ve shown that I’m one of the better rebounders in the draft class.”
Though he’s a proven rebounder, the 6-foot-8-inch forward is undersized for an NBA big man.
Mbakwe usually had a size advantage in college, but when he didn’t, he often gained an advantage with his strength. He dominated projected top-15 pick and 7-foot center Cody Zeller in February, finishing with 21 points and 12 rebounds in the Gophers’ upset victory against top-ranked Indiana.
But most NBA big men are stronger than Zeller, and Mbakwe won’t be able to push them around.
“At the next level, I’m not going to be stronger or be able to jump higher than a lot of guys I’m playing against,” Mbakwe said.
Mbakwe may find a role as a high-energy player. His relentless effort was evident during his three years playing for the Gophers.
“He makes up for [his size] with hustle,” said Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. “He’s a competitor.”
Former Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said Mbakwe has a “real motor” and an excellent work ethic.
Mbakwe needs to improve his passing at the next level, Smith said, and he’ll be asked to get others open with his passing and screening, rather than being a primary scoring option.
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders said NBA coaches won’t want Mbakwe shooting the ball, though he did say Mbakwe improved that part of his game.
“Nothing that you do average is going to make you that much better in the NBA,” Saunders said. “His strength is not his ability to shoot.”
Smith said Mbakwe wants to be coached and accepts it in both positive and negative forms.
“He’ll do whatever’s necessary,” Smith said. “That’s what I like about him. He’s a guy that will battle.”
Mbakwe’s path to the NBA draft has been unusually long. He’s experienced plenty of difficulties along the way, including two transfers and arrests for felony assault, violating a restraining order and a DWI. He pled no contest and was convicted of the assault, and he pled guilty to the restraining order violation and DWI.
He also tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in November 2011, causing him to miss the rest of the Gophers’ season and receive a medical redshirt for a sixth year in 2012-13.
Though he didn’t miss a game last season, Mbakwe said his knee is the first issue NBA teams ask him about in the draft process.
“I just have to reassure them that my knee is fine,” he said. “I’ve definitely done more to show that my athleticism was there and my explosion is back.”
Mbakwe said reaching the NBA would mean a lot after all he’s been through.
“I think he’s proven it takes a lot to keep him down,” McHale said. “He’s a tough kid.”
Both McHale and Saunders said Mbakwe will get an opportunity in the NBA.
Mbakwe said he would embrace a chance to play anywhere in the league. He and fellow former Gophers teammate Rodney Williams are both potential selections.
“We all play the game hoping to reach our dreams to play in the NBA,” Mbakwe said. “It’s going to be an awesome feeling just to hopefully hear my name called or just [to] get a chance to try out for a training camp with a team.”