CHICAGO – Former Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe arrived Thursday at the doorstep of his dreams — the annual combine for the NBA draft’s top prospects — after admittedly taking the long way around.
In a sweepstakes often won by the collegiate game’s one-and-done teenagers, Mbakwe is an old-timer who hopes to convince just one NBA executive that his off-court legal issues and season-ending knee injury two years ago are far behind him and a professional career awaits an undersized power forward who first enrolled in college six years ago this fall.
“It has definitely been an interesting journey,” he said after working out in front of NBA coaches, general managers and scouts in a gym not too far from Chicago’s United Center. “I couldn’t have planned the way it has gone if I wanted to. I’ve been through a lot, but I feel like I’m prepared at this point now.
“I definitely didn’t have the ideal route to get here as many people would have wanted. But I’m just fortunate and lucky to be here, and I’m going to make the best of the opportunity.”
At age 24, he is more than five years older than potential No. 1 overall pick Nerlens Noel, a 6-11 freshman center from Kentucky.
He also is, he says, older and wiser after a collegiate career in which he sat out a season while reaching a plea agreement on a felony assault charge for punching a woman in the face in Miami and played just seven games two seasons ago after tearing his anterior-cruciate knee ligament.
He calls himself a healthy man both in body and spirit, and said he is ready to tell teams so in probing interviews that are part of the draft process.
“There are some off-court issues,” said Mbakwe, who started his career at Marquette, ended it at Minnesota and violated a restraining order in 2011 and was arrested for drunken driving in 2012 in between. “I know that’s something I’m going to have to deal with for the next month and a half. But I’m prepared and I’m ready to answer those questions.”
He also says he is ready to answer questions about his age and his potential in a league in which scouts drool over youngsters’ “upside.”
“It could play a negative factor, but just maturity-wise, I know my role and I know what I can do to the help a team win,” Mbakwe said. “I’m one of the older guys here. I think my age can definitely be a positive.”
He points to Michigan State’s Draymond Green, a second-round draft pick last summer who played four college seasons and now has helped Golden State reach the NBA playoffs’ second round.
“Some people said, ‘Not a big upside,’ but he’s making a great contribution at Golden State,” Mbakwe said.
Listed at 6-8, 240 pounds, Mbakwe is small by NBA power-forward standards and too bulky to chase small forwards all over the court.
He clicks off a list of players — Denver’s Kenneth Faried, Utah’s Paul Millsap, Golden State’s Carl Landry, Brooklyn’s Reggie Evans, San Antonio’s DeJuan Blair — who succeed in the NBA despite being termed undersized.
“I don’t think it’s as big an issue as people make it,” he said. “So many guys who have had success at the next level aren’t your typical 6-9, 6-10 big guys, but they do things exceptionally well. Faried is one of those guys, but I love the way he plays: He plays with so much energy. He’s athletic. He’s one of the players I model myself around. He’s the same size, same build as me and I think I can do a lot of the same things he does.
“They say one thing that translates from college to pros is the ability to rebound, and I feel like that’s something I do pretty well.”
Once projected earlier in his college career as a first-round pick, Mbakwe now — like Green, Millsap, Landry and Blair before him — likely is a second-round pick who hopes to find his way in the NBA because of his willingness to do the little, underappreciated things that others too often avoid.
“Play with energy, rebound the ball pretty well, pretty good defender, block shots,” he said, delivering a scouting report on himself. “I’m not one of those guys who has to have the ball in his hands to have an impact on the game. I pride myself on my ability to rebound the ball and defend. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m here today. I’m just thankful I finally have a chance to live my dream.”