Today we look at the third young big man that the Thunder began this departed season with - Byron Mullens. He, like D.J. White and Cole Aldrich, spent most of his time on the sidelines as it was difficult to crack into the rotation, so our sample set is limited. His challenge, like Aldrich, will be to see if he can grow into a competent back-up center behind Kendrick Perkins.
Mullens was a basketball prodigy coming up through the high school ranks. He accepted a scholarship to play with the Ohio State Buckeyes when he was heading into the 9th grade and signed his letter of intent in 2007. Mullens had modest success while at OSU, scoring only 8.8 points and grabbing 4.7 rebounds in his lone season. After his freshman year at OSU, Mullens declared himself eligible for the NBA draft in 2009. Mullens was selected at the 24th pick by the Dallas Mavericks, and immediately traded to the Thunder for the aptly named French player, Rodrigue Beaubois.
Since joining the Thunder, Mullens has appeared sporadically in their regular season games, booking appearances in 13 games in each of his two seasons.
Mullens is a 7 footer with good athletic ability and solid shooting range. While Aldrich is a defense-first center, Mullens has shown more signs on the offensive end of the court. Heading into this season, the Thunder featured Nenad Krstic as the starting center and hoped that either Mullens or Aldrich would round into form and provide valuable back-up minutes. In the Thunder's perimeter-oriented offense, Mullens' talent set was likely expected to blend well.
Regular Season Grade: D
In my ever-so-small sample set of game moments to evaluate Mullens, two things surface:
1) His upside seems to be that of a Rik Smits type player. He's seven feet tall with good mobility and a soft shooting touch. Despite being so tall and being heavier than Aldrich, Mullens is quick off the floor and has some ability to drive the ball to the rim.
2) Mullens seems to really have hurt his overall basketball development by trying to advance his pro career too quickly. From the time he accepted a scholarship when he was in junior high to leaving Ohio State early despite showing very little in terms of prodigious talent, Mullens has seemed too keen on thinking he is ready to deal with the Kevin Garnett's of the world.
I found this highlight clip of Mullens, and it does show some of that promise in his offensive skills:
You can see that there is some real offensive dexterity and talent present, a quick release, and good touch around the rim. I think what has probably hindered Mullens though is he has spent his entire career being taller than everyone else, and as such has yet to really learn how to battle against guys who are taller and stronger.
It would be great if the Thunder can hold onto Mullens, perhaps stick him in Europe for a couple seasons, and let him grow up a bit and fill out his frame. I see some real talent in Mullens' offense, but until he learns to go to work on the court, I doubt that the NBA is going to see much of it showcased. On top of that, according to Darnell Mayberry, Mullens has fallen behind Aldrich on the race for that extra big man role, and the team still seems intent on re-signing Nazr Mohammed for the back-up center position.
In the alternative, if the Thunder have one hole in their second unit, it is the lack of an adequate back-up for Kevin Durant. Obviously there is going to be a huge drop-off between Durant and anyone who plays behind him, but morphing Mullens into a seven foot small forward? That concept is kind of interesting. You can see in that video clip that Mullens is comfortable shooting the ball out to about 18 feet, faces up well, and has good body control. If he does not pan out as a solid back-up center, I would be curious to see if Mullens is better suited for the 3-spot.
I also personally hope Mullens opts for a better overall "look," as he is at best a ringer for the Dothraki chieftain, Khal Drogo.