Experienced Trio Ready to Contribute
June 18, 2013 | Updated 7:10 PM EDT
Tuesday’s Pacers pre-draft workouts featured just four players instead of the usual six, and most of the local attention was on Indiana University forward Christian Watford.
But the other three forwards who worked out for the team, Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, Miami’s Kenny Kadji, and Oklahoma’s Romero Osby, all are viable candidates for the team’s second round draft pick (53rd overall). Though each player brings a different skill set, one thing they have in common is experience.
All three players are at least 23 years old and spent at least five years in college. While teams tend to value younger players with greater “upside” early in the draft, there’s something to be said for getting a seasoned player who’s ready to contribute right away at the next level. Mbakwe, Kadji, and Osby each believe they fit that mold.
Mbakwe's NBA Moment Finally Nearing
On paper, Trevor Mbakwe has all the tools to be a contributor at the next level. He has a 7-foot-4 wingspan that makes scouts drool. Combine that with a relentless motor and you’ll see why he averaged a double-double his junior year at Minnesota. For many teams, those are credentials worthy of a first round pick.
But when draft experts look closer at Mbakwe’s profile, they start to pick it apart. Mbakwe’s heard all the raps against him.
He’s already 24 years old.
He’s had multiple knee injuries, including a torn ACL early into what was supposed to be his senior season.
Despite his long wingspan, he’s undersized to play in the post at 6-foot-8.
While a few years ago he seemed to be a lock for the first round, Mbawke’s spent the last month fighting to prove that he’s worthy of a second round pick. But that hasn’t shaken his confidence.
“I think I can be one of the better defender/rebounder/shotblockers in the NBA,” Mbakwe said Tuesday.
Mbakwe’s journey is one of the longer-winding paths a player has taken to the NBA. How long was he in college? He spent his freshman year at Marquette, where his head coach was Tom Crean. Crean’s coached Indiana for five whole seasons.
Mbakwe missed most of that year following knee surgery, then transferred to Miami Dade Community College. He had a successful year on the court and transferred to Minnesota, but legal problems stemming from his time at junior college led to him sitting out the 2009-10 season.
As a junior in the 2010-11 season, Mbakwe broke out in his first year on the court in the Big Ten. He averaged 13.9 points and 10.6 rebounds, collected 19 double-doubles and was named Second Team All-Big Ten.
He looked poised for a strong final year, but tore his ACL just seven games into his senior season. Mbakwe petitioned the NCAA and was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility. He averaged six full minutes less than he played as junior, but still put up a respectable 10 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game on 56.5 percent shooting.
Perhaps the highlight of his senior year came on Feb. 26, when he put up 21 points and 12 rebounds and outplayed likely lottery pick Cody Zeller in a 77-73 win over then-No. 1 Indiana.
Though most draft experts have Mbakwe going in the middle of the second round at the earliest, he’s still getting plenty of attention from NBA teams. Tuesday’s workout with the Pacers was his tenth this summer, and he has three more scheduled before the draft next Thursday.
What’s enabled him to land so many auditions?
“Just my ability to defend and rebound, that’s what I pride myself on,” Mbakwe said. "And I think that’s what’s gotten me here and made teams want to take a look at me."
Mbakwe said he hopes to follow in the mold of a player like Denver’s Kenneth Faried, who’s carved a niche as a high energy rebounder and shot blocker. He thinks his age might make him attractive to scouts because he can step in and play right away.
“I spent a long time in college,” Mbakwe said. “A lot of people will use that as a knock for me because of my potential or something like that, but I think that I’m one of those guys who’s ready to come in and help a team compete.”
As for his knees, Mbakwe’s working out without any braces or protective padding and said he feels close to his “old self.”
It remains to be seen what the Pacers brass thinks of Mbakwe, but he thinks his style – honed in interior battles in the Big Ten – fits right in with the “Blue Collar, Gold Swagger” identity.
“It’s a physical, grind-it-out type league, and I think that’s similar to the way the Pacers play,” Mbakwe said about the Big Ten. “It definitely prepared me, playing against bigger and stronger guys on a nightly basis.”
Kadji Possesses Coveted Range
Amazingly, Trevor Mbakwe wasn’t the oldest player at Tuesday’s workout. Miami forward Kenny Kadji, who turned 25 last month, is eight months older. Like Mbakwe, Kadji thinks his experience could help him turn out to be a pleasant surprise if he lands a spot in the NBA.
“I’m mature and I can come and help a team right away,” Kadji said. “I look at guys like Chandler Parsons, Danny Green and what he’s doing right now, guys who were second round picks, who were a little older and just came and surprised people in the league."
Though his game is markedly different than Mbakwe’s, Kadji is another player who got plenty of seasoning in college. Originally a native of Cameroon, he spent two seasons at Florida, where he received minimal playing time.
Kadji transferred to the University of Miami to play under coach Jim Larranaga, and flourished. As a junior, he averaged 11.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. Most impressively, the 6-foot-10 Kadji shot nearly 42 percent from 3-point range, demonstrating an ability to stretch the floor that he hadn’t previously displayed.
As a senior, Kadji was a major part of what was arguably Miami’s greatest season ever. He was a Second Team All-ACC selection, averaging 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds while helping the Hurricanes to the ACC regular season and tournament titles. He shot 134 3-pointers, double the number he attempted as a junior, hitting on 35 percent of his long-range shots.
Kadji’s now part of a large group of Miami players preparing for the NBA Draft, including point guard Shane Larkin, who’s a potential lottery pick, and shooting guard Durand Scott, who worked out for the Pacers on Monday. Kadji said the players are helping each other through the pre-draft process.
“We talk every day and I have a couple of my teammates down in Florida training with me,” Kadji said. “We’re still very close.”
Kadji’s ability to stretch the floor is his most coveted asset at the next level. In the latter stages of workouts open to the media, Kadji demonstrated comfort with the NBA’s longer 3-point line, draining most of his attempts. That skillset could allow Kadji to carve out a mold as a “stretch 4,” similar to Phoenix’s Channing Frye or San Antonio’s Matt Bonner.
While Kadji thinks he’s clearly demonstrated his ability to knock down the long range shot, he also said there's more to his game. He can also use his long frame to score on the block, rebound and block shots.
As for the area that needs the most improvement, Kadji had a quick answer.
“Just my physique, it’s a big league, grown men,” he said. “Just get in the weight room and take care of my body.”
Osby Learns from McKey, Wants to Show Off Intangibles
Most players view pre-draft workouts as an opportunity to prove what tangible skills they can bring to an NBA team. Romero Osby, a 23-year-old forward out of Oklahoma, thought it was just as important for him to show the Pacers brass on Tuesday what intangibles he offers to a team.
Osby said his goal was not only to demonstrate that he can handle the ball and shoot, but also that he was a hard worker and good communicator.
“You get on a court with a Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and those guys, you’re not going to be the best player all the time,” Osby said. “You’ve got to be able to be a teammate, and that’s something that I think I can do.”
That’s not to say that Osby can’t contribute on the court. After two years at Mississippi State and a year sitting out in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, Osby had a strong last two seasons at Oklahoma.
After averaging 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds as a junior, he flirted with entering the NBA Draft last spring. But Osby ultimately decided he wanted to come back in hopes of helping the Sooners return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
They accomplished that goal, and Osby reaped the benefits, bumping his scoring average up to 16 points per game and garnering selection to the All Big-12 first team.
“Everything I’ve always been about has been about the team,” Osby said about his decision to remain in Norman. “I feel like individual awards will come when the team is successful.”
Osby didn’t mind just having four players at Tuesday’s workout. Though it meant more individual drills and less breaks, Osby saw the smaller group as a bigger chance to make an impression.
“It’s just four guys that they’re watching instead of six, so it gives them a chance to really watch your game and see from afar and from close up,” Osby said.
With the increased attention at Tuesday’s workout, Osby hoped to show that he’s a capable ball handler and shooter who can play the small forward position. He played in the post in college and said he’s still comfortable playing power forward if asked, but thinks at 6-foot-8 the “3” is a more natural position for him at the next level.
And while his name may be unfamiliar to Pacers fans, Osby has a close relationship with one former Pacers standout. Osby is from Meridian, Miss., which also happens to be the hometown of Derrick McKey, who played for the Pacers from 1993-2001.
Osby has helped at McKey’s summer camp in Meridian, where he developed a relationship with the two-time NBA All-Defensive team selection. Osby said McKey has offered him plenty of advice and encouragement in the pre-draft process.
“He’s been someone who’s paved the way for me,” Osby said. “He’s an Indiana Pacer and that makes me want to be one too, I guess.”