Draft Preview: Bigs at 56

Mbawke, Howell might appeal to Pistons as potential Maxiell replacements

Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe
Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe
Andy Lyons/NBAE/Getty Images Sport (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: Seventeenth in a recurring series leading to Thursday’s draft. Coming next: the True Blue Pistons 2013 NBA mock draft.)

When evaluating players for a late second-round draft pick, it’s usually better to be a master of one skill than a jack of all trades. If Minnesota power forward Trevor Mbakwe is going to complete a circuitous path to the NBA, it will be because somebody sees in him a player who can come off the bench and stir things up with his ability to dominate the glass.

Mbakwe is cut from the Jason Maxiell cloth, an undersized power forward who compensates for his lack of height (6-foot-8, 236 pounds as measured at the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month) with exceptional reach (7-foot-4 wing span), a solid frame and tenacity.

He appeared on a clear path to the NBA in 2011-12, as a Minnesota junior, when a torn ACL interrupted a season in which he was averaging 14.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots a game. Because he’d transferred to a Florida junior college after a 2007-08 freshman season spent under Tom Crean at Marquette and then sat out another year while dealing with an assault charge that didn’t stick, Mbakwe needed to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA to play in 2012-13.

As the knee gradually came around, Mbakwe began to regain his junior season form for the Gophers. His minutes per game dropped from 29 to 25, in large part explaining the statistical downturn to 10.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks a game as a senior. But Mbakwe got his invitation to the combine and then, according to various reports, was a standout at a group workout hosted by the Minnesota Timberwolves the following week, where he flashed his dominant rebounding streak.

It will register with NBA personnel executives in predraft interviews that Mbakwe sees himself as just that sort of NBA role player.

“Play with energy, rebound the ball pretty well, pretty good defensively, block shots,” he said of his fit while at the draft combine. “I’m one of those guys who doesn’t have to have the ball in his hands to have an impact on the game. I pride himself on the ability to rebound the basketball and defend.”

Already 24, Mbakwe comes to the NBA older than his peers in the 2013 draft class. While teams are often looking for upside, long-term project picks when drafting in the 50s, it’s conceivable the Pistons – who quite possibly will be losing Maxiell to free agency this summer – might see a ready-to-play replacement for him in Mbakwe.

Another player with ties to Minnesota, Colton Iverson, also fits the profile of a more finished product with less growth potential. Iverson spent his first three college seasons with the Golden Gophers, then sat out a year and finished up at Colorado State, where his production skyrocketed. His scoring average nearly tripled over his junior year numbers at Minnesota (14.2 from 5.4) and his rebounding doubled (9.8 from 5.0).

The 7-footer, who weighed a solid 263 at Chicago, is a throwback big man. His athletic testing numbers were predictably pedestrian at the combine, where his 30-inch vertical leap was better than only four others: Rudy Gobert, Erik Murphy, Kelly Olynyk and Jeff Withey. But he can score with his back to the basket, using his heft to his advantage combined with solid fundamentals, and he’s the sort of rugged big man who teams wave in off the bench to absorb fouls.

Richard Howell of North Carolina State, much like Mbakwe, is another undersized power forward who knows exactly what he is. He was a bright spot in a North Carolina State season that fell far short of expectations, averaging 12.7 points and 10.9 rebounds a game to cap a four-year career.

Scouts are more apt to put faith in college rebounding numbers than perhaps any other stat, yet there might be some concern how Howell will fare at 6-foot-7½ (though a solid 250 pounds) in the NBA against much bigger opponents. Surrounded by many more talented teammates, including 2013 draft prospects C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown and some highly touted freshman, Howell was the Wolfpack’s most consistent player.

Yet another four-year college power forward prospect, Brandon Davies was a consistent producer at Brigham Young, putting up 17.7 points and 8.0 rebounds as a senior and shooting above 50 percent all four seasons. More skilled but less physical than Mbakwe or Howell, Davis’ appeal probably will come in the creative ways he finds to score at the rim and around the paint.

If teams are looking for a bit more upside, Southern Cal’s Dewayne Dedmon could prove attractive to the right team picking in the bottom half of the second round. At 6-foot-11½ with a 7-foot-4 wing span, scouts see plenty of unfulfilled promise in Dedmon. He played much of his college career under longtime NBA head and assistant coach Kevin O’Neill, who raved about Dedmon’s ability when he arrived after one season of junior college basketball but never found the key to unleashing it.

He averaged 6.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in just 22 minutes a game as a junior before deciding to leave for the NBA. A relative newcomer to basketball, Dedmon isn’t really a face-up shooter and doesn’t have a post repertoire, though he said in Chicago there was simply little opportunity to display those skills at Southern Cal.

“Nobody’s really seen what I can do, so I definitely have to show everybody what I can do and show them how well I can do it,” he said. “I didn’t shoot the ball all that much in college. Since I finished college up until this point, my shooting has definitely improved even more.”

Teams might draft him on the potential they see for growth in that and other areas, but to make a roster he’ll have to show he can play defense and create extra possessions by being active on the offensive glass.

“I know I have to be the guy that has to work,” he said. “I bring energy, hustle. I’m not going to give up on any play. I have nice shooting ability, rebounding, defense.”

Robert Covington played at under-the-radar Tennessee State, yet became known well enough to NBA scouts by his sophomore season there, so he isn’t nearly the unknown to teams as he is to the public. He missed 10 games over December and January while recovering from a meniscus tear, yet nearly matched his junior numbers, averaging 17.0 points and 8.0 rebounds.

Covington, who measured 6-foot-7½ and 209 at the combine, might not project as a pure stretch four, but he did shoot from 38 to 46 percent from the 3-point line in each of his four college seasons. He’ll need to bulk up to guard power forwards, which explains why he’s in this range and not for the Pistons’ pick at 37.

Because the Pistons might logically be interested in taking a draft-and-stash international player with this pick after keeping five rookies on the 2012-13 roster, keep an eye on 6-foot-10 Augusto Cesar Lima, 6-foot-11 Marko Todorovic or 6-foot-10 Bojan Dubljevic.

Lima, 21, is a native Brazilian who has played professionally in Spain since he was 15. Blessed with size and athleticism, Lima is still raw offensively and played through a limiting back injury last season. He showed well at the Eurocamp earlier this month, though, and worked out for the Pistons last week.

The latter two are both 21 and natives of Montenegro who also played in the tough Spanish ACB league. Dubljevic is more NBA ready. Said to be more skilled than athletic, he might have trouble scoring inside in the NBA than he’s shown the ability to do in Spain. Todorovic would probably need more time in Europe, not an issue for any team drafting him in the 50s.