After Trevor Mbakwe’s and Rodney Williams’ final game as members of the Gophers men’s basketball team, there was a lot to look back on.
They had helped Minnesota advance to the NCAA tournament — where the Gophers won a game for the first time since reaching the 1997 Final Four. After four years dotted with highlights, they left the program in a better place than it was when they came. And still, the next day their coach, Tubby Smith, was fired — proof that there was always an expectation of something better.
Now, the pair embark on the next basketball chapter in the same manner. Both Minnesota natives have invitations to play with the Philadelphia 76ers in the Orlando summer league that begins Sunday, meaning they have a chance to play in the NBA within their grasp.
Still, there is the sense that things could have gone better. Neither was taken in the NBA draft a week ago, missing out on the opportunity to become the first Gophers player picked since Kris Humphries nine years ago.
“At the end of the day, we all want to hear our name called — to stroke our ego or whatever it is you want to say,” Mbakwe said. “But me and Rodney … we come out with a team we have a good chance of making and going forward and stuff like that. We just wanted to hear our names called. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t the worst. We’re in a position where we can kind of pick where we go.”
Mbakwe and Williams have always been about possibility. The possibility of elevating the program to the next level; the possibility of being true Big Ten stars; the possibility of giving fans the chance to watch homegrown standouts rise to the pros.
Every step along the way, however, along with the accomplishments came a steadily burgeoning speculation, a bevy of what-ifs: What if they had developed differently? What if they had a different coach? What if Mbakwe hadn’t gotten hurt and gone through so many legal troubles? And what if Williams could better harness all his energy and athleticism?
Where the pair end up is still a story untold. Neither has signed a free-agent contract and so future plans are very much in flux. If unsigned after Orlando, Williams and Mbakwe could potentially play for another NBA team in the Las Vegas summer league.
Williams has not been contacted by any other teams, while Mbakwe has heard from “five or six” others, including Dallas, Toronto, Sacramento, Portland and the Timberwolves. Playing professionally overseas is also an option.
“It’s tough not knowing exactly what’s going on, but it’s all on me, so I’ve just got to go out there and make the most of it,” Williams said.
For now, Mbakwe and Williams have something on deck that no one expected: the chance to play five more games together. The two know as well as anyone that nothing, no matter the possibility, is a promise — and so they plan to relish the opportunity.
And perhaps it’s fitting. Dealing with tough roads and high expectations, together, is nothing new for them.
“It’s going to be a hard process for both of us, but it definitely helps that we can push one another,” Mbakwe said. “We know how to get each other started and what to expect from one another. I definitely think it’s a positive. We don’t know if we’re ever going to be playing together again in the future, so we’ve just got to make the most of it.”