Just before embarking on the next leg of his basketball journey, former Gopher Trevor Mbakwe showed up at High Performance Academy to play some ball.
It was a much different setting than those in which he’ll soon find himself. In less than a week, he’ll be playing with NBA hopefuls with the Philadelphia 76ers summer league squad in Orlando, scrutinized by scouts and tested by some of the best. But in the familiar Eagan gym, trimmed on each side with just a pair of aluminum bleachers full of friends and local basketball fans, and playing with high schoolers and current college players, the St. Paul native didn’t hold anything back.
Full of intensity and passion and beastly screams. Taking every loss in the post personally. He doesn’t know how to play at any other interval.
After the game (his team, the Sutherland Raiders beat HPA, 113-88 and Mbakwe had 11 points), I caught up with the power forward to talk about the draft, the disappointment and the road ahead. Our conversation:
Congrats on getting an invite to Orlando. I know this path wasn’t what you ideally wanted but there’s got to be some excitement surrounding this new opportunity too, yes?
I’m feeling good. Obviously, I was disappointed at first, but a couple days went by and now it’s on to the next chapter. I’ve got to move forward and build a future. I’ve got some pretty good opportunities now playing in front of everybody, playing games now and I feel good about my chances of at least making somebody’s training camp.
Personally, I was surprised when I didn’t hear your name called. I felt your chances were pretty good. Were you a little surprised as well?
I was really surprised because I had a good process, I was getting pretty good feedback from a lot of teams that I worked out for. I think there were just a lot of questions revolving around my knee. Some teams just said it was a red flag at the pre-draft camp and that it was something that they wanted to look more into. I knew it was going to happen, but now I’ve just got to go out and play the way I play. There are a lot of teams that have been interested, especially after the draft. A lot of teams are surprised I didn’t go. But I’ve just got to take advantage of this opportunity.
Is that the biggest hesitancy that you felt from teams – issues surrounding your knee?
That was the biggest question – the risk with taking me with my past knee injuries. At this point, I just need to show teams that my knee is fine and healthy and I could be durable.
Where did you watch the draft?
I watched it in Eden Prairie with my friends and family.
And what was your reaction as the second round ticked away and your name wasn’t called?
I talked to some of the people that were in the draft [conversation] too, Rodney, Colton and those guys and it was like awe and shock as the draft went on. It was a crazy draft but we knew how this draft class was – there was no real difference between the No. 10 pick and the No. 45 pick. We knew it was going to be interesting. It was kind of disappointing and it kept going on and my name wasn’t called. But like I said, now I’m over it, I’m just looking forward to another opportunity and I’m just looking forward to taking advantage of it.
Honestly, there’s not that much of a difference in the likelihood of those late second-round picks making a team, and undrafted free agents making a team. Is that some solace?
I just think at the end of the day, we all want to hear our name called to stoke our ego or whatever it is you want to say. But me and Rodney [Williams] are in the position that some guys that didn’t get drafted aren’t. Some teams, they don’t know if there’s roster space and guys might just go overseas. 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.
When did you hear from Philly?
The night of the draft, we knew a couple of teams were going to be coming down to Orlando [including Philly].
And what other teams reached out?
They called my agent. I talked to Toronto, Sacramento, Portland, Minnesota, Philly, Dallas, maybe a couple of others I can’t really remember.
Why did you pick Philly as the team to go to Orlando’s summer league with?
Not every team goes to Orlando for the summer league, so there was opportunity. They were one of my better workouts, they were pretty interested in me during the draft and I saw a good opportunity for myself and I knew Rodney [Williams, who also has an invite to Philly’s summer league] was going to be playing there too so it obviously helps to have a situation with a former teammate.
You and Rodney probably thought you’d never play five or so more games together and you may never get that chance again – is that something that you’re going to cherish?
Definitely. It’s going to be a hard process for both of us, but it definitely helps that we can push one another. 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.
If you don’t get a contract after Orlando, will you try to go to the Vegas summer league with some other team?
It depends. At this point, I’m not really sure, it depends on what my agent thinks, but there are other teams so it depends on how things go in Orlando and how things are going heading into Vegas.
And if after the summer you don’t have a contract, does your agent have some overseas things in the works? Would you embrace that?
He’s a pretty big agent, he has another agent that does a lot of overseas things and I guess we’ve got to play it by ear now. We haven’t really talked about that as much lately, so I’m pretty sure I could get into a good situation overseas if that ends up happening.
If things don’t go as planned – obviously, my first goal is to play in the NBA, but it’s not a bad second choice to go overseas. You get paid pretty well and you get a chance to travel the world. So getting paid to play basketball and travel – it can’t get any better than that.