Byron Mullens: A Farewell to Upside with No Motor


Byron Mullens has been discussed as a potential NBA prospect for about seven years now. He was Rivals’ number one overall prospect in the class of 2008, a class that included Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe, and Kemba Walker in the top 14. Going by the name of B.J. back then, he had been committed to Ohio State since the time he was 14 years old.

In March of 2008, I applied and was accepted to Ohio State myself, and so began my journey to learn more about this seven-foot behemoth that would potentially be attending classes with me.

I found myself watching as much video as I could, and quickly becoming infatuated with the idea of a 7’1, 265 pound 18-year-old that could do a between-the-legs dunk.  He had quick post spin moves that few other players could match — at least at that level — and looked to dunk everything in sight. Looking back at the same tapes now, it’s hard not to see similarities in the way that Mullens and Jan Vesely attacked the rim and did little else well. Immediately, I arrived at the conclusion that he would be the next great in the string of Ohio State freshmen centers that had previously included Greg Oden and Kosta Koufos, and would later go on to include Jared Sullinger.

That September, I arrived on campus. I would see him walk around south campus every week, and it was the first time I had seen someone so tall in my life. The fabric used to make the oversized hoodies he wore probably could have clothed 10 five-year-olds. That only sold me more on his ability.

Then I watched him play for the first time. I would yell from the stands as Thad Matta would start undersized Dallas Lauderdale over him. Mullens would come in, and efficiently score points over smaller opposition while keeping up in transition with guys like Evan Turner and Jeremie Simmons. It was fun to watch, and I awaited the day where coach Matta would move him into the starting lineup.

Except that day never really came (until their final game of the season). Mullens was a revolving door defensively and struggled to protect the paint. Those screams of joy about Mullens quickly turned to the ravings of a crazed lunatic in front of a television as the Buckeyes struggled to a 10-8 conference record and an eight seed in the NCAA tournament. Worse yet, Mullens had games where it looked like he was totally disengaged from what was happening around him. His best games were often either in blowout wins or losses, when the action around him had slowed down.

The warning signs were clearly there, but I ignored them and figured that an NBA coach could figure out how to coax the immense athleticism that Mullens possesses out of him. Maybe Matta’s defense-heavy scheme had limited the athletic Mullens? Maybe the Buckeyes just didn’t have a guard that could get him the ball where he needed it? Maybe that’s the reason he floats in the midrange and on the perimeter? He has a bunch of strong tall, rebounding guards, maybe that’s why he doesn’t corral as many boards as a seven-footer should? Retrospectively, I was just making excuses for what came apparent in the future.

So Mullens got drafted by Oklahoma City 24th overall, and we know how it went from there. He was moved from there within two years, traded to Charlotte for a second round pick. In Charlotte, he became the fourth player since 1970 to be over seven feet tall and shoot under 40 percent on 500 shot attempts. That season, he also became the first player 6’11 or taller to shoot 200 threes and under 32 percent. The floating got worse than it ever had been before, and he stayed confidently aloof of his limitations. 

That aloofness was never more apparent than this offseason. After having moved onto the Clippers and then to the 76ers in a midseason trade, Mullens had a player option this season to guarantee himself  $1.06 million and a spot in the NBA. He declined that option to become a free agent. This seemed like a high-risk move at the time, but one that, thinking back on it, was directly in line with the rest of the decisions that Mullens had made throughout his development.

Basically, Mullens decided that he wanted to do things his way. His middling perimeter skills tempted him too greatly. Sure, the occasional flash of brilliance would come, but all too often it was followed by six different versions of incompetence. Instead of using his mobility to become a pick-and-roll nightmare for opposing centers, he took his four years of NBA development and became a floating spot-up shooter that couldn’t shoot efficiently.

Maybe if he would have committed to working on his footwork in the post and in the pick-and-roll, we’d be talking about someone that teams would be fighting over. But he seemed to have no interest in that. In fact, it seems that he has very little interest in basketball at all, given comments made this March. And honestly, that makes a whole lot of sense.

So as you can see, my attachment to Mullens was misguided from the start. I wanted to see him succeed and for him to work on his game and for him to get better. But I apparently wanted it more than he did.

So farewell to you, BJ Mullens. I hope you enjoy China. You had all of the upside in the world, but none of the necessary motor or direction to succeed.