ORLANDO, Fla. — A prominent Eastern Conference coach was casually chatting with two scouts from rival teams at this week's AirTran Airways Pro Summer League. Somehow, the free-flowing, candid conversation found a focus and settled on the subject of player development.
The coach made an example of Thunder center Byron Mullens.
"Look at how much better he's gotten after just one year," started the chatty coach. "He couldn't do (expletive) last year. But with a guy like him, you can see how much one year makes a difference."
If you saw Mullens perform in Orlando this week, you had no choice but to come away impressed. The 7-foot-1 project out of Ohio State turned heads all week before sitting out Friday's finale against Indiana. Mullens finished second on the team in scoring with a 16-point average and led the team in rebounding at 6.3 per contest.
And suddenly, Mullens looks ready to become an NBA player.
"Last year when I played here, I think I had one good game," Mullens recalled. "But this whole week has been good to me."
Good enough that the whispers of "We could have had Roddy Beaubois" from Thunder fans might finally cease this season.
Mullens displayed all-around improvement throughout his four-game stint. He committed himself to the gym and the weight room since the end of the season, and it showed from the start. Mullens arrived in Orlando with 15 more pounds of muscle and couldn't wait to throw around his weight.
Instead of camping out on the perimeter and settling for mid-range jump shots, Mullens flaunted his footwork in the post. He played with his back to the basket and finished several plays with jump hooks or dunks. When he didn't finish, he got fouled and earned a trip to the free throw line. Mullens attempted 33 free throws, second most behind James Harden.
"I know what I needed to improve on, and I did it this week," Mullens said. "I'm just trusting my coaches. I was talking to (assistant coach Mark Bryant) the other day on the bench, and he was like, 'See what listening to me can do?'"
Wonders, it turns out.
Bryant and the rest of the staff have demanded that Mullens dart to the basket out of pick-and-rolls rather than flash out for jumpers. Something so simple has led to a different level of production for Mullens.
"I didn't know it could be that easy for me," Mullens said. "Rim-running and rolling to the basket is much easier than popping and trying to make your own shot."
The Thunder traded up one spot with Dallas on draft night to acquire Mullens. For Dallas to select Mullens for the Thunder at No. 24, Oklahoma City had to give the Mavs the 25th pick and a future second-round selection. Dallas instructed the Thunder to select Beaubois.
While Beaubois blossomed into a blur of a guard who averaged 7.1 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists as a spot starter for the Mavs last season, Mullens made his living in the NBA D-League.
But the big man made the most of his time.
Little did fans know, Mullens requested to be assigned to Tulsa so he could compete in games rather than toil on the bench in a suit with in Oklahoma City. He averaged 15 points and 7.5 rebounds in 27 games, gaining valuable playing time with a 31.5-minute average.
Now, Mullens is ready to take the next step. A spot in the rotation is in his sights.
"I want to come into training camp and play real hard and see if I can get a role on the team," Mullens said.