That’s a word that might never have been associated with Byron Mullens before this season. Essentially, he’s been a 7-foot shooting guard and a nonfactor at the defensive end.
Something has changed. He’s roughly doubled his defensive rebounds, from 3.5 per game last season to six this season. His new coach, a stickler for defensive effort, keeps praising Mullens for reinventing himself.
“He rebounds with more grit and positioning,” Charlotte Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap said. “He’s gone from a guy who’d be labeled kind of soft to not soft at all.”
That sums up how Mullens has seemingly saved his NBA career. He hardly ever played his first two seasons at Oklahoma City. He showed flashes – mostly for his jump shot – last season as a Bobcat off the bench. This season he’s a starter and an effective one, even when his jump shot isn’t falling.
When Dunlap became coach in June, he gave Mullens an imperative: Your playing time will depend on your defense. Guard and you’ll play. Don’t guard and you’ll sit.
It registered. In summer league, when Dunlap dabbled in a half-court trap, Mullens was running into scorer’s tables, trying to knock down passes. Now he’s this team’s leading rebounder at 8.3 per game.
“Rebounding – it’s obvious,” Mullens said of his improvement. “Having more energy, staying more alert on the rebounds.”
Mullens has passed Tyrus Thomas and Bismack Biyombo in the big-man rotation. Each one seemingly has more ability at the defensive end, yet Mullens is the one getting it done right now. There was a time not so long ago when if he wasn’t making shots, there was no reason to play him.
Now it’s different.
“My team relies on me for defensive rebounds,” Mullens said. “Coach has a lot of confidence in me; I know he does.
“I don’t want him getting on me. It’s just been a big change this year and everyone can see it.”
Dunlap saw unrealized potential. Mullens has particularly good footwork for a 7-footer. That was obvious from how he played offensively. The trick was convincing him the same footwork could make him a better defender.
Mullens said playing power forward this season has helped. He was miscast as a center; he’s not strong enough to constantly guard in the post. But he moves well enough to guard for stretches along the perimeter the way forwards must.
He had a big night offensive against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, scoring 24 points and making six 3-pointers. The next step in his development is adjusting to when his jump shot isn’t falling.
“As he matures, he’ll learn what to do when his game is not going along the perimeter,” Dunlap said. “He can post up and make a little jump hook. He’s just realizing that.
“He’s got another level in him. He’s got the potential to be one of the better players in this league.”