OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—B.J. Mullens(notes) has seen the worst and made the best of it.
While he was growing up, his family bounced around to a dozen different homes with stops at a homeless shelter in between. He got shuttled around from one school to the next. His brother got in trouble for dealing drugs.
Then basketball helped change everything.
As he kept growing, opportunities started opening up for Mullens. He was accepted to a prep school on scholarship and then committed to Ohio State when he was in the ninth grade and already 6 feet 8.
And now, he’s a first-round draft pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I know there’s been some other players that have gone through some worse— and some of probably the same—situations I’ve been through, but I want to put it out for other kids to see that. It was rough, but hey, I’m here now,” Mullens said. “Without that situation being in my life, who knows if I would have made it this far?”
Mullens, a 7-footer, never really had an idol during his childhood days in Columbus, Ohio. He looked up to Michael Redd, another local kid who went through Ohio State on his road to becoming an NBA All-Star. But Redd only provided a glimmer of hope that someone from his area could reach basketball’s highest level.
He leaned on himself and the help of friends such as Remon Nelson—whose family took him in for a time—to keep his focus on making a better life.
“I had everything around me that was bad, so if I wanted to do something bad, it was right there in front of my face,” Mullens said. “It would have been easy, but I really didn’t want that to happen for my life and my future.”
Mullens spent only one season in college before declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft. And if not for the 2006 rule that forces players to go to college—or somewhere else, like Europe,—for a year after high school, he would have entered last spring.
He was an even hotter commodity then, before he was relegated to reserve duty for the Buckeyes. He averaged 8.8 points and 4.6 rebounds while setting a record for Ohio State freshmen by shooting 64 percent from the field.
“People didn’t get to see me a lot last year because of playing time and my role on the team,” Mullens said. “There’s definitely things I want to do to show people that I can do that I know I can do. When the time comes, people are going to see it.”
Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said scouts spent several days watching Mullens practice at Ohio State and envisioned a promising future for him. The Thunder traded up from the 25th to 24th pick to get Mullens, also spending a future second-round pick in the process.
“Sometimes, big guys take a little bit longer. We understand that,” Presti said. “But the thing that really stuck out to us is we feel like he’s got a little edge, a little chip on his shoulder. He really wants to invest and get better.
“It’s hard to find guys that size and that athletic, especially in the area of the draft where we were able to get him,” he said.
The Thunder also researched Mullens’ past and saw that it had created a 20-year-old man who had the kind of characteristics they were seeking as they try to build a young team around stars Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook.
“One of the things that really impressed us about B.J. was his perseverance and the fact that he’s continued to have focus and follow his dream. He’s put himself in position through some tough times, and I think that speaks to the kind of kid that he is,” Presti said.
Mullens realizes that he needs to keep improving, primarily by getting stronger, perfecting his low-post moves and smoothing out his defensive play.
But at this point, Mullens has made it to an important milestone. He stands to make just over $1.9 million in the next two years under the NBA’s rookie salary scale, enough to change his life and that of his family in the future.
His real hope, though, is that he can be an inspiration for others in his family—and kids everywhere growing up in tough circumstances.
“You’ve got somebody in your family that made it through hard times. This can show them that they can also make it if they’re going through something bad in their life,” Mullens said. “They’ve got a hero.”