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Lobo rising: Tony Snell starting to grab attention of NBA teams

When Tony Snell announced he was leaving UNM early to enter the NBA draft, some scoffed. But he says he has used those comments as he prepares for life at the next level. (JOURNAL FILE)

When Tony Snell announced he was leaving UNM early to enter the NBA draft, some scoffed. But he says he has used those comments as he prepares for life at the next level. (JOURNAL FILE)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Those around him say Tony Snell has the NBA’s attention

Tony Snell heard what everyone was saying about him last month when he announced he was leaving the University of New Mexico to pursue his NBA career.

“See you in Europe.”

“Tony’s not ready for the NBA.”

NBA draft
June 27: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, 5 p.m.
46 underclassmen, 31 international players have declared.

“He’s making a huge mistake.”

Whether it was reader comments on newspaper websites, fan message boards, radio call-in shows or social media, Snell heard, or read, plenty of it.

Now a month after his decision to leave UNM, Snell is starting to see his draft stock rise entering this week’s invitation-only NBA draft combine in Chicago.

“It bothered me, but it also motivated me,” Snell told the Journal from Los Angeles, where he’s been working seven days a week preparing for the draft. “I know you can’t please everybody. When I made this decision, I did it with all the faith in Marvin (Lea, his former prep school coach who is now training him in preparation for the June 27 NBA draft). I knew what I was capable of and I knew what he was telling me. Now that there are others starting to take notice, it’s a little bit of a relief even though I never really doubted my ability.”

Snell, the 6-foot-7, 200-pound shooting guard has received some praise in the past week from various NBA draft prognosticators. The most optimistic came via the website NBADraft.net, which Friday released its latest mock draft projections with Snell going in the first round (No. 19 overall) to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“There is some buzz starting to generate around him and that’s exciting,” Lea said. “I think more and more people are starting to take notice about his ability to handle the ball and play the guard position.”

The NBA, as much or more than any other sport, drafts players based on potential. And with Snell, nobody has ever questioned his basketball potential.

Snell’s agent, former NBA player Mitch Butler, said numerous NBA scouts and general managers are intrigued with Snell as a shooting guard as opposed to small forward, the position many assumed he was coming out of UNM.

“He’s a 2/1 (shooting guard/point guard) all day,” Butler said. “This isn’t just the hype machine as his agent talking, Tony has elite potential in the NBA with his skill set. He’s 6-7, 6-8 shooting guard with a 7-foot wing span that has elite potential on defense, he has a soft, feathery jump shot and he can handle the basketball. I truly believe when these NBA teams see him, we might be talking about Tony sneaking into the lottery (top 14 picks). I know he’s that good.”

Players drafted in the first round are guaranteed a contract while those taken in the second round (starting with pick No. 31) aren’t guaranteed anything.

NBADraft.net’s “big board” ranks players without regard to team needs or projecting where they may get drafted. It has Snell at No. 27, up 17 spots from his previous ranking that came out when he first declared for the draft.

Butler likens Snell’s game to several current and former NBA players: an unblockable jump shot like Dirk Nowitzki that doesn’t change its release point or form whether he’s shooting from five feet or 25 feet, the defensive potential of a Latrell Sprewell and the smooth, overall offensive ability of a similarly lanky Tracy McGrady.

Some UNM fans would love to see him drafted as high as former Lobo Danny Granger, who went No. 17 overall to the Indiana Pacers in 2005. But it’s Granger’s current teammate Paul George, who left Fresno State after his sophomore season in 2010, who the Snell camp draws comparisons to. George shot up draft boards from relative obscurity to being a lottery pick after pre-draft workouts. George is now an NBA all-star and considered one of the games top rising stars.

After the Wednesday-Sunday draft combine, Snell is staying an extra day in Chicago to work out with the Bulls staff for a day. That, according to Butler, will likely be Snell’s only team workout before June.

Butler and Lea say they plan to unveil Snell during a June 1 pro day in Los Angeles with several other players in attendance.

“After that, we’ll have it narrowed down to about 12 teams or so that we think are the best fit for him and we’ll do workouts right up until the draft,” Butler said.

Butler and Lea welcome group workout settings with any of the other shooting guards in the draft.

“We’d love for Tony to be able to go up against any of the 2s in this draft and show what he can do,” Lea said. “He might be the best shooting guard in this draft. We know that and anybody that works him out is going to see that.”

Snell knows a lot is riding on this week’s combine for a player whose camp is pushing the notion that he was mislabeled as a small forward a month ago.

“I’m definitely nervous, but also excited at the same time,” Snell said. “The past month, all I’ve done is wake up, eat and work out. That’s it and it’s been really good. No distractions. Just basketball and I’m excited to show (what I can do).”

The draft combine, to Snell’s advantage, is tailor made to exploit his strengths through measureables. He’s the tallest shooting guard in this draft and his 7-foot wing span could have NBA GMs drooling over his defensive potential. In individual drills, he can get hot from beyond the arc when he’s in rhythm and has always excelled in practice settings. And he can do all that while doing very little to expose his major question mark: his tendency to defer to teammates.

“That’s what we’re working on every day with him still,” Butler said. “He has the ability to impose his will on a lot of players and he should be an elite type player because of his skill set. You can’t always let a coach or a system dictate who you are as a player. … When you have the ability like Tony does, you have to do it. You have to do it with every ounce of you. Whether it was Tony’s fault, or Steve’s fault, I don’t know. But (at UNM) that didn’t always happen and that’s what we’re trying now to convince him of.”

As both Butler and Lea pointed out, it can be argued that the 2012-13 Lobos may have been at their best all season in the Mountain West tournament semifinals and championship game. It was in those the two games that Snell showed, more than any time all season, an ability to take over key stretches of games regardless of what the opposition was doing to him.

“I know I can compete with anybody,” Snell said. “If you step in front of me, I know can compete with anybody that steps in front of me on the court. Now with all this working out and this week (at the combine) I just want to prove I can do this in the NBA.”

LOBOS LINKS: Roster | Schedule/Results | Geoff Grammer’s blog

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