Malik Pope was among 24 players invited to training camp in June to select USA Basketball’s team for the under-19 world championships. The Laguna Creek High School graduate was measured: 6-foot-8 1/4 without shoes, 6-9 with.
It was the first hint the player previously listed at 6-10 with hair that reaches over 7 feet might not be larger than life.
Pope showed well on that first day of camp, according to people in the gym, then noticeably tailed off. Three days later, the 12-man roster was announced, and he wasn’t on it.
Six months later, the spiral toward earth continues. Pope’s most recent game for San Diego State came against No. 2 Kansas, the other finalist vying for the five-star forward out of high school. Pope played just 11 minutes; he missed all three shots, had two points, two rebounds and two turnovers and was a liability on both ends of the court.
His struggles have been as mysterious as they are inexplicable, and fairly or unfairly for a 19-year-old sophomore playing his first full season of basketball in four years, he has become emblematic of an Aztecs team that, like him, seems to have lost its way. It’s become a common refrain among people inside and outside the program: What’s wrong with Malik?
It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
Before the season, Pope said he expected to play his sophomore season and then head to, literally, greener pastures. Chad Ford, ESPN’s NBA draft guru, rated him as a potential lottery pick had he left after his freshman year and put him at No. 8 on his “Big Board” of 2016 prospects before this season. Other draft prognosticators weren’t quite as bullish, but most projected him as a solid first-round pick.
Now, none do.
In NBADraft.net’s most recent “Stock Watch,” which chronicles whose draft prospects are rising or falling, Pope was the first player listed in the more dubious category. The rationalization: “Pope has been hyped up by some prognosticators as a top-five pick. While he obviously has some tantalizing skills and attributes, it’s starting to become clear that he may always be more of a tease than a player.”
After two months of Pope shooting airballs and being beaten for rebounds, Ford dropped him to No. 46 in an updated list of top-100 prospects, and Draft Express and NBA Draft Room dropped him out of their two-round mock drafts.
His draft prospects, of course, are of less concern to the San Diego State coaches than his college career, which is …
“I’d have to say incomplete, too early to tell,” coach Steve Fisher said. “In many areas the casual fans don’t see, he’s made significant progress: how he competes, how he guards, how he thinks … But Malik hasn’t played very well. He knows that, I know that. You don’t have to look at the stats. He’s got to play better. He has to bow his back and say, ‘Life ain’t easy.’
“By getting out of the car that’s run out of gas and leaving the car, that’s not how you do it. You get up, dust yourself off and say, ‘Help me get better, help me get better, help me get better, help me get better.’ And that’s what we’re going to attempt to do.”
In many respects, the hype was unsubstantiated. Pope was big, long, mobile and agile. He could shoot from deep, handle the ball, run and jump, glide and float. But how all that translated to a 94-foot basketball court – with nine other players, referees, TV cameras, fans, scouts – remained an unknown after he broke his leg during his junior year at Laguna Creek and broke it again as a senior.
Maybe he would have been exposed had he played more in high school and on the AAU circuit, maybe been a three-star recruit who was “still developing” as a lanky sophomore. Or maybe he would have excelled and built an unshakable foundation of confidence for the inevitable rough patches in the college game.
Instead, he did neither. He wasn’t cleared for full practices until a month into his freshman season and he never started, averaging a pedestrian 5.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game.
But it was the flashes – oh, those flashes – that warped perception like a straw in a glass of water: the Colorado State game (22 points, seven rebounds, 9-of-11 shooting); the New Mexico game (16 points, 6-of-10 shooting); the back-to-back three-pointers in the NCAA Tournament against Jahlil Okafor and eventual champion Duke; the coast-to-coast dribbling runs; the alley-oop dunks; the blocked shots; the turnaround jumpers; the NBA-range threes.
“You look at snippets and say, ‘Boy, this is incredible,’ ” Fisher said. “When he burst on the scene at Colorado State, nobody knew his name. He wasn’t on Colorado State’s scout board then. Now he’s on everybody’s scout board: Don’t let him do this, make him do that. Now you have to say, ‘OK, how can I still do what I want to do?’ ”
Pope clearly hasn’t, or hasn’t yet, figured that out. His numbers this season as San Diego State enters Mountain West Conference play Wednesday against Wyoming: 20.2 minutes, 5.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 28 percent shooting, 21.1 percent on three-pointers. His minutes in his last four games have gone from 21 to 20 to 14 to 11.
Pope has spoken little publicly about his struggles, and on the occasion he has, he seems as baffled as everyone.
“I don’t feel pressure at all,” he said after a game against San Diego Christian on Nov. 18, his lone media availability this season. “It’s just me mentally trying to get myself going. … It’s just a personal thing on my behalf.”
LeRohn Dodson, his AAU coach and closest confidant, has not returned several phone messages.
Fisher remains hopeful.
“Timing is everything,” Fisher said recently. “You know, sometimes you have to circle the block more than once to get to where you want to go. We’ll keep working with him. He’s a wonderful, wonderful young guy. He wants to be a good player. He wants to do what we want him to do.
“I’ve never been impatient with anybody. I still think Malik is going to be a terrific player for us. Now, is it going be tomorrow, is it going to be next week, is it going to be next month, it is going to be next year? I don’t know.”