Malik Pope was supposed to be the next big thing. ESPN’s Chad Ford, the biggest name in NBA draft reporting at the time, pegged him as a potential top-10 pick before his sophomore season at San Diego State in 2015-16. Pope was supposed to be the next Kawhi Leonard, the next long and athletic SDSU wing who would go from relatively unheralded recruit to an NBA star. Instead, he struggled with injuries and inconsistency, staying in school for four seasons and falling off the map. Pope wasn’t invited to the NBA draft combine, and he’s buried deep within ESPN’s list of the top 100 available prospects in this year’s draft at no. 81. He is yesterday’s news at the ripe old age of 21.
“[Pope is] a classic example of someone getting buzz too early and it completely messing up his developmental arc and personal mental timeline to the league,” said Elan Vinokurov, the president of EV Hoops, a scouting service used by multiple NBA teams.
It was easy to see where the hype came from. He looked like a star. “San Diego State played Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament in his freshman season [in 2014-15] when they had Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, [and] Tyus Jones and went on to win the national title,” said Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune, who has been the team’s beat writer since 2010. “Pope hit two pick-and-pop 3s against Okafor in the second half, and everybody sat up and took notice.”
At 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Pope had the size to defend Okafor and the skill to take advantage of the future top-three pick’s inability to extend out on the perimeter. The problem was that those two 3s were the only points he scored in the entire game. Pope didn’t have a big role as a freshman on a senior-laden team, averaging only 14.8 minutes per game. The excitement came from what he showed in flashes. His best performance came in a January road game at Colorado State, a Mountain West power which finished the season with a 27-7 record, when he scored 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting in 28 minutes.
In the small world of NBA draft coverage, that was enough to get Pope noticed. There’s always a competition to be first on a player. You didn’t have to be an expert to call Kevin Durant a future star: He averaged 25.8 points a game as a freshman at Texas and won the Naismith Award. Projecting stardom for someone like Pope, who averaged 5.1 points per game, required a more discerning eye. It’s tough to find a balance, especially for a writer with a larger platform, because what ends up getting written can impact the lives of impressionable teenagers.
“Early in the season you have to go with your gut because opinions aren’t really formed,” said Jonathan Givony, who took over for Ford as the head of ESPN’s NBA draft coverage in 2017. “But if NBA teams aren’t feeling a player as much, you have to change what you write. You can’t be stubborn. We do have a responsibility because eyes are on us.” I reached out to Ford, who has not written online anywhere since leaving ESPN, but he didn’t respond to my email.
Draft writers like Ford and Givony, as well as Kevin O’Connor and me at The Ringer, rely heavily on anonymous sources in NBA front offices. The difference is that our opinions live forever online, while the people we talk to can safely distance themselves from whatever they said after the fact. No scout or executive is publicly accountable for anything they believe about a draft prospect unless their team ends up taking the guy. None of the professional talent evaluators I spoke with while reporting this story admitted to being particularly high on Pope, yet here is what an anonymous NBA GM told Ford halfway through Pope’s freshman season:
“If he were in the draft, I’m not sure you could pass on him once you move out of the lottery. He’s not the same player, but he’s got [Giannis] Antetokounmpo–type raw talent. On sheer raw capability, he’s one of the five or six most talented guys in the draft. I guess the question is, given all the injuries and setbacks, how high are you willing to gamble on him?”
As Ford wrote in that article, Bruno Caboclo wound up going no. 20 overall in the 2014 draft despite having virtually no résumé to speak of. By that logic, why not take a swing on a guy with Pope’s theoretical upside? Ford never called Pope the next Durant in any of his articles, but that comparison was out there. Pope himself says he tries to base his game off of Durant: “KD is my favorite player. I definitely compare myself to him,” he told me over the phone two weeks ago. “The height. The body type. The shooting ability.”
Chad Ford has Malik Pope being selected in the lottery in his latest mock draft. pic.twitter.com/MseSf7bHpP— Sports-Waves (@SportsWaves) March 11, 2015
Under Hall of Fame coach Steve Fisher, San Diego State had gone from laughing stock to powerhouse by playing stifling defense and emphasizing length and athleticism at every position. Before Kawhi, though, most of their players weren’t particularly skilled. Pope was supposed to be the next step in the evolution of the program, a player with a similar combination of skill and athleticism as Kawhi, except on a near-7-foot frame.
He is an incredible prospect on paper, but it never translated to the court. While his stats gradually improved over his college career, the leap many expected never happened:
Malik Pope’s Per-Game Improvements By Year
Pope wasn’t an all-conference selection until his senior season, when he made the second team. The Mountain West is one of the strongest mid-major conferences in the country, but it still produced only one NBA player in the past two seasons (Patrick McCaw of UNLV) and has only one prospect (Chandler Hutchison of Boise State) who is a lock to be drafted this season. McCaw and Hutchison both project as role players at the next level, and they were miles ahead of Pope in college in terms of production. McCaw was second-team All–Mountain West as a sophomore before going pro, while Hutchinson was first-team as a junior and senior.
“Malik’s issue since he has been 16 years old has been his health,” Fisher, who recruited Pope and coached him for three seasons before retiring, told me. “He broke his leg midway through his junior year of high school, and then re-broke it. He didn’t play his last year and a half of high school. And he’s had multiple injuries [in college] that have impacted his ability to practice and get on the game floor. This year was the healthiest year of his career, and it was by far his most productive.”
The injuries may be why Pope, a Sacramento native, wound up at San Diego State in the first place. Fisher turned the Aztecs into one of the best basketball programs on the West Coast, but they are still behind Pac-12 schools like UCLA and Arizona in the recruiting pecking order. Evan Burns, the only McDonald’s All American to play for Fisher in 18 seasons in San Diego, only came to SDSU in 2002 because he was unable to qualify academically at UCLA. Even Kawhi, the only one of Fisher’s Aztec players to stick in the NBA, was a fringe top-50 recruit.
Pope fit that mold: He was the no. 48 overall player in the Class of 2014, per RSCI, which compiles the rankings of all the major recruiting services. “Pope barely played [in AAU]. He was hurt a lot. And he was inconsistent when he was healthy,” said Scott Phillips, a college basketball writer for NBC Sports who has covered the national recruiting circuit for more than a decade.
There are two ways to look at Pope’s NCAA career. He’s perceived by most people who follow the NBA draft, as well as many fans in San Diego, as a guy who never lived up to expectations. However, if you take into account how he was perceived coming out of high school, he beat the odds just to make it this far.
“He had about the college career you would expect for a player with his recruiting profile,” one NBA executive told me. “It’s a pretty big upset for any player not in the top 30 of RSCI to make it to the NBA.”
The numbers from Pope’s high school class of 2014, most of whom are now out of college, bear that out. Seventeen of the top 20 were drafted over the past three years. Only two American-born players ranked between 40-100 (Domantas Sabonis of Gonzaga, and Chinanu Onuaku of Louisville) was drafted in that time, with two more (Mikal Bridges of Villanova, Devonte Graham of Kansas) expected to be taken this season. Pope, who has worked out with multiple NBA teams over the past few weeks, may not be drafted, but he is a lock to be on a summer league team, and he has a good chance of playing his way into a training camp invite. That’s more than can be said for many of the recruits in his range, guys like Kaleb Joseph, Paul White, and Jakeenan Gant, who washed out of their original schools and have had largely forgettable NCAA careers.
“If nobody knew who Malik was, people would say, ‘Oh my goodness, what a career he had.’ Expectations create pressure.” Fisher said. “I think it probably was a bit unfair, but that’s part of the game. Everyone wants to be talked about how good they are and going to be, and then you have a responsibility to keep working and keep getting better.”
The San Diego State coaches swear by Pope. Like Kawhi, he’s a fairly soft-spoken guy who leads more by deeds than words. He was a raw and unrefined player with hardly any upper-body strength when he arrived on campus, and he remade his body and became much more well-rounded over four years in school. Pope also put in the work off the court, becoming the first member of his family with a college degree.
“Malik has grown every year. He came in as a skinny, injured perimeter player. He’s progressed and turned into a basketball player that has the versatility to play inside and outside,” said Fisher. “In 50 years of doing this, I’ve been around a whole host of players, and I’ve loved all of them, but Malik will have a special place for me. He’s not going to talk a lot, but you know when he does that he means what he says.”
Pope’s role changed over the course of his NCAA career, going from a small forward as a sophomore to a power forward as a junior and a center as a senior. He sacrificed for the team in his final season, changing positions to accommodate Jalen McDaniels, a freshman forward who established himself as a legitimate NBA prospect. Pope turned himself into a post player, attempting only 1.2 3s per game, his fewest in any of his four seasons at San Diego State.
“I would have taken more [outside] shots if I had the opportunity, but I was playing a new position. I was more inside the paint, fighting big bodies and rebounding. I didn’t do too much outside of my job. There wasn’t a lot of chance for me to do that,” said Pope.
Moving Pope to center played a key role in SDSU’s transformation under first-year head coach Brian Dutcher, Fisher’s longtime assistant who took over after he retired. Fisher emphasized defense above all else: The Aztecs had a top-10 defense in the country in each of Pope’s first three seasons, but their offense was never rated higher than no. 213. Dutcher found a middle ground this season, with the no. 25 rated defense and the no. 74 rated offense. The tandem of Pope and McDaniels could beat slower frontcourts in transition, and each player had the ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays from the 3-point line. The Aztecs made the NCAA tournament for the first time in three seasons this year before losing a nail-biter to Houston in the first round. Pope’s play this season was an interesting preview of how he could be used at the next level.
After spending his first three seasons relying on a bigger player behind him to anchor the defense, Pope thrived as SDSU’s primary rim protector in smaller lineups this season. He averaged a career high in blocks per game (1.2), and San Diego State’s defensive rating was 0.08 points per possession lower when he was on the floor, according to the tracking numbers at hooplens.com. It was the first time in his career that his presence meaningfully improved their defense.
“I’ve gained a lot of knowledge in college. Just developing on both ends of the floor, understanding situations and how games play out,” Pope said.
Pope is never going to be confused with an interior bruiser, and he even admitted that he still doesn’t like banging in the paint. Nevertheless, he more than held his own as a senior. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he gave up a minuscule 0.398 points per possession as the primary defender in 44 post-ups, putting him in the 98th percentile of players nationwide when defending the play. Combine his improvement in the paint with his ability to move his feet on the perimeter, and Pope looks like a prototype for the types of defenders that NBA teams need at center these days.
“Watching the playoffs gives me a little bit of energy,” said Pope. “Switching onto everyone, stretching the floor, and expose mismatches. It fits my game so well.”
To be sure, he’s still a flawed prospect. It’s hard to imagine a 215-pound player who struggled to stay healthy in the NCAA holding up as a starting center in the NBA, even in a pace-and-space league. At the next level, he’s probably a situational 5 without the offensive versatility to play other positions.
His 3-point shooting is mostly theoretical. He shot 38.2 percent from 3 in his four years at San Diego State, but he attempted only 1.9 per game. While he averaged five 3-point attempts per-40 minutes of playing time as a sophomore, he didn’t become a full-time starter until his junior season when the Aztecs began moving him inside. Pope also shot only 68.1 percent from the free throw line on 2.1 attempts per game, a red flag for analytically minded organizations trying to project his jumper. His shooting numbers are acceptable for a center but way behind what NBA teams want from forward prospects.
“People compared Pope to Kevin Durant because they thought he was a 6-foot-10 wing, but he has to play more like Channing Frye in the NBA,” the same NBA executive said.
It just took Pope time to mature physically and find a role that fit his game. Not all 18- to 22-year-olds develop at the same rate. Even in a best-case scenario, he will probably spend a lot of time in the G League next season. There’s no shame in that for a fringe top-50 recruit from a non–Power 5 conference. Just because he didn’t live up to the expectations that other people created for him doesn’t mean that his career was a failure. Plenty of guys with that profile don’t make it as professional basketball players, much less crack the NBA. Pope was only ever a star on the internet.
“I stopped [reading mock drafts] after my freshman year, all the good old hype stuff,” Pope told me. “Sometimes it can be inaccurate. Sometimes it can be accurate. The chance is 50/50. Control what you can control and know there are going to be opinions no matter what.”