Just two weeks after tournament favorite New Mexico’s 68-62 loss to Harvard in the second round, Tony Snell hopped on a plane to Los Angeles to prepare for June 27’s NBA Draft.
Not only fleeing the sting of an embarrassing upset, Snell vowed to leave behind the NCAA scouting report that had branded him for the past four years at UNM: a “potential guy,” someone who has “it” — the jumper, the size, the athleticism, but hasn’t fully developed his gifts.
For the past two months, Snell has been quietly reinventing that label, shooting hundreds of three-point shots in L.A. gyms while sneaking up higher and higher in first-round mock drafts. As an underrated shooting guard, Snell could become one of the draft’s most intriguing steals.
Yet at 6-7 and 200 pounds, Snell is versatile enough to do more than score. His ballhandling skills and length on the defensive end with a near 7-foot wingspan will allow him to pester smaller guards. Though scouts have flirted with the idea of Snell at small forward, he plans to stick to his natural position as a two guard, hoping to create match-up problems for NBA opponents.
“I can play hard at every position,” Snell says. “I can dribble the ball, shoot and defend pretty well. I’ve worked on my defense, and have been able to keep up with guards. I have passion. Hopefully that’s enough to impress teams.”
Most notably, Snell finished second in shooting drills at the draft combine in Chicago with 74 percent, and second in the lane agility drill with a time of 10.36 seconds.
With perennial shooters like Ben McLemore in his class, Snell looks at every drill, practice or lifting session like it’s a Game 7 elimination duel.
“I just have a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I have to go to these workouts and compete against the elite players, and we are all fighting for that number one spot, so I have the mindset to compete as hard as I can and be dominant in everything I do.
“I just want that one opportunity from that one team to show my true skills.”
When he made the decision to leave New Mexico a year early, some felt his skills still weren’t NBA-ready, and that he needed more time to develop physically. They again saw his potential after he led the Lobos with 64 three-pointers made, but didn’t see the potential gain in testing pro waters.
Yet Snell’s performance in the Mountain West Conference Tournament might indicate otherwise. Not only did he win tournament MVP honors on 17.6 points a night (up from 12.5 in the regular season) but he did it on 51.5 percent shooting from the field, and 60 percent shooting from three-point range (12-for-20). His five threes against both San Diego State in the semifinals (on eight attempts), and UNLV in the championship game (on seven attempts) tied a New Mexico record. In the 63-56 victory against the Rebels for the title, Snell scored 13 of UNM’s final 17 points, finishing with 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting.
“I use that as motivation. When I left that decision was to make myself happy,” Snell says. “People aren’t going to agree but at the end of the day if I’m happy and confident I can do it, that’s all that matters.”
New Mexico may have torn a hole through most of America’s bracket, but Snell can’t afford to disappoint now.
“I definitely want to start fresh and start a new chapter,” he says. “I’ve been dreaming about the draft since Day 1. Just to be this close is a blessing, and I’m trying to keep working hard and see where it takes me.”
Like most prospects on the margins kept awake by the uncertain possibilities ahead, Snell continues to shoot threes as the end of June nears.
“Right now I’m trying to enjoy the moment knowing I’m that much closer to reaching my dream goal, trying to embrace it but at same time know I have to focus on working hard and impressing the coaches,” he says.
“Just trying to enjoy the moment as much as I can because I know it’s going to go by fast.”
Who will draft Snell? Who needs to draft him?
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