Michael Gbinije seemingly had “college All-American” and probably more written all over him growing up. He played at a powerhouse in DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, and as often happens with good players there, was highly recruited. When he chose Duke, many probably figured he had a lot ahead of him.
Well, he did, but the road was far from easy. His college career was quite a journey that took him elsewhere, but could still take him to the promised land beyond college. For that matter, he experienced the promised land of the Final Four in his final season, though it’s one as unexpected as how he got to this point.
Gbinije was one of the ACC’s best players as a senior, and after falling off a lot of radars earlier in his college career, he got back on some of them. He didn’t resurface entirely, as this was not one of Syracuse’s best teams – indeed, many were shocked they made the NCAA Tournament. That dampened his place in the ACC and, indeed, college basketball, to a degree.
Of course, Gbinije was with Syracuse when they went to the Final Four in 2013, but that was the year he had to sit out as a transfer. As such, he experienced it from a distance while practicing with the team. This time around, he was a central figure, a model of consistency who was the only ACC player to score in double figures in every one of his team’s games this season. He was fifth in the ACC in scoring, seventh in assists and eighth in three-point field goal percentage.
Not only that, but he did all of it at a position not many would have thought about when he was in high school: point guard. He’s 6’7″ and has played the wing for such a long time, much coverage of the NBA Draft still lists him as a small forward. With his play this year, scouts got to see him in a new light, and there are some positives as his feel for the game is now more easily seen. The Orange had a point guard on their roster in Kaleb Joseph, who started last year and had his moments, but he fell out of favor early on and barely played during ACC play.
Gbinije never relinquished the role. He thrived, winning MVP honors as the Orange won the Battle 4 Atlantis in November after scoring 63 points and handing out 15 assists in the three games. His scoring was rarely done in volume, as many of his best scoring games saw him shoot over 50 percent from the field, highlighted by 26 points on 9-11 shooting in the opener of that tournament. He also went 7-8 from the field for 22 points against Florida State later in the year.
He did all of this in the third-most minutes in a single season in school history.
Working against him are classic items: a perception that he’s not very athletic and his age. Since he transferred, he was in college for five years and is thus older than most seniors, as he will turn 24 before the draft. The athleticism question may have been neutralized at the combine: he was tops in the 3/4 sprint and had a 37.5 inch vertical. That might even be enough to get him into the second round of the draft, but it’s far from a guarantee, especially as some underclassmen stay in the draft.
This means Gbinije will have to work to earn a roster spot all the way through. It may mean time in the NBDL or going overseas to try to get an NBA team’s attention. That he played at Syracuse after starting his career at Duke helps in that he is on more radars than if he played at mid-major schools, especially with a Final Four run this year. As is the case for many who aren’t freakishly athletic or talented, he will also have to find his niche. He could be a playmaking forward, a shooter (career 39 percent from long range), or in a similar glue guy role.
Any way you slice it, though, he doesn’t have a clear path to the NBA.
Gbinije traveled a circuitous route to college success and a shot at an NBA career. Nonetheless, he has fulfilled some of the potential he was thought to have before, something he hopes to so again when it comes to the NBA. The road may not be straight or short, but he’s already traveled down such a road to a promising ending before.