The NBA is a young man’s league—but 24 might be too old.
At least that’s what Michael Gbinije, the Syracuse product who made a name for himself this past March leading the Orange on an unexpected run to the Final Four, has been told by various NBA talent evaluators.
After workouts, scouts and personnel would look him in the eye and feed him a line he almost couldn't believe. Incredulously, he recalls their words. “Hey, you played great, but you’re too old for us.”
When did 24 become the new 35?
As preposterous as it sounds, all Gbinije can do is shake his head when he recalls the meetings. At 24 years old—pegged to be the oldest player taken in the 2016 NBA Draft—Gbinije [pronounced Bennijay] has five years on presumed No. 1 selection Ben Simmons. But why his advanced age was held against him during the draft process wasn't so much a point of contention as it was a source of motivation.
“When people say I’m too old it’s frustrating to hear. I can’t control my age,” says Gbinije. “But I also kind of use that frustration as a kind of motivation and energy and carry it with me whenever it’s time to play and get on the court.”
On the verge of reaching a milestone he first dreamed about in the second grade, you will not rain on Gbinije’s parade on the eve of the draft. Perched high above Manhattan, sitting in a conference room at his agency’s office—Roc Nation, if you didn't recognize his gear—the affable 6’7” forward leans back in his chair and says it doesn’t matter where he's selected. Most mocks—which he swears he doesn’t read—have him going somewhere early in the second round and that’s totally cool with him.
The way Gbinije sees it whoever selects him will get an undervalued asset. Kind of like what the Warriors got with a similarly stigmatized tweener in 2012.
“I thought I was going to be the one and done big shot, but it turns out I’m the oldest guy in the draft.”
This is not to say Gbinije, who grew up in Virginia, is going to be the next Draymond Green because that’s not fair to him—or frankly, anyone, considering what Green has morphed into. Four years ago, Green was a pretty good college basketball player from Michigan State who earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors and averaged 16.2 points and 10.6 rebounds a game his senior season. Green fell to Golden State with the 35th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft because of his 6’7” frame and questions about his athleticism. So does it come as any surprise that Gbinije draws inspiration from Green’s rise from second round pick to celebrated All-Star?
“One criticism of my game, one thing I had to prove going into the [NBA], combine is I’m athletic,” he says. “I think that’s something people don’t see me as. I’m confused by why they don’t, but I’m a pretty athletic guy."
Get your foot in the door then show off your versatility.
“Where you get drafted is just one step," says Gbinije. "There are plenty of more steps to come after that.”
A huge comic book fan, Gbinije recently got some new ink on his left forearm. Unmistakably, it’s Deadpool, the badass Marvel character that just happens to be Gbinije’s favorite. He recently spent hours getting the superhero tatted to serve as a “reminder to stay confident in your abilities,” he says.
And that hasn’t always been easy considering Gbinije’s path to the NBA. A participant in the 2011 Jordan Brand Classic All-American game, Gbinije committed to Duke and expected it would be a short stay in Durham. He just thought he’d be leaving early to take his talents to the NBA—not to another ACC school. “I thought I was going to be the one-and-done big shot, but it turns out I’m the oldest guy in the draft,” he says.
But at Duke, for the first time in his life, Gbinije was humbled on the basketball court. The other guys on the roster, the other freshman like Quinn Cook and Austin Rivers, were better than him, and Gbinije languished on the Blue Devils bench.
“High school basketball came pretty easy for me,” he says. “When I got to Duke I realized I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. And I had a lot of habits I needed to change, from working harder to maturing on and off the court.”
Gbinije found refuge transferring to Syracuse the next year, but his game didn’t begin to take off until he was a junior. In his senior year, Gbinije scored in double figures all 34 games, averaging 17.5 points, 4.3 assists, and 4.1 rebounds a game; he was the leader of the 10th-seeded Orange’s unexpected run to the program’s sixth Final Four appearance.
“Going into the tournament, I knew this was my last chance,” says Gbinije. “I just wanted to go out with a bang, basically. You’re a senior, and you don’t get another opportunity to play college basketball.”
Adjusting to a life of just basketball, without school to worry about, has been a welcomed swerve for Gbinije. And signing with Roc Nation not long after Syracuse’s season ended has come with plenty of perks — like getting a chance to chill with Kevin Durant during the playoffs.
Gbinije and KD share an agent in Rich Kleiman, who just happened to invite Gbinije with him to catch a Thunder-Spurs Western Conference semis matchup courtside in Oklahoma City. Kleiman made sure Gbinije got a chance to chop it up with Durant before he peaced out of OKC. “The experience of hanging out with Kevin after the game, watching him play, watching him warm-up, was a huge eye-opener,” says Gbinije. “One of the league’s best players—how he moves, how he works, how he takes care of himself. It was just a great experience. I tried to play it cool."
Gbinije didn’t get to spend a ton of time with the star—KD had to take care of business—but he did pick up a few pointers from the 2014 NBA MVP. “You’ve got to stay levelheaded. Kevin’s one of the most humble guys in the league and you can tell by the way he carries himself,” says Gbinije. “He approached me during his warmups, and I’m sure he was probably focused on beating the Spurs [but] he took the time out to say what’s up to me. Small things like that prove why he’s such a great person.”
Away from the court, there’s only one place Gbinije really wants to be: in front of a screen. He’s a gamer who loves playing Call of Duty, FIFA, and 2K. He especially enjoys beating up his boys.
“I definitely put my friends to shame whenever we play,” he says. “I have some friends that I just demolish. But I have a couple of friends in my inner circle; Jerami Grant’s one, he plays for the Sixers. We battle on FIFA, fighting games and Call of Duty. I would like to say I’m the upper echelon of that game.”
After he’s done at the Roc Nation offices, Gbinije makes his way up to the Complex offices, where he heads straight to the Xbox. Complex News anchor Speedy Morman grabs a controller and challenges him to a game of FIFA. Gbinije promptly hands Morman a beatdown bigger than the one the U.S. Men’s National Team suffered the previous night against Argentina. But the funny thing about Gibinje is that he doesn’t talk trash while gaming. He might toy with you now and then and laugh about it, but at least you don’t have to hear him yapping about how he’s schooling you without even trying.
“I silently destroy ‘em,” he jokes.
He loves FIFA, and soccer in general, since his father, Frank, was an All-American at Temple. But he's obsessed with Call of Duty, and he hopes he can leverage a few connects now that he's about to be in the league to start working more closely with the game’s publisher, Activision.
“My milestone for video games definitely would be to be associated with Call of Duty—whether it’s to support it, play it, have inside connects, advertise it, whatever it is,” he says.
But first, it’s the draft. At Barclays Center, he’ll be surrounded by his family and sporting a suit Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara gifted him after the season ended. He doesn’t take his style too seriously, but he’s confident he’s going to look good on the biggest night of his life. At 24, Gbinije is more about substance than style, and he plans on showing the scouts and personnel who were fixated on his age and not his trajectory.