Taking Life by the Horns
By David Jenison
If you asked Martin Luther King High School graduate Tony Snell where he realistically envisioned himself in three short years after graduating from the Riverside high school, first round draft into the pros would have been no more than a pipe dream at best. The 6-foot-7 ball player is now standing in the sneakers of giants after being a No. 20 overall pick for the elite Chicago Bulls. The Weekly caught up with Snell a few hours before the NBA draft announcement to discuss life, basketball and the events that led up to his triumphant transition into the professional league.
“I grew up watching the Lakers, but surprisingly I am not a Lakers fan,” says 21-year-old athlete—who graduated from Martin Luther King High School in 2009—a mere two hours before the NBA draft. “I was a Chicago Bulls fan.”
Like most basketball fans his age, the Los Angeles-born wing player grew up admiring the Jordan-led Bulls, and not even the Buss family can fault his ambivalence toward the Nick Van Excel- and Eddie Jones-era Lakers. Still, the Bulls fan and New Mexico Lobos player says competing against his favorite teams gives him added motivation.
“It was crazy”
The Bulls, considered one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, needed more offensive weapons, and Snell packs more firepower than a Texas Ted Nugent concert. As pointed out by ESPN sportswriter and Celtics groupie Bill Simmons, Snell had the best pull-up jumper percentage in college basketball last year.
Following the announcement, Snell told the press, “It was crazy knowing I’m going to the Bulls. I watched Jordan play my whole life. I never knew I was going to be here. I watched Derrick Rose; he’s a really great player. I can’t wait to work with him and help the team win.”
As quoted in the Chicago Tribune, Bulls general manager added, “We think he has a chance to contribute this year. Long term, there’s great upside because of his makeup, his tools and his ability to shoot.”
Many sportswriters pegged Snell as a second-round pick, but his stock rose quickly after a breakout performance last May at the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago. Snell had the second-fastest agility score and second-highest shooting percentage (74 percent) of anyone at the combine.
“It helped me show the coaches what they hadn’t seen me do in college,” he says. “I was able to show everything I had. It helped me a lot.”
Three different teams
Snell worked out for several teams, including the Bulls immediately after the combine. The Sacramento Kings were so impressed that they requested a second workout, after which new coach Michael Malone said, “Obviously, [Snell has] got a very bright future ahead of himself.” In the weeks leading up to the draft, different NBA experts placed Snell in the late first round or early second with the pick coming from any number of teams, including the Brooklyn Nets and Oklahoma City Thunder. The player himself claims he ignored all the prognostications.
“I have not been reading the [draft board predictions] at all,” he claims. “I have just been working out and saying, ‘Whoever is doing that, let them see it for themselves.’ I just need to go workout and try to impress the coaches.”
Snell was born in Watts a year before the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, and his mother, Sherika Brown, used to watch basketball with her young son. Over the years, the family moved several times, and Snell ultimately played for three different high school teams.
“It was really tough moving, but I know my mom did it for the best for me and helped me stay out of trouble and keep me away from gangs,” Snell recalls. “At the end of the day, I was cool to adjust to new areas. It was tough growing up, but it was all worth it. Moving to different places and experiencing different areas and trying to embrace it as much as I can [all] inspired me to play better.”
Kawhi Leonard as teammate
Basketball also helped the future Bull avoid risky behavior.
“I was around negative activity growing up, and basketball definitely helped me stay out of trouble,” he explains. “Just walking around with a basketball in my hand let people know that I am not a part of no gangs or nothing. I’m just a basketball player.”
Recalling his street ball days, he adds, “I remember walking for a mile every day to some park just to get a work out in, get some shots up and play the sport that I love. I was watching AND1 [streetball videos] back in the day when it was popular, and I would try to do their moves and try to add to my game and just play around.”
Snell first played high school basketball in Hawthorne, near Inglewood. The family later moved to the Moreno Valley, and then for his senior year, Snell played at Riverside’s MLK.
“It felt really new,” says Snell of Riverside. “It was something I was not really used to with a lot of nice people there and a nice area.”
Snell enjoyed the community, but he also liked playing for the King Wolves. One of his high school teammates was Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs’ wingman charged with guarding LeBron James during the past NBA Finals.
“I have seen his work ethic and how hard he plays,” Snell says of Leonard. “He was the captain of the team, and I knew he would eventually be a top player. He always had colleges come watch him practice so I knew he was going to be a big-time player. I just remember how hard he worked and practiced every day, and that inspired me to practice hard every day.”
Playing his best
Despite playing for his third team in four years, Snell was okay with the transition.
“I was able to adjust pretty easily,” says Snell, who played the center position at King. “I was one of the tallest players, and I knew what spot I was going to play at, so it didn’t really matter to me. I just worked on my post moves trying to add to my game, and I learned the importance of playing my role. I will do anything I have to do to help my team get a win. Whatever I have to play, I just have to go out there and play my best.”
During his high school years, Snell also played in the AAU’s Eleate Sports program, and as a testament to his skill set, the Wolves’ center was asked to play point guard.
“Our AAU coach gave me the opportunity to play my real skills,” he recalls. “At Riverside King, I was playing the center spot, so they gave me the opportunity to play guard, and it turned out great.”
After high school, Snell played a year at the Westwind Preparatory Academy in Phoenix before joining the University of New Mexico’s Division I team, The Lobos. On his second “Wolves” team (lobos means “wolves” in Spanish), Snell played for three years under respected coach Steve Alford. The team, which also featured Rancho Cucamonga native Kendall Williams, won the Mountain West Tournament the past two years with Snell picking up Most Valuable Player honors in the 2013 series. In that tournament, he averaged 60 percent shooting from beyond the arc and carried the team down the stretch scoring 13 points in the final eight minutes of the championship game.
“Everyone is watching you”
While many thought Lobos would make a Final Four run this year, an underdog Harvard team scored an upset over New Mexico in the first round. Within a few weeks, Alford signed on as the new coach of the UCLA Bruins, and Snell declared for the NBA draft. The wingman finished his junior year having scored 952 total points in a Lobos uniform.
As far as his experience with the Lobos, he remarks, “I learned that you have to watch what you do because everyone is watching you. It is also important to communicate with my team and help each other get better and help each other stay out of trouble.”
In the NBA, Snell is joining a playoff team with championship aspirations, especially with former MVP Derrick Rose returning from injury. Interestingly, Snell played center in high school, point guard in AAU and mostly small forward (three spot) in college, but he hopes to play the shooting guard (two spot) position in the pros.
“I can play both [the shooting guard and small forward] positions, but I feel like I could play the two-spot [in the NBA],” he explains. “The guards are a little smaller than the three-spot, and I can keep up with them. I feel like I can take advantage by going at them offensively and using my length defensively.”
Coach Tom Thibodeau is not known for giving rookies too many minutes, but Snell’s mix of pure shooting and length may earn him some extra playing time. Snell is 6-foot-7 with close to a seven-foot wingspan, but at just 200 pounds, the athletic guard needs to bulk up.
“[I need to work on] my physique, getting bigger and stronger, and being able to defend better,” he admits. “I just need to use my length to stay in front of my man.”
Willing to sacrifice
Many sportswriters have already compared Snell to Indiana Pacers’ swingman Paul George, which is a huge compliment. George, a Palmdale native who played college ball at Fresno State, just led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals in May.
“Just being mentioned, being compared like that, I am happy with that,” Snell says. “I don’t compare myself to anybody, but if other people are comparing me to him, that is wonderful.”
The Bulls just lost one of their better long-range shooters (Marco Belinelli just signed with San Antonio) to free agency this summer, and point guard Nate Robinson—if he doesn’t resign with Chicago—might head on over to the Knicks, according to several reports. It is impossible to know what trades will occur over the summer, but if Snell can deliver, his talents will be particularly welcomed in Chi-Town.
Following this interview, Snell met up with his family to watch the NBA draft. While he claims he didn’t follow the day-by-day draft predictions, his mother sure did. Brown, who goes by @6feetstallion on Twitter, tweets all the breaking news about her son and his potential place in the NBA. She describes herself as a “proud parent with a sense of humor,” and she certainly did everything she should could to get her son here.
“My mom was willing to sacrifice anything for me to be successful,” says Snell. “Doing all that by herself really inspired me.”
This was obviously a big day for them both.