Chris Spivey scrolled through some old photos awhile back and could hardly recognize the scrawny, freckle-faced kid in baggy shorts who blossomed into one of the state’s best basketball players.
“He was always the smallest player out there on the court,” said Spivey, the founder and director of Team Access, a Tacoma-based AAU team. “Despite his size, he always had the skill and feel and the ability and heart to play this game at the highest level.
“I just sit back and laugh because I talked to a lot of college coaches and would say, this is a guy that you guys should be watching. Now they’ll be watching him hopefully getting what he deserves, which is a chance to play in the NBA.”
On Wednesday, Malachi Flynn is projected among the 30 players who will be selected in the first round of the NBA draft, which begins at 5 p.m. PT on ESPN.
The 22-year-old point guard still draws a considerable amount of skepticism from doubters who wonder if his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame can hold up in the NBA.
“It’s the same old questions,” said an NBA front-office executive. “He shot a high clip from the floor (44.1%) and (37.3%) on three-pointers, but at his size, you wonder if he can do that at the next level.
“Look, if he was two inches taller with a better wingspan, then you’re talking about a lottery guy for sure. … But there’s a lot to like with his game and too often at this time of the year, we talk too much about what guys can’t do and not enough about what they can do.”
After two seasons at Washington State, the former standout at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma transferred to San Diego State and sat out the 2018-19 season before enjoying a breakout year last season.
During a remarkable rise to prominence, Flynn averaged 17.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals while guiding San Diego State to a 26-0 start and, including the Mountain West Conference tournament, a 30-2 record.
The Aztecs, who finished the season ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll, were poised for a deep postseason run before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the NCAA tournament in March.
“There will definitely always be a little bit of ‘what if,’ but at the same time, it’s not something that I’m going to continue to dwell on because it’s out of my control,” Flynn told BasketballNews.com’s Matt Babcock during an interview published Oct. 9. “I had nothing to do with what happened. I can’t go back and change it. I’m going to keep moving forward and look on to my next challenge. It surely could have changed some things, though, and it would have been really fun for us to have been able to play in the tournament.”
Returning to San Diego State for his senior season was never truly an option for Flynn considering there was little left for him to prove on the court.
Flynn, a consensus All-American and finalist for the John R. Wooden Award, racked up a treasure trove of postseason honors, including the Mountain West Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
“I showed NBA teams that I’m a winner, that I play the point-guard position with a high IQ,” Flynn told ESPN in April when he declared for the NBA draft. “I showed them how well I can play on and off the ball. That I can score, but also get teammates involved. I showed teams that I can defend bigger and smaller guys.”
Yahoo Sports projects Flynn as the No. 19 overall pick headed to Brooklyn and ESPN has him at No. 21 going to Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, SI.com predicts he’ll land with New York at No. 27, USA Today tabs him at No. 28 with the Los Angeles Lakers and CBS Sports.com predicts he’ll land with Toronto at No. 29.
In many ways, Flynn is perhaps the unlikeliest prospect in this year’s NBA draft considering his humble beginnings.
Despite averaging 29.7 points and setting a Bellarmine Prep season scoring record as a senior, Flynn was ranked the No. 8 recruit in the state by 247sports.com. He originally committed to Pacific before accepting a last-minute offer to WSU.
“He was a late bloomer and just small at the time,” said Jason McCleary, founder of Left Coast Recruiting. “Just a little kid, but always had the heart and will to always want to be better.”
Flynn, who likened his game to NBA stars Chris Paul and Fred VanVleet, said he stood 5-2 as freshman in high school and 5-6 as a sophomore.
“When you’re smaller, you have to be able to do things that other guys can’t or you’re not going to play,” Flynn told Babcock. “I had to make sure that I could shoot, dribble and pass better than other guys. I also needed to know the game better than most people.
“When you’re smaller, people are going to come at you. They’re going to look at you like you’re not any good. That gave me an underdog mentality and a chip on my shoulder. Those things have been with me since a young age and they’ve carried me through my whole career, and even today. It was good for me to be smaller; it helped me. It gave me toughness. It doesn’t matter who you are — I’m not going to back down.”
At Washington State, Flynn averaged 9.7 points and 2.9 assists as a freshman and 15.8 points and 4.3 assists as a sophomore. But the Cougars never had a winning record with Flynn while combining for 25-37 and finished 11th in the Pac-12 during his last season in Pullman.
“Before he left Wazzu, Malachi was balling,” McCleary said. “I just think he wanted something better. They weren’t winning. He went to a different program and that program helped him to be better.
“Schedule wise, they were definitely playing better teams. They’ve got a more national schedule. You saw them on TV more. He kept doing his thing and pretty soon, everybody started to know what people around here have always known about him — that kid is a winner.”
Spivey said Flynn embodies “every single word” of Team ACCESS, which is an acronym for Academics, Character, and Confidence Equals Success and Stability.
“He was always above 3.0 and 3.5 (grade-point average), just a good student,” Spivey said. “A high-character kid. He doesn’t get in trouble on or off the court. And no matter his size, he definitely played with confidence like he belonged out there.
“And you’re seeing how all of that is paying off for him with the success he’s had and will continue to have. It’s real easy to root for kids like Malachi who work hard and do it the right way.”
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