The path to the NBA is a year-round showcase filled with wonder and awe for one-and-done players at schools like Kentucky or Duke, with the discussion of draft order and NBA comparisons beginning the moment the letter of intent is signed.
They come, they play, they dazzle and they leave in one effortless cycle, soon becoming another star whose brief impact is hardly remembered with the focus firmly on the future. Their introduction to the professionals is filled with glamour and hype, but for players from smaller schools, who lack exposure and prestige, it is a long and perilous road with speed bumps and obstacles along the way. It serves the purpose of reinforcing the belief that you are not supposed to make it.
Former University of Rhode Island basketball player Xavier Munford is one such player who has done it both the hard way and the right way, taking his licks and coming out on the other side with a multi-year contract as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Munford, who donned the Rhode Island Keaney blue and white from 2012-2014, took a major step forward in his career when, after honing his skills in the NBA Development League, he received the call. The one players with his narrative do not usually get. It was a 10-day contract in the NBA, but more importantly an opportunity to prove that he belonged.
“Initially I was very excited, but I had to pack ASAP,” Munford said. “I wish I could have called my family, friends, but it was 2 (p.m.) and I had to be there by 4 (p.m.). Then I called them after, and they were excited.”
The 23-year-old native of Hillside, New Jersey, had caught Memphis’s eye after a torrid season in the D-League with California’s Bakersfield Jam that put him on the NBA radar. He had already been in Bakersfield before after a Summer League stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he was now ready to latch on for good. Munford became one of the league’s premier players, averaging 20.4 points per game while shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor, and a deft 41 percent from 3-point range while also dishing out more than six assists per contest.
Munford assumed the leadership role and embraced it, just as he did in URI, and in March was given a chance, still a long shot, to make an impact at the highest level. The Grizzlies made Munford the team’s newest addition on March 16, and his dream came to fruition the next night when in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks, he stepped onto the court for the first time as an NBA player.
“It was a great feeling,” Munford said. “I was nervous at first, but it was just basketball. You have to do basically everything you can to help your team, whether it be the outside jumper or a drive to the basket.”
Munford hit two free throws to score his first career points, but with limited minutes and a small window of opportunity, he was faced with the realization that this might be his only shot at creating a lasting impression. Munford, though, is a different player, one with composure beyond his years, and did not succumb to the pressure, nor did he feel any whatsoever.
“You can’t put pressure on yourself because that’s when everything starts to go bad,” Munford said.
He made the most out of his fleeting stay in Memphis, which he soon extended with another 10-day contract after efficient play. He proved to be a viable option off the bench, scoring 5.8 points per game in almost 17 minutes of action a night and picking his shots well, something that often eludes the NBA call-ups, shooting nearly 45 percent in 13 games.
Further bringing validity to Munford’s value was the fact that the Grizzlies were in a race for a playoff spot, which they have since secured. Given that Munford performed well in the direst of times, including a career-high 12 points in a 99-95 win against Toronto, the No. 2 seed out of the East, the two sides agreed on an undisclosed deal that will make Munford a part of Memphis for the foreseeable future, and at least the postseason.
Munford knows that he would not be in the position he is today without his tenure as a Ram, during which he was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17 points per game. He says his time playing in front of the Rhody Ruckus helped shape his fearless mentality and prepare him for overcoming the adversity that once stood in his way.
“It definitely prepared me to be a better leader,” Munford said. “They allowed me to put the team on my back for two years, and just develop my confidence.”
The program is also grateful for Munford’s significant contributions, both as a player and a mentor to E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin, presently the Rams stars, but freshmen during Munford’s senior season.
“It’s been a lot of love and support,” Munford said. “I’ve heard from former players, coaches. The staff is still coaching me a lot.”
The support system URI has provided and the opportunity to shine has made it a relatively smooth transition into the next stage, but he still follows Ram basketball and sees, like many others, success on the horizon.
“They have a very promising future,” said Munford. “They had injuries this year, but they’ll have E.C. Matthews, Hassan Martin back. I know Coach Hurley is recruiting hard, freshmen that were there when I was there are now leaders, so I expect big things.”
Munford will continue to carry with him the unwavering confidence and strong work ethic that allowed him to soar into the Association. With the Grizzlies beginning what looks to be an unpromising postseason, they may not have a better fit than the guy who has been an underdog his whole basketball career. A role he has embraced and thrived in.