Not only will New Mexico have a new head coach roaming the sidelines next season, the Lobos will be have at least one new player in the starting lineup.
Soft-spoken junior guard Tony Snell will enter the upcoming NBA draft, forgoing his senior season at New Mexico despite last week’s hiring of fan favorite Craig Neal as the Lobos’ head coach.
Snell announced his decision Monday. If he gets drafted, he’ll be the first Lobo to reach the NBA level since Darington Hobson went to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2010.
“In my heart, I feel it’s good for me to leave,” said Snell, this year’s Mountain West Conference tournament MVP. “Through this whole process, it’s been difficult talking to my teammates about how I feel and thanking them for helping me get better from day one.”
UNM announced two weeks ago that Snell was considering draft possibilities. He had until April 16 to hire an agent, a move that, under NCAA rules, prevents players from returning to collegiate play. Snell said Monday he has yet to hire an agent.
He said he already disenrolled from UNM to prepare for the draft, but plans to finish his degree program at a later time. His biography on the team’s website lists his major as University Studies.
According to the information he’s received, Snell said he can go as a late first-round or second-round pick. He said he feels confident he can improve his stock before the June 27 draft. In his top 100 NBA prospects, ESPN’s Chad Ford ranks Snell at No. 65.
Thirty UNM players have been selected in the NBA draft, but only seven were first-round picks: Mel Daniels in 1967, Greg Howard in 1970, Luc Longley in 1991, Charles Smith in 1997, Kenny Thomas in 1999, Danny Granger in 2005, and J.R. Giddens in 2008.
With the draft format, there is no guarantee Snell will make it to the NBA level right away. Snell said he’s willing to take the risk because he believes he’s ready for the NBA.
In 2012-13, Snell averaged 12.5 points in 35 games for UNM, ranking No. 13 on the Mountain West Conference scoring list. He had a .422 field goal shooting percentage and a .390 3-point shooting percentage, and his 61 3-pointers was the league’s seventh-best total.
He had three of his best games at this year’s Mountain West Basketball Championships in Las Vegas, Nev., where Snell scored 15 points against Wyoming, 17 against San Diego State and another 21 against UNLV. His personal 10-2 run against the Runnin’ Rebels broke open a close game as the Lobos won their second-straight MWC tournament title.
“After the Mountain West Conference, I felt like it was good for me to try to get in (the draft),” Snell said.
For his career, Snell scored 9.1 points per game in 103 games played. He made 76 starts, including every game this season.
Neal praised Snell’s shooting and ball-handling abilities, but said he needs to work on building his strength and rebounding skills. On the defensive end, Snell has gone from guarding the opponents’ worst players to defending their best, the coach said.
While it’s sad to see Snell leave the team, Neal said he and the team will support Snell in the decision.
“We’ve always had the goal where we’re going to have all our players reach their full potential,” Neal said. “Tony feels like he’s reached it and wants to take a shot at it. It’s been his dream. It’s not one of those things we like to see happen, but hopefully he’ll go on to bigger and better things, and it’ll be a reflection of our program.”
This move is the latest in an event-filled offseason less than a month old. After agreeing to a 10-year contract with UNM, head coach Steve Alford said March 30 he was leaving the Lobos for UCLA. Five days later, UNM hired associate head coach Neal to replace Alford.
Neal said he expects every other player from this year’s roster, except Snell and seniors Chad Adams and Jamal Fenton, will return to next year’s team. He would not mention any other players’ intentions for the future.
With Snell leaving, UNM has three available scholarships, Neal said.