By: Mohamed Bafakih
Reality has set in for point guard Xavier Munford after earning a Gatorade Call-Up from the Bakersfield Jam to the Memphis Grizzles on March 16. Yesterday, he signed a multi-year contract.
“Honored and blessed” are two words Xavier uttered after reaching his lifelong dream of playing in the National Basketball Association.
The “X-Man,” who’s been the “X” factor throughout most of his playing career, elevated his game this season and the results have shown. He averaged 20.4 points, 6.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.00 steals in 40 games (36 starts) for the Jam this year and was named a 2016 NBA D-League All-Star starter for the Western Conference team.
“It’s great to see Xavier be rewarded for his excellent play throughout the year,” said Jam Head Coach Chris Jent following the announcement of Munford’s Call-Up to Memphis.
However, no easy routes or shortcuts were taken by the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Munford to reach the highest level of play.
Just last year in his first season with the Jam after a draft-day trade with the Maine Red Claws brought Munford to Bakersfield, he dealt with a limited role due to the depth at the point guard position.
Although he managed to average double-figure scoring (10.8 points per game), he was restricted to just 21.7 minutes of action while making 16 starts.
Soaking up the knowledge from last year’s group that consisted of Phoenix Suns Assignees Tyler Ennis (now with the Milwaukee Bucks) and Archie Goodwin, along with Joe Jackson and Jerel McNeal, it was a beneficial scenario for Munford’s rookie season.
“It gave me that type of urge to go out there and play hard, and to carry on that experience into this year,” he said.
Overcoming a reserve role to finally having his number called upon often has been a staple throughout Xavier’s journey.
In fact, the 23-year-old Hillside, N.J. native has coped with the pressure of finding his way into the starting rotation since high school.
At Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School (Newark, N.J.), Munford was a part of the star-studded, national powerhouse Gray Bees basketball team under Head Coach Dan Hurley, where he played from 2006-2010.
The Gray Bees roster at the time featured Aaron Brown, Mike Poole, Samardo Samuels, Corey Stokes and Tristan Thompson, to name a few; guys who went on to play at the Division I level right out of high school and some eventually becoming professional players.
In what he called “a sixth man role” at St. Benedict’s, Munford was faced with a similar role last year with the Jam. On game days, he would be looking to affect the game in any way off the bench, just like he did at St. Benedict’s.
Being alongside those teammates fueled Munford’s competitive nature. He looked to showcase his playing abilities and skills with the game’s most elite.
“It was great playing with a whole bunch of great players there (St. Benedict’s),” Munford said. “It created a real competitive atmosphere in the gym every day. Every day we had to come in and compete; everybody would be talking trash. It was basically survival of the fittest. So if you weren’t tough, it would have been hard for you to compete there.”
Following a senior season which capped off with a Gray Bees 26-1 record and the No. 2 national ranking, Munford was left with uncertainty on where his next playing venture would take him after averaging 12 points per game (mostly off the bench).
Munford did not receive an opportunity to play at the Division I level right after high school.
“It was crushing,” Munford said. “I worked hard throughout that summer just to get my grades and body right.”
With that devastating blow, he talked it over with his family and coach, and that’s when the decision was made to play at the junior college level.
The junior college route is unique in its own way – it’s not promising nor is it convincing – but those who put in the effort and commitment on and off the court may be rewarded with a shot at furthering their basketball career and education.
Munford chose to go to Miami-Dade College, where he spent one year with the Sharks and averaged 17.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 steals before transferring to Iowa Western College the following year.
At Iowa Western the competition elevated, which meant another chance for Munford to prove himself yet again against more elite talent at the junior college level.
“It (Iowa Western) was a bigger school with more top players. I wanted to compete at a higher JUCO level and really take my game to the next level,” Munford said.
With that transfer, Munford managed to do just that.
He was selected to the 2011-12 National Junior College Athletic Association Division I All-American team after posting 16.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game for the Reivers, but more importantly he received Division I offers.
Two years of patience throughout his junior college stint made a difference with the recruiting process.
Munford committed to Texas Tech, but later withdrew due to a coaching change, which opened up a shot for him to reunite with his former high school coach, Hurley, at Rhode Island.
“I opened back up my recruitment and started talking to a bunch of schools,” Munford said. “I wanted to find the right spot. Once Coach Hurley got the job at Rhode Island, it was definitely a no-brainer.”
Hurley gave Munford the confidence he needed to continue to elevate his game at the NCAA level. From 2012-14, his junior and senior years at Rhode Island, Xavier played his game.
A glimpse of a bright future came early in his junior year when he scored a season-high 33 points at Auburn – which included a contested 30-foot heave to send it to overtime. The Rams went on to beat the Tigers 78-72 in what Munford calls his most memorable moment at Rhode Island.
He finished his Division I career with averages of 17.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in 61 total games (all starts) for the Rams, while becoming the fastest player in the school’s history to surpass the 1,000-point mark during that span.
Prior to this year’s All-Star Weekend, Munford returned to Rhode Island and was able to share some words of encouragement with the players on the importance of being a professional on and off the court.
Despite Munford going undrafted from college, he is just one of 15 players from the University of Rhode Island to appear in the NBA and the first since two-time NBA champion Lamar Odom.
Munford used the All-Star Weekend as a chance to showcase his skill-set among the best players in the D-League. He finished with 14 points, five assists and three rebounds in the All-Star Game on Feb. 13 in Toronto, Canada.
“The main focus was to get out there and make sure you showcase yourself well, and let people know about yourself. It was a nice experience overall,” he said.
It took some time, but his game has evolved from a scoring threat to a well-rounded, complete point guard with a ton more upside remaining.
Bakersfield Jam General Manager Bubba Burrage knew Munford had come a long way to be put in a position of earning a Call-Up.
“He’s had to prove himself every single step of the way. From high school to JUCO (junior college) to college and to the NBA D-League, he just keeps improving. He’s stayed the course and he’s finally seeing his goals become a reality,” Burrage said.
Munford is averaging 5.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 14.2 minutes in 10 games with the Grizzlies.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself. The main focus is to stay positive, stay happy and keep getting better. You got to trust the process and understand nothing is going to be handed to you. You have to work for everything.”