By STEVE REED
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Byron Mullens knew it wouldn't be easy to win over Charlotte Bobcats fans.
Mullens had only scored 39 points in 26 games during his two seasons with the Thunder, so he understood the disgruntlement when the Bobcats traded away a second-round pick in 2013 to the Thunder to get him.
"When I got traded here a lot of people were kind of upset and saying, 'Why did we trade for this guy?'" Mullens said.
But three weeks into his tenure with the Bobcats, Mullens has quickly developed into a fan favorite because of the instant offense he's provided off the bench.
He's third on the Bobcats in scoring behind D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson, averaging 11 points and 4.7 rebounds despite playing less than 20 minutes per game.
The 7-foot center has impressed with his mid-range jump shot, shooting better than 49 percent from the field and scoring in double digits in six of his last eight games.
He's been one of the few bright spots on a 2-8 team
"I worked my butt off the last two years and had nothing to show for it," Mullens said. "I sat on the bench and a lot of people didn't know who I was."
Mullens doesn't mind playing 20 minutes a game.
After his time with the Thunder — some of which was spent with the club's developmental league team in Tulsa — Mullens will take whatever he can get.
"We'd be up 20 or down 20, and I still wouldn't play," he said.
A few days into training camp, Thunder general manager Sam Presti came to Mullens and told him he was considering dealing him away to the Bobcats because there simply weren't many opportunities behind Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed and Cole Aldrich.
"He said to me, 'You're a good player and you're not going to play here. I'm going to send you to a place you'll play,'" Mullens said.
Mullens was thrilled with the news.
He figured all he needed was an opportunity. He'd take care of the rest.
"It feels good, I'm not going to lie," Mullens said with a wide grin when asked about his increased playing time in Charlotte.
Mullens has already broken his career high in points scored three times this season, topping out with 17 last Friday night in an overtime defeat to the Atlanta Hawks. A night later he posted his first double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds in a loss at Indiana. On Tuesday, he led the Bobcats with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
He also made his first 19 free throws.
Coach Paul Silas has been impressed with Mullens' outside shooting, saying it gives the Bobcats another dimension. He says Mullens' playing time going forward will be contingent upon how well he can rebound and play defense.
He thinks Mullens' play has been "encouraging."
"Here's a guy that wasn't playing at all in the league and now he's scoring and rebounding," said Silas, whose team embarks on a stretch of three games in three days beginning Thursday in Atlanta. "He's coming along. It's taking some time but I think he'll get there."
There's been some talk of starting Mullens among the coaching staff, but Silas isn't quite ready to pull that trigger. Instead, Silas went with Gana Diop as his starter the last two games against the Pacers and Rockets.
Mullens doesn't seem to mind.
"I think coming off the bench has been very positive for me because it gives me a lot of time to see what's happening on the floor and see what I need to do that will help the team," Mullens said. "That's really what I try to do is come off the bench and pick it up, give our team that spark, whether that be points or rebounds."
And his teammates know he can provide it.
"When he comes in I'm always trying to get him the ball," said Augustin. "The guy can shoot."
Mullens feels reborn in Charlotte — and welcome, too.
During Charlotte's lethargic performance Tuesday night against Houston, a restless crowd began looking for something positive to cheer about and found it in Mullens.
The chants seemed to come out of nowhere, but in unison: "Let's go Byron!"
As for his relationship with the fans, Mullens has developed a loyal following on Twitter.
"I'm loving it here," Mullens said. "I'm talking to all of my fans on Twitter and just trying to stay connected with them and giving them thanks for all of their support. And that's helped me out a lot. They've given me support and I've got to go out there and give it to them by playing my butt off every night."