The more Zoom video sessions with NBA teams he had, the more convinced Sandro Mamukelashvili was that the professional route was his likely destination. Teams were interested in Seton Hall’s versatile and multi-talented 6-foot-11 southpaw forward, far more than he expected. Two teams even promised him they would take him early in the second round.
Then, on July 20, he returned to school at Seton Hall, began working out with teammates and coaches for the first time in four months. He was no longer on the fence.
“Going back, just seeing the love we have for each other, and the chemistry, it was harder to leave,” the rising senior forward told The Post in a phone interview ahead of his announcement to come back to school.
“I feel if I show everybody what I got,” he added, “I can be a first rounder.”
And so despite the interest from the NBA, he’s putting his dream on hold, returning to Seton Hall for one more year two days before the deadline to make a decision, following the path set by former star teammate Myles Powell, who tested the draft waters last year only to come back for his senior season.
“It was really hard, I’ll be honest with you,” Mamukelashvili said. “I just want to leave my mark on Seton Hall and show everybody what I have, being a leader and accomplishing what we couldn’t last year.
The Pirates shared the Big East regular-season crown for the first time since 1992-93 last year, but never got to play a postseason game due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. It was an adversity-filled season for Mamukelashvili, who fractured his right wrist in early December and missed 10 games. After knocking off the rust, he thrived, finishing his junior year averaging 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and shooting 54 percent from the field.
Now, his role will expand, as one of the faces of the program. While Seton Hall loses Powell and fellow starters Quincy McKnight and Romaro Gill, it does add Harvard grad transfer Bryce Aiken, an explosive scoring guard, and brings back quality pieces in Jared Rhoden, Myles Cale, Shavar Reynolds, Tyrese Samuel and Ike Obiagu.
“Definitely we lost a lot of great players, but I’ll guarantee you this right now: There will be a lot of guys stepping up this year,” he said. “We really are in the gym every day with Coach [Kevin] Willard trying to work on our game. You guys are going to see how much talent we have left. I’m feeling really good. I can’t wait to play.”
Mamukelashvili has big goals, not only for himself, but his teammates. He wants to repeat as Big East champions, play deep into March, be the league’s Player of the Year and win the Karl Malone Award, given to the nation’s top power forward.
“Going into next year, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from earlier seniors and Myles,” he said. “Being a leader, I feel confident and I can make guys a lot better. These are new challenges for me and I’m ready to face them.”
Of course, there is a question of what kind of season it will be because of the virus. Mamukelashvili is encouraged that at worst they will play conference games. He hasn’t considered the alternative.
“Everything is a risk in life,” he said. “I just want to spend one more year with my guys.”