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Former Cowboy Maldonado wins G-League title with OKC Blue

Apr. 19—LARAMIE — Hunter Maldonado left Laramie as one of the University of Wyoming's most accomplished basketball players in school history.

The 6-foot-7 guard finished his college career as the Cowboys' all-time assist leader with 630, a mark that is also No. 1 all-time in Mountain West history. Maldonado is third all-time in UW's record books with 2,158 points, second in steals at 188 and second in made free throws at 558.

The Colorado Springs, Colorado, native played in a school-record 157 games throughout his six-year career with the Cowboys, including another school-record 144 starts. In his last college game, Maldonado tallied a career-high 36 points in a first-round loss to New Mexico in the 2023 MW tournament.

Maldonado left Laramie as the only player in college basketball history to record over 2,000 points, 600 assists and 800 rebounds, according to the school.

Despite graduating with a long list of personal accolades, Maldonado never fulfilled his dream of bringing a conference championship back to the Arena-Auditorium. The closest the Cowboys got during Maldonado's career was a semifinal appearance as the No. 4 seed in the MW tournament in 2022.

Maldonado's championship aspirations never fizzled after graduation. After going undrafted last summer, Maldonado was signed by the Oklahoma City Blue in the NBA G-League, which is an affiliate of the NBA's OKC Thunder.

Maldonado played for the Thunder during last year's NBA summer league, eventually earning a spot on the Blue's roster. After the Blue started the regular season 2-9, the team went 19-4 the rest of the way, including winning 12 of its last 14 games to claim a spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

The Blue stormed through the playoff bracket, capping the run by beating the Maine Celtics in game three of a best-of-three series in the G-League Finals on Monday. The win sealed the Blue's first G-League title in team history.

OKC posted photos of players celebrating in locker room with champagne on social media following the win. The gallery included a picture of Maldonado with a cigar in one hand and the championship trophy in the other.

"It was a very special feeling," Maldonado told WyoSports on Thursday. "A lot of things have to go right, and you have to put in a bunch of work to get to where we were. Even then, sometimes, you don't win.

"So, to be able to pull it out, it's definitely going to be something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."

Maldonado was a do-it-all point guard at UW, running the offense primarily through the post, while also posting high rebounding and assist averages. That philosophy carried over to the G-League.

Maldonado averaged 11.9 points, 4.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 34 games for the Blue in his first professional season. He averaged 25.2 minutes per game, adding 1.1 steals while shooting 46.6% from the field.

While his offensive role changed from his playing days with the Cowboys, his mindset didn't.

"When I first got (to OKC), I was kind of the primary ball-handler, but things throughout a season in the G-League are, of course, so volatile, and they ebb and flow," Maldonado said. "For me, whenever I got in, I wanted to do whatever I could to impact winning by going out there and making winning plays, which was no different than my time in college.

"It was definitely a good year. I learned a lot about myself and what I need to do to get better."

Maldonado credits the culture in OKC's locker room for the team's championship run. Much like the minor league system in professional baseball, the G-League is often looked at by players as a mere stepping stone for getting to the NBA.

"(What made us special) was the selflessness from all the guys," Maldonado said. "In the G-League, that's pretty rare, because a lot of players are trying to get their own accolades to get called up.

"From day one, it was kind of a culture we settled in that we wanted to play winning basketball, so we were going to do what we needed to do. We didn't really change from that, even when we were 2-9."

Maldonado's work ethic has been a big part of his success at all levels of basketball. Working under UW coach Jeff Linder for his final three seasons in Laramie was a big boost for Maldonado's understanding of what it would take to be successful in the professional realm.

"(Playing at UW) helped out quite a bit, just in terms of the amount of work you have to put in to be successful and kind of what that looks like," Maldonado said. "Obviously, no matter what, entering a new stage where guys are even better, faster and stronger, there's going to be a learning curve.

"Without Linder and going through that experience in college, it would have been a little bigger of a learning curve for me."

Maldonado will be remembered for his historic career with the Cowboys for many reasons, but a conference championship won't be one of them. That made the feeling of winning a G-League title in his first professional season even sweeter this week.

"It's been (a long journey)," Maldonado said with a laugh. "I finally got a (championship). Obviously, I couldn't get it done at Wyoming like I tried for all six years. ... It was definitely special, and it's something I won't forget."

Alex Taylor is the assistant editor for WyoSports and covers University of Wyoming athletics. He can be reached at ataylor@wyosports.net. Follow him on X at @alex_m_taylor22.