Ex-Mizzou recruit Mitchell ready to make comeback at North Texas
Tony Mitchell was banned from Missouri last year due to academic ineligibility
Mitchell will need to pass 24 credit hours to join North Texas this December
In the Sun Belt, Mitchell will undoubtedly emerge as a conference standout
Two recruits from the Rivals.com Class of 2010 top 20 never appeared in a game last season. The first, everyone knows. The NCAA deemed him a professional due to benefits he received from a professional club in Turkey, and Kentucky's Internet fan-army started a T-shirt campaign to "free" him from the collegiate ban. Ultimately all he did was serve as a student assistant coach and train in Lexington. He still managed to be picked No. 3 overall in last month's NBA draft. Things worked out well for Enes Kanter.
The second missing prospect was sitting in hotel lobby in Riga, Latvia, earlier this month, wearing USA warmup gear, explaining where he's been playing basketball for the past year: on his own in gyms around Dallas, or in rec-center pickup games on the campus of North Texas. "This whole wait has been tough," he said. "I felt real rusty when I showed up [in Latvia], but I'm starting to get back in the groove."
As he spoke, the Serbian, Croatian and Lithuanian national teams were filing by him on their way to the lunch buffet. Those players -- his opponents in the FIBA U19 World Championships, in which the U.S. finished fifth -- have been his only meaningful competition since he played with the Americans in last summer's qualifying tournament in San Antonio. He had signed a letter of intent with Missouri, but was never allowed on campus, and then resurfaced at North Texas. The question this July remains the same as it was last July: Will things work out for Tony Mitchell?
Mitchell's case received far less media attention than did Kanter's, in part because Mitchell wasn't at Kentucky, and in part because his issues involved academics, not compensation. The 6-8 power forward was, at No. 12 overall in Rivals' rankings, the highest-rated player ever to sign with Mizzou, but his high school transcripts drew major red flags from the NCAA. In his junior year, as part of a quest to better his grades to be come eligible to play college basketball, he was led astray to an unaccredited prep school in Miami. He takes the blame for it now ("It was my mistake," he says, "I should have checked up on it first"), even though he was just 16 when he went to Center of Life Christian Academy, trusting the advice of an AAU coach.
Only a fraction of Mitchell's work at Center of Life Christian would count toward his NCAA eligibility. He transferred to Dallas' Pinkston High for his senior season and tried to retake core courses at an impermissible pace; a local school district investigation led to his transcripts being invalidated, and his graduation was delayed while he struggled with a state exit test. Mitchell remained at home in Dallas during what would've been his first college semester, and his eligibility saga dragged into January, when he got word that he'd never be able to play for the Tigers.
Forced to choose between the junior college route or attending a four-year school as a partial qualifier, Mitchell enrolled at North Texas, where he's now a student paying in-state tuition. Mean Green coach Johnny Jones had aggressively recruited Mitchell out of high school and is hoping for a second chance to coach the local phenom. "We felt we were right there," Jones said, "So when he committed to Missouri, it was like we lost a battle." Mitchell needs to pass 24 credit hours to be eligible to practice with UNT on Dec. 17, following the conclusion of its fall semester, and potentially debut on Dec. 18 at home against LSU. Until then, he can't work out with the team, and has had to settle for dominating at the campus rec center, where he's become an intramural-league legend*.
(* An actual message-board post inspired by one of Mitchell's games in February: "While getting beat by 30 in my rec game tonight I witnessed the greatest basketball player I've ever seen in person (not in the NBA)... Tony Mitchell. While playing in front of a crowd of about 100, at about 30% effort, he showed just how much better he was than anyone on that court. You can just tell that he is legit NBA prospect. My favorite was his between the legs power dunk on a fast break. I heart him. The end." [sic])
Mitchell said that his progress toward that 24-credit goal was "beyond half done," and that he's on track to join the North Texas team for the bulk of its season. It should be noted that he told me last summer that everything would be fine at Missouri, which didn't turn out to be the case, so his start date shouldn't be viewed as a lock. But Jones, too, expresses optimism that Mitchell will suit up this year, based on what the coach has seen out of his 2011 coursework. "Tony's been so focused and determined to have the opportunity to play," Jones said. "If he stays that focused, he'll be on target to play on Dec. 18."
The one coach Mitchell has been able to play for this year is George Mason's Paul Hewitt, who headed the U.S. U19 team and considered the 6-8 forward a key defensive contributor. With potential interior stars such as Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Kentucky's Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis turning down invites, the U.S.' only other frontcourt players were Florida's Patric Young, Illinois' Meyers Leonard, Creighton's Doug McDermott and Butler's Khyle Marshall, and Mitchell ended up playing 15.8 minutes per game backing up Young and McDermott. As raw as Mitchell is skill-wise -- the fact that he hadn't been in a college program for a year was evident in Latvia -- he still managed to post attention-grabbing numbers by crashing the glass and flying in from the weak side for blocks.
A per-28-minute, tempo-free analysis of the U19s published at In-The-Game.org ranked Mitchell's efficiency rating (20.4) second in the entire tournament, behind only Lithuania's Jonas Valanciunas, who was the No. 5 overall pick in this year's draft and by far the best player in Riga. Mitchell only averaged half as many minutes (15.8 mpg) as Valanciunas, but had a higher rebounding rate (0.47 rpm) and block rate (0.11 bpm) than the future Raptors center.
NBA scouts had been especially curious to see Mitchell, who as a high school senior beat out Baylor's Perry Jones -- a possible top-three pick in 2012 -- for the Dallas Morning News' area player of the year honors. And while Mitchell didn't do anything in Latvia that particularly wowed NBA evaluators, he made enough of an impact to warrant future visits to Denton, where he could grow into a first-round pick. "He's a great athlete, but he's just playing on instinct right now," one scout said. "He hasn't developed a feel for the game yet."
Mitchell's athleticism alone will be enough to make him stand out in the Sun Belt, a conference that rarely features athletes of his caliber, and never lands recruits of his status. He longingly watched Missouri games on TV for the first half of 2010-11, wondering what he might've done in the Tigers' frontcourt, and thinks he could help the Mean Green, who lost their opening NCAA tournament game last March, pull off upsets in the postseason.
"I'll be trying to make a huge impact right away," he said. "I should make a huge impact. I'll be playing to win, and entertain at the same time -- you know, throwing down dunks, the usual."
It was hard not to laugh at Mitchell's secondary goal of "entertainment," but that comment as a whole was indicative of how overeager he is to get on the floor in Denton. He's desperate to do something, anything, to prove that he's still an elite player, as opposed to a cautionary tale of a once-hyped recruit. All of his American frontcourt mates should benefit from their international experience; for Young and Leonard, it could set the stage for breakout sophomore seasons as they take on starting roles stateside. But for Mitchell, it was something else entirely: a respite from his academic purgatory, a reminder of how far he has to go to catch up to his peers, and for the first time in a year, the chance to function as part of a team. He needed the U19 trip more than did anyone else on the roster.