Tony Mitchell (AP)
Eager to show Tony Mitchell what he's capable of accomplishing before he leaves college, North Texas coach Tony Benford set up a meeting last month between the sophomore forward and the best athlete the school has ever produced.
Benford had Mitchell meet with Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mean Joe Greene because he wanted his young star to realize he could make a similar impact on North Texas basketball as the Hall of Fame defensive tackle made on the football program. Greene led North Texas to a 23-5-1 record during his three seasons, earned All-American honors and became the fourth pick in the 1968 NFL draft.
"Joe has a legacy," Mitchell said. "He made it to the league and he made an impact. His name is still remembered at North Texas. That's the same thing I'm trying to do."
Championship rings, Hall of Fame speeches and Coca-Cola commercials certainly aren't guaranteed to be part of Mitchell's future, but he has as good a chance to achieve those goals as any basketball player at North Texas has before. The 6-foot-8 forward likely would have been a first-round pick had he left school after his freshman year and has a chance to solidify himself as a lottery pick next June if he showcases improved perimeter skills as a sophomore.
Mitchell's return gives North Texas a chance to not only win the Sun Belt Conference but also emerge as one of the elite mid-major programs in the nation next season. He'll be the centerpiece of a talented roster that also includes promising sophomore point guard Chris Jones, high-scoring perimeter shooter Jordan Williams and former Oklahoma State transfer Roger Franklin Jr.
"Tony is one of the best athletes I've ever been around," Benford said. "He has a great motor, plays with great energy and I think he has the ability to lead the country in rebounding.
"I just left the Big East. If he was in the Big East, there's not anyone more talented than him. I've scouted all those guys. He'd be preseason Big East Player of the Year if he was in that league. That's how talented I think he is, personally."
Seeing Mitchell's name on All-American teams and mock drafts is still a bit surreal for his mother, Angie, but she got used to him doing things ahead of schedule a long time ago.
On April 7, 1992, Mitchell was born eight days before he was due at 8 pounds, 16 ounces and with arms that already stretched below his knees. By six months, he was talking. Weeks later, he had already begun to walk.
It wasn't until Mitchell emerged as an elite recruit midway through his high school career that it dawned on him he wouldn't be able to play in college if his high school grades didn't improve.
He tried to salvage his transcript by spending his junior year at Center of Life Academy in Florida, a charter school he later learned lacked the proper accreditation for both the NCAA and the Dallas Indepedent School District. As a result, the NCAA ruled him academically ineligible to play at Missouri in fall 2010 and denied his final appeal months later.
Since Angie Mitchell knew there was a good chance her son wouldn't be eligible to play right away at Missouri and the Tigers couldn't accept partial qualifiers, she made sure to keep a plan B available for her son.
"You wish for the best, but you have to plan for the worst," she said. "I always kept North Texas as a backup plan. I always kept some form of communication with that staff. Every three or four weeks, I'd call them just to keep them up-to-date."
North Texas coach Johnny Jones and his staff were happy to keep a scholarship open for Mitchell because the Mean Green seldom had a prospect with his pedigree show interest prior to that. Jones knew a frontcourt player as gifted as Mitchell could help elevate North Texas from an upper level Sun Belt program to a team that could not only make the NCAA tournament but perhaps do some damage.
Mitchell spent his first 12 months at North Texas focused more on schoolwork than basketball, perhaps a blessing in disguise for a guy who admits he needed that time to mature. When he finally made his debut against Middle Tennessee State last December, the curiosity level was so high that 21 NBA scouts were in attendance.
"It was a special day," Angie Mitchell said. "I think I went hoarse when he was going to check in."
Though Mitchell averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in 23 games and showed enough raw talent that most NBA scouts considered him a potential late first-round pick, he felt he needed to return to school for one more year.
He didn't believe he was prepared enough or emotionally mature enough to make the jump to the NBA yet. Furthermore, he had played mostly in the paint his first season at North Texas, so he felt he could improve his draft stock if he could show off his perimeter skills more in year two.
What complicated the decision a bit for Mitchell was Jones' leaving North Texas and accepting the head coaching position at LSU.
Mitchell understood why Jones would leave to go to a school he played and coached at previously, yet he feared the next coaching staff might not have his best interest in mind. His former high school coach, Nick Smith, said in April that a depressed Mitchell came to him the day after Jones told the team he was leaving and said, "The whole staff is going to be split up. I might as well leave and go to the NBA."
"I was confused, I was being immature and I was thinking out of haste," Mitchell said, reflecting on that time months later. "Just because coach Jones left didn't mean I had to leave too. It was just me not thinking it through. As I talked to my family and my circle, it helped clear my head. It was a good decision on my end to stay."
What also helped reassure Mitchell was the hiring of Benford, a man with whom he was already very familiar. Benford had recruited Mitchell to Marquette out of high school before Mitchell chose Missouri over the Golden Eagles.
Soon after Benford accepted the position in April, he and assistant coach Bart Lundy put together a book for Mitchell that compared his strengths and weaknesses to that of past first-round draft picks. In the process, they highlighted areas he needed to improve, from his mid-range game, to his post moves, to his ability to take care of the ball when he is double-teamed.
"He's very physical over his left shoulder, so we told him he's got to get a counter so that when people take that away he can go to his right," Benford said. "He shot the ball well from the 3-point line, but when people crowded him, going right he was very efficient but he had some difficulty going left. So we showed him those were areas of his game we thought we could help him improve on."
Whereas Mitchell often had to defend the opposing team's biggest player as a freshman, Benford envisions incoming center Keith Coleman taking on that responsibility this year. Instead, Mitchell will serve as a versatile, multidimensional forward similar to the role guys like Jae Crowder and Lazar Hayward played at Marquette.
Mitchell is excited about that opportunity because he knows that could aid his NBA stock, but he believes individual rewards will come as long as North Texas has success as a team. He wants to win the Sun Belt, make a run in the NCAA tournament and shatter the school record of 26 victories in a single season.
"That's very important to me," Mitchell said. "Leaving a legacy means doing something that people will look back on years later and say, 'Oh, that was Jordan Williams, Tony Mitchell and Chris Jones playing on that 2012-13 team.' It's very exciting. We're ready to attack those goals and achieve them."
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