High Flyer

If Mitchell’s motor matches his athleticism, Pistons will have a keeper

Tony Mitchell
Tony Mitchell's athleticism led to the Pistons selecting him with the 37th overall pick.
Jesse D. Garrabrant (NBAE/Getty)
ORLANDO – Tony Mitchell isn’t running from his reputation earned during a disappointing sophomore season at North Texas, though he could probably either run away from it or jump over it if he chose. It’s that athleticism – on full display through three days of Summer League practices leading to today’s opening game – that got him drafted 37th overall by the Pistons last week.

But it will be how he channels his innate gifts that will determine how high Mitchell can fly in the NBA, which flushes great athletes out of its system routinely if they can’t master the discipline required to harness their athleticism.

Mitchell was a part of Brandon Knight’s 2010 high school class and was regarded in his stratosphere as a prospect, too. Rivals.com ranked him the nation’s No. 12 player – Knight was ranked sixth – and called him a “freak athlete with good ball skills.”

But Mitchell, who was ticketed to join Kim English at Missouri, sat out the 2010-11 season due to academic ineligibility before debuting at North Texas with a bang the following season, averaging 14.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots a game while shooting 57 percent overall and 44 percent from the 3-point line. While Mitchell only shot 41 triples for the season, the accuracy speaks to the rare combination of athleticism and skill he possesses.

His sophomore season saw a coaching change and a run of injuries through the team, but Mitchell admits he shouldn’t have allowed external forces to diminish his focus and effort.

“It was a tough season altogether,” he said. “The coaching change didn’t have anything to do with it. It was just hard for me to get up for games, but I’m just trying to change that and work hard. Right now I’ve got this stigma that I’m trying to get off of me – basically, being a player who doesn’t play hard. I’m just trying to give full effort. To be honest, it was just tough for all of us with injuries and people playing me up and down the court, double team, triple team. But that’s not an excuse. My production shouldn’t have dropped, but it happened. You’ve got to keep moving forward.”

Mitchell never came to Auburn Hills for a predraft workout because he wasn’t under consideration to be picked at No. 8 and there was no way anyone anticipated he’d be on the board at 37. Mock drafts consistently had Mitchell being picked somewhere in the 20s with New York, picking 24th, a frequent destination. Mitchell said draft night didn’t disappoint him in the least. Some thought he could go in the late teens, despite the sophomore slump. He was just looking for a place to call home and a chance to start fresh.

“Mock drafts had me going in the high 20s, but it was a blessing just to get drafted, period,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to work and trying to find a home. I’m just trying to get established, keep working on my game and getting better.”

Effort level has been a non-issue so far, through five practices, where Mitchell has had many wow moments that caught the attention of his established young teammates like Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. After Saturday’s final practice, Cheeks assistant Maz Trakh, running the show for Summer League, lauded Mitchell’s end-to-end effort and passion for the game.

“Freak athlete – that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” Knight said. “As soon as he hones it in and, like Mo (Cheeks) said, when he uses it in a substantive way, when he tones it, he can be very, very good. Some of the stuff that I see him do is ridiculous. I just admire watching that type of stuff because you really don’t see it that often. When it’s on your team, you like it a lot. Him and Andre (Drummond) are super explosive.”

When I mentioned to Monroe that Mitchell looked “pretty athletic” after the second practice of the week, he laughed. “Pretty athletic? Pretty is not the word. That’s an understatement,” he said. “The things he was doing in drills, he was doing them with so much ease, it was kind of unrealistic.”

In a full-court scrimmage Friday, Mitchell snared a rebound in traffic with one arm, his elbow at the rim. He did it again on Saturday. In one four-on-four defensive shell drill, he went from the free-throw line to the 3-point line at the wing and recovered to a corner 3-point shooter in the blink of an eye, deflecting the third pass with an outstretched arm, earning yelps of approval from Trakh and a high five.

That’s what the Pistons are asking of him – to put his elite athleticism to use by playing hard to make an impact. They’re asking of him, assistant general manager George David said, what they asked of Drummond a year ago.

“We have a little inside thing, me and George,” he said. “He told me to play my ace card. I’m going to keep my ace handy.”

Mitchell has spent most of his scrimmage time going against Monroe at power forward and said he felt instantly welcomed. He loves the fit with the team’s young core.

“Things are going real well,” he said. “You’ve got to get comfortable, especially being in a new setting, but I’m glad just being in this situation. Going against Greg has been really good for me. It’s making me better on the defensive end. Greg has really coached me up and down the floor, what I’m doing wrong and the mistakes I’m making. He was telling me I don’t need to give up space. If I give up space, it’s going to be hard for me and opens the possibility of getting scored on. He just told me to play hard and try to take up space and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Mitchell said the coach who brought him to North Texas, Johnny Jones, put him at ease by telling him a franchise run by Joe Dumars would come without drama. Jones, now head coach at LSU, was a Louisiana high school contemporary of Dumars.

“Him and coach Jones are from the same neck of the woods in Louisiana,” Mitchell said. “Coach Jones wished me well. He said Joe’s a real dude. He’s going to be straightforward with me. That’s what Joe’s been doing since I got here. He’s been straightforward and telling me what I’ve got to do and I’m trying to live up to the challenge.”

Mitchell gets that he needs to show it for more than a few practices in Summer League, but he’s invigorated by a clean slate and at ease with his new home and teammates.

“Man, it’s gone real well,” he said. “Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m ready. And, of course, I’m going to dunk the ball. That’s not a question. But whatever else they need me to do, I’m ready.”