Pistons rookie makes a push by sticking to his script.
It might be playing out on a level a few planes below Andre Drummond’s, but the nascent career arc of Tony Mitchell’s is following the same trail: impressive but raw in Summer League, progress made in the intervening months before training camp, flashing signs in preseason that the part of the sky his outrageous athleticism allows him to touch is the only limit.
After watching Mitchell in Orlando three months ago, Joe Dumars said, “The word for Tony Mitchell is intriguing. He’s an exceptional athlete, but Tony also has a good feel for the game.” He also said, “We can bring Tony along and not have to rush him and allow him to grow and learn and figure things out.”
A few months later, just before training camp opened and he’d seen Mitchell working with Rasheed Wallace in the team’s practice facility, Dumars said, “There’s no rush to throw him out there, but I think Tony’s going to compete. He’s not going to back down. He’s not going to just stand at the back of the line and wait. I think he’s going to try to fight his way out there to see if he can get minutes.”
Maurice Cheeks is going to have plenty of frontcourt options when the season opens next week. The run of injuries that’s depleted his backcourt has left his big men largely untouched, though Charlie Villanueva left Tuesday’s game after three minutes with a sore back that improved on Wednesday but kept him out of practice.
But when the Pistons held Josh Smith back Tuesday, it created a minutes void that presented another opportunity for Mitchell to give Cheeks something else to consider. And that’s what he did.
In a little over four first-quarter minutes, Mitchell registered a steal, two assists and two blocked shots. He made two baskets, closing the quarter with a put-back built on effort even more than athleticism. He finished with eight points, making all four of his shots, including a rhythm 19-footer stroked in the second half that spoke to what might be someday.
“Tony’s gotten better,” Cheeks said after Wednesday’s practice with Mitchell, the last player still on the court, shooting off to Cheeks’ side. “He comes out and works before practice and you see he’s working after practice. He’s picked up certain things, but obviously it’s going to be a little slow in that area because he’s a rookie trying to figure out how to play the NBA game. He’s developed a nice little 15-, 16-foot shot, but that’s not going to be how he gets on the floor, what his bread and butter will be. His forte is going to be around the rim, offensive rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots, those hustle things like that.”
It was exactly what last year’s coaching staff said about Drummond, of course, and he did those things at an elite level for the 20 minutes or so he’d play as a rookie. Drummond’s role will be expanded this season, and there’s no one quite like him to come off Cheeks’ bench this season – unless it turns out to be Mitchell.
With Smith out, Mitchell and Jonas Jerebko paired at forward gave the Pistons a level of activity that registered with Cheeks.
“When Tony and Jonas come off the bench, they give us that extra boost, especially when Kyle (Singler) is also out there,” Cheeks said. “They give us a little extra kick. If we’re playing well, they can keep it up. If we’re not playing well, they can give us a little more energy.”
For a second-round rookie who came to camp looking up at Greg Monroe, Villanueva and Jerebko at power forward, Mitchell has remained grounded despite the optimism his play has sparked. He saw his steal, blocked shots, assists and well-stroked jumper in Wednesday’s film session, but also his less obvious mistakes.
“I feel I did all right,” he said. “I could have done a lot better. We were watching film today and talking about how you can’t let somebody cut in front of your face. (Jan) Vesely cut in front of my face one time and got an easy bucket. Just things like that you have to be aware of, especially being young in this league.”
The trail Drummond blazed last season is now Mitchell’s to maneuver, a job description Mitchell embraces despite being his college team’s go-to scorer for both of his seasons at North Texas State.
“My role is to rebound, block shots and defend,” he said. “Whatever else comes after that’s just extra.”
Like the 19-footer?
“Yeah, that’s extra,” he grinned. “Me and coach Maz (Trakh), I’ve got to give credit to Maz. He’s been killing me the whole time, everybody knows that. He’s always on me. I’m his rookie.”
Does the rookie have license to take a few steps back and knock down a 3-pointer?
“No, not yet. I’d get yanked easily if I do that.”
Time is on his side. He’s 21. The only player on the team who thinks that’s old is Andre Drummond.