Mitrou-Long Ready for Opportunity, Wherever it Comes

It's not your everyday name: Nazareth Jersey Mitrou-Long. Which is fine, because he's not your everyday player. Or maybe he is, depending on your point of view, but he's working on moving beyond that.

Mitrou-Long goes by "Naz," short for a Biblically-inspired name that runs as a theme among his siblings. He was virtually unknown to Pacers fans until last Saturday, when he was plucked from virtually nowhere — Portland, Maine, to be exact — to join the team as an emergency rotation player for the game against Milwaukee at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He played a bigger role at point guard in Monday's victory at Brooklyn, finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a turnover in 25 1/2 minutes. But he'll likely be out of the rotation, and perhaps out of uniform, in Saturday's game with Orlando as veteran players return from the injury report.

Such is the life of a two-way player in the NBA, but it's still a life in basketball. That's good enough, for now, for Mitrou-Long, who is accustomed to nibbling his way up the food chain.

"I'm blessed and honored to be looked at," he said following Friday's practice at St. Vincent Center. He was referring to his current situation with the Pacers but just as easily could have been speaking of the greater part of his basketball career.

Mitrou-Long is 26 years old, which is awfully late to be trying to break into the NBA, but that happens to be his circumstance. Besides, he's accustomed to catching up.

He was a late recruit for Iowa State. It hadn't been easy to find him playing high school basketball in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. He went on to average 1.4 points as a freshman, 7.1 as a sophomore, and 10.1 as a junior. He was injured after playing eight games in what was going to be his senior season and took a medical redshirt, then came back in his fifth season to average 15.1 points in the 2016-17 season.

Five-year college players operate at a major disadvantage in the NBA Draft. They are thought to lack upside, to be too close to a finished product. Malcolm Brogdon, remember, fell to the second round, despite being voted the ACC's Player of the Year and a first-team All-American at Virginia.

"I think in an era of basketball where the one-and-dones are so popular, and you have a bunch of guys with so much upside, it's kind of an investment," he said. "But it can be a gamble as well."

Mitrou-Long represented no gamble, given the minimum investment required to sign him. He caught on with Sacramento's Summer League team in 2017 and earned an invitation to Utah's training camp, where he earned a two-way contract to play for the Jazz G League team. He got into one game with the Jazz two seasons ago, for 31 seconds in the second game of the season at Denver — long enough for him to hit a 3-pointer — and then in 14 games for the Jazz the following season. His only appearance long enough to increase his breathing rate came in the season's final game, when the Jazz had their playoff position secured. He went 33 minutes and 43 seconds, scored nine points and passed out nine assists.

Monday's game at Brooklyn, then, stands as his greatest NBA moment. It was a meaningful role in a meaningful game and boosted his sense of belonging in the league — the major league.

"It definitely reassures you," he said. "I know guys who have been in the league for three, four, five years who are looking to put a stretch together to reassure themselves. Playing a game like Brooklyn and getting my feet wet against Milwaukee, feeling the comfortability, it reassures me that I am an NBA player.

"Just to contribute to that and feel comfortable doing so, it's a big deal to me."

Mitrou-Long had Pacers connections long before he played in a game for the Pacers. He played his first three collegiate seasons at Iowa State for former Pacers guard Fred Hoiberg, who scouted him on the AAU circuit and sent to Canada once to watch him. He roomed at Iowa State with Georges Niang, whom the Pacers had drafted in the second round the previous year. The Pacers were among the teams for whom he worked out before the 2017 Draft.

He had several offers of a two-way contract over the summer, and some lucrative ones overseas. College teammate Will Clyburn leaned on him hard to join a team in Russia, for example. But he bet on himself by signing with an NBA team again, and chose the Pacers.

Naz Mitrou-Long, DeAndre Jordan

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

"I just felt comfortable, man," he said. "There was something about this place. I ran into (general manager) Chad Buchanan in the Summer League (he played for Cleveland) when I was getting my coffee. Even before he knew he wanted to talk to me about a two-way contract, he had said, 'Look man, I'm coming to your game tonight. You're doing some great things.'

"I know his nephew, too, so there's a tie there."

Aside from his five-year college career, Mitrou-Long has had to overcome a position change to prove himself to NBA scouts. Hoiberg recruited him as a point guard, but it worked out better for the team at Iowa State to play him at off-guard. His best hope of survival in the NBA obviously requires him to have point guard skills, so he's had to work on those.

"I know I have room to get better," he said. "I didn't play the point guard at all at Iowa State. That's who I am, truly, and who I was before growing up. I'm still learning, and I feel comfortable.

Which isn't to say his time at Iowa State was wasted. He established himself a 3-point shooter, finishing second on Iowa State's all-time 3-point list, and he was a significant part of three conference championship teams.

"He was so great to have in the program," said Hoiberg, now the coach at Nebraska. "He's one of the main reasons we got over the hump. Just a consummate professional. He had a great approach and work ethic

"He's one of those guys I'll always root for."

Mitrou-Long certainly looked like a point guard at Brooklyn on Monday, settling the offense and taking advantage of scoring opportunities. The Pacers had managed just 14 points before he entered the game with 3:09 left in the first quarter. He scored seven consecutive points early in the second period, hitting a 3-pointer and two mid-range shots. After his third one, off one leg, T.J. McConnell stood and shouted his trademark compliment: "That's tough!"

Here's what else is tough, though. Mitrou-Long will be going back to Fort Wayne to resume his career as a Mad Ant soon. The NBA's two-way contract limits him to 45 days with the Pacers unless they sign him to an NBA contract, in which case they would have to find a way to create a roster opening for him. He's gone beyond the planned stay with Pacers this month because of the injuries, and likely will have a more extended run with the Mad Ants when the Pacers don't need him.

He's the Mad Ants' best player, having averaged 22 points on 52 percent shooting, including 7-of-10 3-point field goals, along with seven assists, and he could very well be good enough to secure a full-time NBA roster spot.

But how? Is he better off playing a lot of minutes in games with Fort Wayne, or riding the Pacers' bench? He figures he'll improve either way.

"It's the same thing," he said. "Just stay ready. If my number is called it's called, if it's not I'm still on the bench cheering guys on, getting guys water. Learning the game, man.

"The game isn't all physical, it's mental, too. I had prepared for moments like Milwaukee and Brooklyn my whole life, and that's just from watching the game. If a guy goes down, I'll be ready. If we can be at full strength, that's when we're at our best, so I'm just going to be part of the team and continue to root."

Until it's time to play again. Wherever that might be.

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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