North Texas dropped a heartbreaker to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt title game on Tuesday, ending the Mean Green's late charge at an NCAA Tournament berth. But despite squandering a commanding second-half lead to a 14-18 opponent, there's still reason for excitement in Denton going forward.
That is, if they can keep Tony Mitchell around for another year.
Mitchell was a prized Missouri recruit whose academic issues coming out of Dallas Pinkston High School landed him in the Sun Belt instead of the Big 12. After averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds this year, he projects as a late first-round pick in this year's draft if he leaves school. However, he could move up considerably should he choose to come back and develop his very obvious physical gifts.
Listed at 6'8, 235 pounds with a 6'10 wingspan, Mitchell has the size to play the 3 or the 4 at the next level. When watching him, the first thing you notice is his NBA-level body as an 19-year old. While not Blake Griffin, Mitchell is quick off the floor while his leaping ability allows him to impact a game on both ends of the floor.
Though he was met at the rim and denied at one point in the first half after a nice catch on a post-entry pass, he also had stretches of dominance against the Hilltoppers. During one sequence in the second half, Mitchell blocked several shots in succession at one end before catching the ball down low and going up quick (without bringing the ball down a la Brendan Haywood) to get the basket and the foul.
There are many things to like about him as a player: he's strong with the ball, has a good amount of coordination for a player his size, soft hands and the beginnings of a sound handle. When he got the ball in the post, he showed patience and a good feel for what was going on around him, making several excellent passes in traffic. Combine that with a clean release on his jump shot and range out to the three point line and he has the basic tools to be a versatile scorer and a mis-match nightmare, capable of scoring from the wing and the post.
However, Mitchell's use of his outstanding physical gifts still leaves a bit to be desired. First, he is simply not a good offensive player without the ball. When posting up, he fails to get low enough to use leverage and is pushed out of position fairly frequently. Additionally, while his release on his shot consistent and clean, Mitchell often fails to set his feet and is consistently off-balance, something exacerbated when he shoots off the dribble.
I believe it's nearly impossible to get an honest feel for a player after scouting a single game, but Mitchell displayed the strengths in his game that make him so appealing to scouts, while also showing the areas where his tantalizing talent needs further refinement. Should he leave this year, it's possible he may be locked into a limited role as a slightly undersized post player at the next level. If he stays, Jones may very well give him the chance to showcase a more diverse skill set, especially with 6'11 junior college transfer John Odoh coming in to lock down the post.
There's also some question as to how Mitchell will fit in with Chris Jones, the team's high usage point guard and leading scorer before Mitchell became eligible. Regardless, the best route for Mitchell is to stay in school and polish his game. If he leaves now, he could be locked into a Brandon Bass role in the league. If he stays, he could develop into a lot more -- potentially even an All-Star caliber player if he can become a better shooter off the dribble and develop some comfort on the perimeter.
With Jones, Mitchell and Odoh all in the fold for next year, Tuesday's loss may mark a beginning rather than an end, and the Metroplex may have a bona-fide college basketball attraction.