PHOENIX – “He’s a talented guy, he can play inside and he can play outside. He’s one of the better athletes in this draft. You can see his body, he’s a guy who physically can come in and play fairly quickly I think.” – Suns GM Ryan McDonough on Tony Mitchell
Even in a draft where there isn’t a single sure thing, Tony Mitchell still might be the most interesting Class of 2013 prospect. In terms of pure talent and athleticism, he should be a lottery pick.
For a player who models his game after Shawn Marion and Kenneth Faried, the 6-foot-9 forward out of North Texas certainly has elements of their game in his skill set. The 21-year-old has unreal leaping abilities (7-foot-3 wingspan), excels at finishing above the rim with either hand, protects the basket defensively (3.0 blocks per 40 minutes in 2012-13) as well anyone in the draft not named Nerlens Noel and attacks the glass with force (9.9 rebounds per 40 minutes in 2012-13), when he wants to.
The biggest concern about Mitchell is reflected in the statement above: When he wants to. Mitchell has all the physical tools in the world to be a successful player at the NBA level. In fact, his ceiling might be higher than just about every other prospect. His post moves — especially with the left hand — are still very raw, he’s an average defender when pulled outside the paint and at times he relies too heavily on the jump shot instead of working his way to the rim. Yet those three criticisms pale in comparison to the one having to do with his consistent energy level and desire to contribute.
North Texas was not a good basketball team by any stretch of the imagination this past season. Under first-year head coach Tony Benford, the Mean Green went 12-20 and lost in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to Louisiana-Lafayette. Not surprisingly, though his minutes increased from 2011-12 to 2012-13, Mitchell’s numbers took a bit of hit during his sophomore season. Almost every offensive statistical category – field goal percentage (-12 percent), points per game (-1.7), rebounds per game (-1.8), assists per game (-0.8), three-point percentage (-13.9 percent) and free throw percentage (-6.4 percent) – went down.
Yet, the biggest red flag from his final campaign at North Texas wasn’t the decline in production itself, but rather the reason behind it.
When the ball didn’t go through Mitchell in 2012-13, he didn’t exactly show a desire to go get it. Call it a lack of interest or simply an apathetic response to losing, but Mitchell wasn’t a very good leader when things went bad for the Mean Green. Skill-wise, he was far and away the program’s best player, but on the court it wasn’t always so clear (See: 0-point effort vs. Florida International on Jan. 17 or final seven games of season).
“This year, we had a tough season for me, my teammates and my coaches,” Mitchell said. “Other than that, it was good. It was a well-rounded season. I matured off the court.
“I didn’t have any doubts about the season. Of course, probably a little bit on the court with my effort and what not. But regardless, I matured as a person.”
For Mitchell, it’s always going to be about the mental side of the game. Can he handle the grind of an 82-game regular season, when things might not always go his way or his team’s way?
He has all of the physical tools to be a lottery-bound prospect, but the mental side will almost certainly keep him from hearing his name called by David Stern before pick No. 20.
Mitchell is the exception to the rule that another year of college is never a bad thing. And now because of his less-than-inspiring sophomore season, the good will he built up as a freshman –when he took the country by storm with high-flying dunks and ESPN top 10-worthy blocks – has somewhat become a distant memory.
Ultimately, his freakish athleticism and NBA body will get him a first-round flyer from some team willing to take a risk. But if it’s not the right fit, if an established coach isn’t in place to keep him mentally engaged at all times, he has bust written all over him.
How would he fit with the Suns?
Tony Mitchell is a polarizing player to say the least. Two people could look at his game tape, listen to his interviews, watch his combine/pre-draft workouts, and still not agree as to whether or not he’s worth the risk.
Looking at his recent past and the 6-foot-9 to 6-foot-11 projects (Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Michael Beasley) currently on the Suns roster, the fit doesn’t seem apparent. Like the aforementioned players listed, Mitchell settles for jump shots far too often, struggles to consistently maintain focus and has some deficiencies when pulled away from the paint at the defensive end.
With that said, he would instantly be an upgrade on the fastbreak and when it comes to playing around the rim, at both ends of the floor.
“I can run up and down the court, definitely show athleticism dunking the ball,” said Mitchell. “I can definitely go up and down, that’s my style of play.”
At the end of the day it comes down to two simple questions for Ryan McDonough: Is the reward worth the risk at No. 30 and is Jeff Hornacek, in his first head coaching gig, firm enough to handle a player like Mitchell?
“I guess the advantage I have with Tony is that I’ve seen him play at different times,” McDonough said. “I saw him play in-person last year as a freshman and this year as a sophomore. I also saw him play at the U-19 World Championships in Riga, Latvia. So I’ve seen Tony in all sides of his game, when he’s played well, when he hasn’t played well.
“He’s talented. The team this year struggled, and obviously he didn’t have the year he wanted to have. But honestly, it’s tough to have a year like he had as a freshman – one of the best seasons a guy has had in recent college basketball history.”
And 1 … A second-rounder to consider
BJ Young out of Arkansas is definitely a shooting guard to keep an eye on should the Suns opt not to take one in the first round.
Both because of his speed and quick release, Young has no problem creating shots for himself off the dribble. He’s a scorer through and through (15.2 points per game in 2012-13 and 15.3 points per game in 2011-12), who has great range but also an explosive ability to get to the basket.
As he showed last season with the Razorbacks, he’s isn’t a prolific three-point shooter (22.7 percent) and his frame (6-foot-3 and 180 pounds) isn’t exactly ideal for an NBA two-guard, but Young is a high motor guy at both ends of the floor, who presents decent value at No. 57.