Mad Ants fans might want to catch Tony Mitchell while they still can.
Mitchell, a rookie forward, came to Fort Wayne with a chance to repair his off-court reputation and enhance his on-court profile. He's done both. So it shouldn't be long until nothing holds him back from his NBA dream.
Ants coach Duane Ticknor said Mitchell's stock is rising.
“I don't know if he'll get called up this year – he probably deserves to,” Ticknor said. “But he's proved himself. If he goes to summer league and vet camp and comes back next year, he'll be at the top of everybody's radar.”
Mitchell was acquired by the Ants early in the season after making himself available in the player pool. A standout player with incredible athleticism at the University of Alabama, Mitchell's college career ended early as he was suspended for the last half of the season for what was labeled “conduct detrimental to the team.” It was apparently a combination of events that might be best summarized as competitiveness combining with immaturity.
“Things happened,” Mitchell said. “It could have went differently, but it didn't. You have to let things go. Don't let things bother you. Everything happens for a reason and I see that now.”
Mitchell gave up his college eligibility and ended up in camp with Sacramento last fall, but was waived. Other NBA teams decided to wait and let Mitchell prove his worth in the NBA Development League. The Mad Ants picked him up shortly after the season started.
Mitchell has produced. He's averaging 19.5 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Mad Ants (19-19), who play Bakersfield (25-11) at 5 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.
“He's playing with such a high level of confidence; I love the way he's matured,” Ticknor said. “From where he started to where he is today is a night-and-day difference.
“I really enjoy coaching him. He has a little bit of feistiness in him, but most good players do,” Ticknor said. “As long as we're on the same page where he wants to get and where we want to get as a team, I have no problem with that. I like competitive guys like that because I'm the same way.”
Mitchell's offensive skills include an ability to create his own shot, whether off drives or jumpers. His range extends to three-point distance. His leaping ability is off the charts, as shown by his acrobatic dunking ability. He won the D-League dunk contest during the All-Star Game festivities.
“I think just getting out there and playing has been a big help to my game,” Mitchell said. “Seeing that I missed like half the year last year, getting out there and playing with veterans and learning the game from them has been pretty good for me.”
Ticknor said the Mad Ants' veteran roster has been a help to Mitchell, and that veteran big man Chris Porter has been especially helpful as a mentor. Other older players, including Brandon Wallace and Ron Howard, have been great influences, too.
“The biggest thing is his maturity level,” Ticknor said. “It took awhile for him to trust the coaching staff after the incidents where he kind of got a raw deal at Alabama. Once he found out we were in his corner, I think that made a lot of difference.”
Mitchell has carried an even bigger role on offense over the past month, scoring at least 23 points in 11 of the last 12 games.
“His shooting percentages aren't great, but we've asked him to do so much with Luke (Harangody) out that he had to pick it up,” Ticknor said.
Mitchell said he believes he has gotten stronger at both ends of the court, and that playing with a group of veteran players who understand the game has been a boost.
He also said he feels he has significantly repaired the damage his reputation took with the way things ended at Alabama. Ticknor said the first thing most coaches ask about is Mitchell's attitude.
“I had a couple scouts say that it wasn't just basketball, it was off-court issues,” Mitchell said. “Now they've seen me out here playing and they know my game and things have gotten a whole lot better.”
Mitchell would love a call-up, of course. But he's also focused on helping the Mad Ants push for the franchise's first playoff berth.
“It's not the time to worry about what my game is doing,” Mitchell said. “We just need to go out and play well together so we can get to the playoffs. Since all the transactions in December, it seems like we're playing like we know each other, we know each other's spots on the court, know where we're getting shots from and who's hot and who's not.”
Mitchell's game, as well as his reputation, is getting better all the time.