By Alec Johnson
Mad Ants’ forward Tony Mitchell had a rookie season for the ages. He was named NBA D-League Rookie of the Year, won three D-League Player of the Week Awards, a D-League Player of the Month Award for March, and All D-League First Team Honors and All D-League Rookie First Team Honors. Plus, he helped the Mad Ants reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history with a 27-23 record. He also averaged 21.9 points/game during the season, and put up two 40+ point performances. One of them sent a game against the Austin Toros into triple overtime. Mitchell also had a stretch of nine games in which he scored over 20 points from Feb. 22-Mar. 15.
Mitchell’s efforts earned him a spot on the Boston Celtics’ Orlando Summer League roster. He excelled, averaging 11.2 points per game and putting up 14, 15, and 16 point performances during his time there. He also spent time on the New York Knicks’ Las Vegas NBA Summer League roster, but he didn’t get as much playing time as he did in Orlando. Overall, having gotten the opportunity to compete in both Summer Leagues and having a shot at playing on an NBA team shows how far along he has come in his development.
However, life wasn’t always this good for Mitchell. In his days at the University of Alabama, he was suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team” during his junior season, and he did not get to come back for his senior season. Instead, Mitchell tried to get into the NBA Draft, and failed. After going to play with the Sacramento Kings’ summer league team, Mitchell signed on as a free agent, but was cut a month later, and then found the Mad Ants through Keith Smart, the former Indiana University basketball player who coached the Kings at the time. Smart reached out to Coach Duane Ticknor, who ended up taking Mitchell in, according to an article from AL.com, the website of the Birmingham News in Birmingham, Alabama.
Assistant Coach Steve Gansey remembers the first time he saw Tony Mitchell when he came to the Mad Ants in November 2012, and saw that Mitchell had the body and athleticism to be an NBA player, but he wasn’t on an NBA roster, and that confused him.
“I figured he had all the intangibles, all the things that NBA teams look for,” Gansey said. “When he got into the player pool (for the D League), I knew exactly who he was and (I) liked him. I asked Rob Kurz, (a former Mad Ants player who played with Mitchell on the Kings Summer League team) a couple questions regarding him, and he said he’d a be great player in the D League, and he has the athleticism, everything that I saw, and I asked him ‘what his personality was like?’, ‘was he coachable?’, ‘was he a good teammate?’, and all those things, and he said, ‘Yes’.” It was kind of an easy decision on our part, with Jeff, Duane (Ticknor), and I, and we wanted to bring him in.”
It wasn’t easy between all of them at first, Gansey noted, when Mitchell first arrived in Fort Wayne.
“At first, it’s not that he struggled. He was just getting used to how he played and (he was) getting a feel for his teammates, coaches, everything like that, and for any player to jump onto a team who’s already been playing games and already had practices and all that…. It’s tough for anybody,” Gansey said.
“It took probably a month for him to gain everybody’s trust, players and coaches, and even Jeff Potter, front office. After that, he got in better shape and knew exactly what we wanted from him every day, every game and practice and all that, and played very well for us, and won us a lot of games,” he said.
Gansey said that he did know about Mitchell’s previous history at Alabama, and had made calls to people who knew Tony, and they told him that it wasn’t drastic or a huge problem.
“Guys deserve second chances, too. You can’t get along with everybody, and everything can’t be perfect in the world, so we wanted to give Tony an opportunity and a chance, and it ended up working in our favor,” Gansey said.
Mitchell ended up making a lot of progress from the time he first got to the Mad Ants to the end of the season, and Gansey attributed that to one word: confidence.
“Every week, he got more confidence in his play, in his jump shot. He got more confidence in his teammates, and in his coaches, also,” Gansey said.
It wasn’t easy, he said, as he, Tick, and Gansey got into it a few times, but Gansey says it was always positive.
“I took Tony out and just wanted to give him a breather, because we wanted him to finish the game for us, and he wanted to stay in. It was little arguments like that where, ‘Listen, I know you can play 48 minutes a game, but we want you to finish and give it your all towards the end of the game rather than right now,” Gansey said.
“It was tough for him to understand that throughout the year, but at the end of the year, he got us, we understood him.”
His conditioning also improved throughout the year, Gansey said as another reason for Mitchell’s success.
“He always stayed after and practiced. I took him a couple times, well, many times after practice, and worked with him and did some individual stuff, and did some specific things on the court where he gets the ball during games,” Gansey said. “We wanted to make those things more accurate.”
In terms of Summer League play, Gansey said that he saw an NBA-caliber player when he played in Boston, and in Las Vegas, he didn’t get as much playing time. He told Mitchell to make the most of the time he got to play, whether for the whole game or only two minutes.
The assistant coach also talked about the things he got to see at the Summer League.
“He has the body, he has the athleticism. He didn’t shoot the ball very well in Orlando, but he played with those NBA guys. That’s the reason why they have Summer League. There’s players that play with these teams that are with those NBA teams and you get to see certain matchups, you get to see rookies, you get to see their draft picks go against guys like Tony Mitchell, and guys like Ron Howard, and see how they match up,” Gansey said.
MItchell’s defense has been a concern for Gansey and the coaching staff, as he struggles with the concept of team defense, knowing his spot on the floor and having the trust in his teammates to fulfill their role. He does feel, however, that it has improved.
“He showed what he can do on the defensive end in Orlando and Vegas,” Gansey said. “It’s tough to get certain philosophies down when you’re in Vegas Summer League with defense because you have such a short little amount of time. I felt he did very well on the defensive end. He was engaged, he was in the defensive stance.”
“From what I watched, and because of his athleticism, it makes up more if he does get driven by or if he does gamble on a pass, his athleticism can make up for it. A lot of NBA players can’t say that for themselves. That definitely helps Tony in that regard.”
As for joining the Celtics, Gansey believes Tony has a shot with them because they are looking for younger guys to help rebuild their team. He also says that people know that he’s good from watching him in the D League, and they know he can get better.
“The Boston Celtics are looking to rebuild, and looking for younger guys who they can build up, and potentially have a future with, and I think Tony is one of those guys who can help an NBA basketball team,” Gansey said.
When November rolls around, we’ll know for sure whether Tony Mitchell is in the NBA, or still with the Mad Ants. Regardless of where he ends up, Mitchell has seemed to turn the corner, and his future looks to be a bright one.