Ex-Tide Star Toils In NBA D-League

"Mercy" by rapper Lil Wayne blared from the MassMutual Center sound system in Springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball. Tony Mitchell had a smile as he moved from drill-to-drill prior to a basketball game against the Springfield Armor. You didn't read about this game on President's Day? That's because it was on that near-anonymous circuit, the NBA D-League – the ‘D' for ‘Developmental.'

Former Alabama star Tony Mitchell, who left the Crimson Tide after his junior year in hopes of professional success, is coming off the bench for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants.

On this night, Mitchell scored a team high 22 points as the visitors took a 117-108 victory.

A starter in only five of 17 games, he has been the top point producer in eight contests thus far. Six times he tied or led in assists and twice tied or was the rebounding king. Against the Canton Charge on January 31, Mitchell led or tied for team high honors in three categories -- points (35), rebounds (tied with 7), and assists (10).

The 6-6, 216 pound athletic sky-walker joined the NBA D-League franchise on January 8 after a stint overseas playing in China. Mitchell is in his second campaign with Fort Wayne having earned D-League recognition as an All-Star, All-Rookie First Team, and Rookie of the Year during the 2012-13 season.

The production has earned praise from first year Fort Wayne coach and NBA veteran player Conner Henry. "You can often be wowed by some of the offensive things that he does," said the former UC-Santa Barbara star. Henry views Mitchell as instant offense. "He's a dynamic player and can really light a spark under us when he gets in the game."

One aspect coach and player are collaborating to resolve is the tendency to let Mitchell's emotions be injurious to his game. "He's got to keep his emotions a little bit more to himself and channel those on the defensive end and understand the game a little bit more which is normal for a young player. He has the athleticism to be a really good defender."

One sequence revealed a glimpse of maturity. Mitchell missed an alley-oop dunk attempt. A teammate rebounded the ball and fired a pass to him in the corner for a three- point attempt. Missing the trey, Mitchell gathered himself and defended the Springfield guard all the way down the court. Sulking would have been the immediate reaction just a few years ago accompanied by body language signaling defeat.

The coach said, "We continue to talk to Tony about those moments when he does let his body language show. Not only does it drive us coaches crazy but it takes his energy away from the next play. I don't want NBA scouts or European clubs see him do that."

Mitchell shows signs of reforming but is not sporting a halo of absolution just yet. Henry said, "He is a great kid, funny and the life of our team but I'm always telling him to get on with the play. Focus on the next 24 seconds." Henry acknowledged an occasional mild tempestuous barking banter between coach and player occurs before common ground is found.

Teams are always inquiring about his development. They all want to know the same things: Is he getting better, less emotional, and increasing his understanding of the game. Henry unequivocally responds in the affirmative to all three. Scouts seek players that can make shots, contribute defensively within a specific system, and are locker room friendly. Those are the goals Henry preaches to all his players.

Mitchell spent the weekend in New Orleans at the NBA All-Star extravaganza. He successfully defended his crown on Saturday winning the NBA D-League Slam Dunk contest for the second consecutive year. Undrafted in 2012, he has been on the summer league rosters of the Sacramento Kings, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. He was a training camp invitee to the Kings in 2012 participating in three exhibition games. His talents have taken him overseas to play in China and in the Philippines. Mitchell believes his natural position is the two-guard. "Last year Coach Duane Ticknor put the ball in my hands more. He said, ‘We're going to need you to make more plays.' So I try to work on finding my teammates and not only looking for my shot. I just want to be able to play off other guys and pass the ball more."

Ascending to the NBA requires a consistent jump shot and a devotion to being an intense competitor on every possession according to recommendations expressed to Mitchell by D-League personnel. Currently, he is averaging 19.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 3.2 assists for the Indiana Pacers affiliate. Mitchell scored the basketball in an assortment of ways in the Springfield game. Step-back three-pointers, spot up jump shots, dribble drives to the goal, and the signature rim-racking dunks. Creating for teammates from the point and wing generated five assists.

His tenure in Tuscaloosa under the guidance of Anthony Grant was beneficial in one particular area. "It was all about defense," Mitchell said. "It was good because I had to work on my defense a whole lot especially since I had to play against bigger guys at the four position."

Professional basketball has become his classroom. The student of the game has learned valuable lessons. "My basketball IQ has grown," claims the confessed loner off-the-court. "I have seen that I can not only score, slash, and shoot, but also make plays for my teammates."

Mitchell has words of wisdom for aspiring players. "You have to be able to bring every night because there is always somebody out there either the same as you or even better."

Mitchell believes progress has been made in the nearly two years of professional basketball. "Coming out of college I was a defender and slasher. Now I'm almost a complete basketball player but I still have room to improve. I have been able to show my complete game."

Mitchell was suspended indefinitely from the Alabama program in February 2012 before summarily being dismissed later for conduct detrimental to the team. "I had a great time," he said. "I love the school. I love the atmosphere and the fans there. I had an awesome time there at Alabama. Things happen. I had to leave but I still love'em. Roll Tide." No regrets.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I had to go down that road and learn from my experience being there and learn from my mistakes. I'm thankful I learned from the experience so I could become a better basketball player and person."

After enduring the self-infliction halting his collegiate career, the path is euphoric now. Mitchell smiles more and frowns less on-the-court. Grappling with the inner conflicts has resulted in increased on-the-court production. "I had a great time. I'm having a great time now," Mitchell said. "I'm in the prime of my career. It's fun and awesome to experience the things I have the last two years." The high-flying twenty-four year old Swainsboro, Ga., native is an eager student continuing his roundball education with a chance to elevate to the level every basketball player dreams of. Tony Mitchell has always demonstrated extraordinary body control in the air cheering fans embrace and admire. The remaining challenge is to refrain from temperamental outbursts and manage the self-deflating behavior. NBA personnel will be monitoring the latter. So far he has successfully governed those tendencies. The high-wire act may be ready for a promotion to the top venues the game has to offer – NBA arenas.

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