Tony Mitchell developed a reputation for doing the spectacular at North Texas, from throwing down highlight-reel dunks to swatting opponents’ shots into the stands.
Those moments were always in stark contrast to Mitchell’s quiet, humble personality off the court that was on display when his time at UNT came to an end Wednesday.
“I’m happy to be at this moment right now,” Mitchell said. “This is my dream. I’ve decided to declare for the NBA draft.”
And with that, one of the more remarkable — not to mention unusual — careers for a UNT athlete came to a close.
Mitchell said he has closed the door on his college career and will focus on the camps and workouts he will go through leading up to the June 27 draft at Madison Square Garden in New York. Underclassmen can withdraw from the draft until June 17.
Mitchell will forego his final two years of college eligibility, a decision he reached after consulting with his coaches and family.
Mitchell said he settled on that choice a week after the end of a disappointing season for UNT, which finished 12-20 and was eliminated in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference tournament by Louisiana-Lafayette.
“I just felt comfortable,” Mitchell said. “It was the best decision for me to go to the league. I sat down with my family and made the decision.”
Several projections have Mitchell slated to be selected in the first round and receive a two-year contract that would make him a millionaire.
UNT head coach Tony Benford said he has little doubt that Mitchell will be a first-round pick and expects him to be a lottery selection, one of the top 14 picks.
NBA officials “will see his skill set,” Benford said. “That will surprise them. He will be a lottery pick regardless of the players who come out. He can guard multiple positions, and they will see his ability to shoot the basketball.”
Nick Smith, Mitchell’s former coach at Dallas Pinkston, agreed with Benford’s assessment.
“Tony’s game is made for the open space that he will see in the NBA,” Smith said.
Mitchell won’t be the primary option offensively no matter which NBA team selects him. That role is something Mitchell struggled with at times at UNT. He shattered UNT’s single-season and career records for blocked shots with 87 and 157, respectively, on the defensive end, where he always excelled.
“The pressure will finally be off him,” UNT senior forward Roger Franklin said. “He won’t have to take all the shots and be the guy who is being showcased. He will be able to play the style he has always wanted to play.”
Mitchell flashed the ability to be a great all-around player right away at UNT. He enrolled at the school on Jan. 26, 2011, after failing to meet NCAA eligibility requirements to accept a scholarship. Mitchell originally committed to Missouri.
He became eligible at the semester break of the 2011-12 season and went on to average 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as a freshman while establishing himself as one of the best young players in the country.
Mitchell briefly considered declaring for the NBA draft after playing just 23 games for UNT, but he elected to return to school for one last season, even after the Mean Green’s former head coach Johnny Jones left for LSU.
UNT struggled with injuries and inconsistency in its first season under Benford. Mitchell saw his production drop to 13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, but he said he does not regret returning for his sophomore season.
“Coming back was the right decision,” Mitchell said. “We got after it every day. Coach is a life-changer. These guys [Benford and his assistants] changed our lives. They held us accountable and made us work every day. They cussed us out. Coach Benford’s favorite phrase is, ‘Who’s going to feed your babies?’ It was fun for me on and off the court.”
Benford could see a change in Mitchell during a tough season that saw the Mean Green lose three key players to season-ending injuries — shooting guard Brandan Walton and forwards Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton.
Mitchell was double- and triple-teamed at times, but Benford said he always remained focused on team goals.
Benford saw that as one of the ways Mitchell has matured.
“Tony has improved as a person,” Benford said. “He has been accountable on and off the court, which is the most important thing.”
Mitchell named the chance to mature as one of the reasons he decided to return to UNT, but there was another factor — the opportunity to advance to the NCAA tournament. UNT came up just short in Mitchell’s freshman season, falling to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt tournament final 74-70 after leading by 13 points in the second half.
Mitchell named not playing in the NCAA tournament, which started Tuesday, as one of his few regrets.
“Of course it is disappointing,” Mitchell said. “Everyone in our circle [huddle] was probably disappointed, but at the same time, we have to move forward and keep going.”
While Mitchell didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, Benford and UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said he left a lasting mark on the entire athletic department.
Mitchell was featured in Sports Illustrated and was on the cover of Basketball Times.
“Tony gave us a tremendous amount of exposure and showed kids that you don’t have to go to particular places to be drafted,” Villarreal said. “You can play anywhere in the country. If you are good enough to play, they will find you. He was also a great spokesman for North Texas. He loved to play with kids and hang around after games.”
Mitchell continued to do just that even as he and his team struggled to meet high expectations.
“The expectations didn’t affect me at all,” Mitchell said. “You have expectations in anything you do. Coach Benford had expectations. I had expectations of being the Sun Belt player of the year. It didn’t turn out. We can’t say too much about it. We have to keep moving forward.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com