When Tony Mitchell came to North Texas early in 2011, the hope was that his college career would be highlighted by championships.
That goal proved to be out of reach during the former Dallas Pinkston standout’s short time at UNT that will likely be remembered most for what is expected to transpire tonight during the NBA draft.
UNT hasn’t had a player selected since 1984 and has never had a player picked in the first round.
Mitchell, a 6-foot-9 forward, is expected to break both droughts at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he will be on hand to hear his name called.
Mitchell declared for the NBA draft shortly after his sophomore season and is projected as a first-round pick.
“I just felt comfortable,” Mitchell said after announcing his decision to enter the draft. “It was the best decision for me to go to the league.”
UNT officials are conducting a draft party beginning at 6 p.m. at the Treehouse, where fans can gather to wait for Mitchell to be selected.
Mitchell left UNT shortly after announcing his decision in March to head to the NBA. He participated in the pre-draft combine in Chicago in May, when he wowed scouts with his athleticism.
Mitchell was not available for comment during the weeks leading up to tonight’s draft due to a busy schedule of workouts that have solidified his status as a first-round talent after a disappointing season both for him and UNT.
Mitchell didn’t become eligible to practice or play at UNT until the second semester of his freshman year due to issues with his high school transcript but still averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in 23 games.
The extra practice time Mitchell had with his teammates and head coach Tony Benford heading into his sophomore season was expected to help him improve dramatically.
Mitchell took a step back, instead, averaging 13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.
The Mean Green lost several key players to injury, including shooting guard Brandan Walton and forward Jacob Holmen, and skidded to a 12-20 finish just one season after advancing to a third straight Sun Belt Conference tournament final.
“Since our season was so tough, I couldn’t get up for the games, somewhat,” Mitchell said during the NBA scouting combine. “We had a losing record, so it was tough for everybody, but at the same time, I tried to be a positive influence each and every game. Still, there’s no excuse for that. Effort is a self and individual thing. It’s really no excuse.”
Benford and NBA officials believe Mitchell has a chance to quickly recover from a tough final season at UNT during his rookie season in the NBA.
“He can affect the game on the defensive end, which will translate to the NBA level,” Benford said. “You see a lot of guys in college whose numbers are not great, but when they go to the NBA, they shoot up. Tony is a smart kid and has a great basketball IQ. When [UNT assistant coach Bart] Lundy and I were at Marquette, we had several NBA guys and none of them have the God-given ability Tony has. He can guard multiple positions, rebound and block shots, and he will be a great fourth or fifth option offensively.”
Benford called Mitchell the sleeper in the draft, a player who could quickly exceed expectations.
An unidentified NBA general manager told NBA.com that Mitchell was the best athlete at the scouting combine.
“It’s not even close,” The GM said. “He’s a freak of nature.”
It’s that athletic ability that helped Mitchell block a UNT-record 157 shots in his career that spanned just 55 games. Mitchell set the single-season UNT record for blocks with 70 as a freshman before bettering that mark with 87 last season.
Benford compared Mitchell to Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith, a former first-round pick who has averaged 15.3 points and 8.0 rebounds a game in a nine-year career.
Mitchell’s talent level has Benford and NBA officials convinced he has a chance to succeed in the NBA.
It’s the change in Mitchell off the court that has Benford convinced he will capitalize on the opportunity.
“He has matured a lot,” Benford said. “When you have a lot of ability, people may let you get away with a little more. He has great parents and knows the value of education and hard work. He has gotten better at being accountable. There was nothing bad, just being punctual and understanding that you have to work hard.”
The work that Mitchell has put in has not only made him a near-certain first-round pick, it’s also made him a significant player in UNT history and a success story Benford believes will help UNT in the future.
“It’s great exposure for the program,” Benford said. “Every time someone mentions Tony, they will mention North Texas.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.