Former North Texas standout Tony Mitchell sat in the seats at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday night, waiting to carve out a niche in Mean Green history at the NBA draft.
Mitchell did just that. He just had to wait a lot longer than most analysts projected.
Mitchell was expected to be selected in the first round, but he slid all the way to the seventh pick of the second round, where the Detroit Pistons snapped him up.
Despite dropping into the second round, Mitchell, a 6-9 forward, was selected higher than any player in UNT history. Kenneth Lyons was the 23rd pick of the second round in the 1983 draft and was UNT’s highest selection before Mitchell.
John Horrocks was picked by the Mavericks in the fourth round of the 1984 draft and was the last UNT player selected before Mitchell, who was accompanied to the draft by head coach Tony Benford.
Mitchell’s teammates, UNT fans and the team’s assistant coaches gathered at Treehouse Bar & Grill in Denton to watch the draft on television.
“Tony has come a long way since the first day I was here this past summer from a lot of perspectives,” said UNT associate head coach Rob Evans, who attended the draft party. “He has gotten better with his footwork and his skill work. He learned a lot and learned a lot off the court.”
Benford said that he expected Mitchell to rise toward the top of the draft during an NBA scouting combine and individual workouts in the days leading up to the draft.
Mitchell ended up falling out of the first round entirely, which could prove costly. Players selected in the first round receive three-year guaranteed contracts, a luxury players selected in the second round do not enjoy.
Most of the UNT fans at the the school’s draft party cleared out at the end of the first round.
Mitchell was expected to secure a spot among the top 30 picks by improving on a freshman season in which he averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and helped lead UNT to the final of the Sun Belt Conference tournament in the final season of Johnny Jones’ tenure at UNT.
Jones left for LSU after that season.
Mitchell briefly considered declaring for the draft then but returned for his sophomore year and saw his totals fall to 13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds a game while UNT struggled with a series of key injuries. The Mean Green finished 12-20 and lost in the first round of the Sun Belt tournament.
Despite a tough second season, Mitchell set the UNT career record for blocked shots with 157. Mitchell’s talents on the defensive end were one reason Benford expected him to be selected in the first round.
“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.”
The questions of what went wrong his sophomore year continued to be asked of Mitchell, despite the prowess he displayed on the defensive end. Mitchell answered those questions by admitting he didn’t play hard at times.
“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.”
Mitchell said when he declared for the draft that he felt like his time at UNT was over.
“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.”
Mitchell found out late Thursday night that he was headed to Detroit.
It’s a move Mitchell is more prepared for after spending a second season at UNT, Evans said.
“The extra year did a lot for him,” Evans said. “He was not ready from the basketball part and the emotional part,” Evans said. “Coming back for a year helped him.”