"I haven't been exposed to this game as much as a lot of other players and I think I'm already a great prospect with good potential," he says. "Once I get that chance to really get that experience and learn about the game, I think my ceiling is pretty high."
-- Paul George to Draft Express in 2010
With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to understand Paul George's confidence. Even back then, he had off-the-charts athleticism and fantastic size for his position -- 6'9, 215 pounds with a 6'11 wingspan. The skills, while still unrefined, were there, too. He averaged 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists on 46/36/81 shooting in his last season in college. However, his talent was overshadowed by Fresno State's 15-18 record, including a 7-9 mark in the aptly named WAC conference.
That leads to natural question, especially in a draft as weak at the top as 2013. Could there be another Paul George out there this season? Just the proof that it can happen has to at least intrigue teams.
How does an elite 6'9+ athlete with a fairly complete skillset fall to No. 10 overall? In George's case, because he was the best player on an underachieving mid-major team, far from the national spotlight. If there's one player in this draft who fits that description, it's Tony Mitchell of North Texas -- complete with two first names.
In person, Mitchell more than passes the eye test. He's 6'9, 235 pounds with a 7'2 wingspan and a 38' max vertical. Look at his dunks from UNT Midnight Madness this season. That's a guy bigger than most NBA power forwards dunking two basketballs at once, catching the ball in mid-air and doing a windmill and I'm not even sure what the last once was because holy s--t. At the combine, Mitchell jumped so high they had to put something under the bar to raise it. If things don't work out for him in the NBA, he can march over to the NFL and be an All-Pro TE for the next decade.
Like George, Mitchell put up some fairly interesting statistics in two years of college. As a sophomore, he averaged 13 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on 44/30/67 shooting. That's a downgrade from his eye-popping freshman year, when he averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks on 57/44/74 shooting. Right away, you can see his athleticism in his rebounding and shot-blocking numbers. He is still a raw offensive player, as his career average of 1.1 assists to 2.6 turnovers tells you. However, what really jumps off the page are the three-point percentages (48-141 over two years, 34 percent) for a player his size.
The problem for Mitchell is that he put up all those numbers for some bad teams in a really bad conference. In Mitchell's freshman season, UNT went 18-14, although they did make a run to the championship game in the conference tournament. This season, they slipped to 12-20, with a 7-9 mark in Sun Belt play. Mitchell could have been a first-round pick last year, but he came back to make a run at a top-25 ranking and the NCAA Tournament. Instead, his statistics dropped across the board, with his PER falling from 29.7 to 20.8. At the combine, he even admitted to struggling with his effort level at times.
High-level prospects are expected to improve every season they stay in college, which is one reason so many declare for the draft right after their breakout season. Any time a player actually regresses, it's a major red flag. However, in Mitchell's case, there are extenuating circumstances. Johnny Jones, the coach who recruited him, decamped for his alma mater (LSU) in the offseason. His replacement, Tony Benford, was in his first year as a head coach. Injuries made the transition even more complicated, as the Mean Green played without their point guard and two of their best shooters for most of the season.
The pieces just weren't in place for Mitchell to succeed. Chris Jones, UNT's starting point guard, averaged 14 points, five rebounds and four assists per game on 44 percent shooting last season. He played in only 16 games this season, but he was still second in total assists. The Mean Green didn't have much outside shooting either. Brandan Walton, who shot 37 percent on 4.7 threes a game last season, missed the entire year after being injured in the first game. Jacob Holman, second on the team with 2.1 three point attempts a game, played in only 15 contests. Without Walton and Holman, North Texas shot 28.5 percent from three, 332nd in nation.
It's easy for opposing teams to game-plan around a raw frontcourt player in that situation, regardless of his talent level. With no point guard, there was no one who could slow the tempo of the game and give Mitchell the ball on the block. Even if he did get the ball, with almost no outside shooting around him, teams could send double teams with impunity. Big men depend on their guards to put them in positions to succeed. None of Mitchell's guards could do much to help him this year. It's unrealistic to expect that not to at least somewhat affect a young player's morale and effort.
The only people who can really speak to Mitchell's attitude and work ethic are people who know him personally. In that respect, I'm fairly biased. We both grew up in the same part of Dallas. My AAU team used to practice at Dallas Pinkston, his high school. The neighborhoods around that high school are as tough as they come. A couple of the Pinkston kids played on our AAU team. They called one of them "Stow Truck" because him and his family used to live in a store truck. I will root for anyone coming out of Oakcliff.
[Here's a list of power forwards from Dallas over the last 25 years: Dennis Rodman, Larry Johnson, Kenyon Martin, Jason Maxiell, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Darrell Arthur, Perry Jones III, Isaiah Austin and Julius Randle. Don't sleep on PJ3 either. He's going to do work in Oklahoma City ... See, I really am a Dallas homer.]
Even if Mitchell never develops his offensive game any further, he still has the potential to be a three-and-D player at the power forward position. That's an incredibly valuable skillset. It's very hard to score on modern "pack-the-paint" defenses without a big man stretching the floor. The problem always comes on the other end, when that three-point shooter has to have the size and athleticism to play good interior defense. Mitchell shot 34 percent from three in his college career. For the most part, those weren't wide open corner threes either. Mitchell was the best player on North Texas; he never had the opportunity to play off others.
How good would Mitchell have been with a high-level point guard creating easy shots for him? Unlike George, Mitchell wasn't overlooked by the scouting services. He wound up at North Texas because he didn't have the grades to meet the NCAA's minimum eligibility standards. Otherwise, he would have signed with Missouri, forming a pretty interesting tandem with Phil Pressey. Pressey, a 5'11 guard who is the son of former NBA All-Star Paul Pressey, is a likely second-round draft pick. Tigers fans know where I'm going with this. Insert Mitchell into Ricardo Ratliffe's position last season and they could have made the Final Four.
Upon arriving in Columbia, Frank Haith moved his new team to a four-out offense, playing four perimeter players around Ratliffe, a 6'8, 245-pound center. Mike Anderson, the previous coach, had recruited the fastest and most athletic players he could find in order to play "40 Minutes of Hell." But with only one NCAA-caliber big man on hand, Haith embraced small ball. He had Kim English, a 6'6 shooting guard taken by the Pistons in the second round, at power forward. Ratliffe thrived, averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds on a preposterous 69 percent shooting. However, despite those gaudy efficiency numbers, he wasn't drafted.
NBA teams saw that Ratliffe was mostly the beneficiary of Pressey's passing and the Tigers' floor spacing. Imagine a player with Mitchell's finishing ability in that position. Mitchell would also have fixed Missouri's fatal weakness -- its poor interior defense. Ratliffe was an undersized center who averaged only one block per game, no threat to any credible big man. Kyle O'Quinn got himself an NBA contract by going for 26/14 in Norfolk State's shocking first-round upset of Missouri. With Mitchell there instead, the Tigers could have made a deep run in the tournament, which in turn would have made Mitchell a very, very high draft pick in 2012.
So much of how a player is perceived coming out of college can be influenced by things completely outside of his own control. Of course, how Mitchell would have fared in a different situation is anyone's guess. I think the Missouri hypothetical is fairly reasonable, but it is still just a hypothetical. What the facts tell us is that Mitchell was an elite athlete who couldn't consistently channel his tools in the Sun Belt. It's hard to know whether he will "figure it out" at the next level for the same reason that it's hard to untangle George's success from the situation in Indiana he found himself in over the last three years.
Nevertheless, Mitchell is a potential home run. At a certain point in the draft, the benefits of swinging for the fences outweigh the risks of striking out.