By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He grew up in a state whose colleges include four members of the Atlantic Coast Conference. None of those four deemed him worthy of a basketball scholarship, and they weren’t alone.
Never mind that Akil Mitchell was a tall, well-spoken, academically minded, athletic player in the highly regarded program at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian, where his predecessors included brothers Stephen and Seth Curry. Mitchell entered the 12th grade as an afterthought on the recruiting boards of most high-major programs.
“He was still somewhat raw,” Charlotte Christian coach Shonn Brown recalled recently. “Some people questioned his shooting, questioned his strength and physicality. We would always communicate to the ones who did that Akil was probably going to continue to grow, that he was going to fulfill a role.”
Not every ACC program, of course, wrote off Mitchell. For that he’s thankful, and so are Virginia fans.
UVa’s associate head coach, Ritchie McKay, had been recruiting Charlotte Christian for years — Seth Curry played for McKay at Liberty University — and was intrigued by Mitchell, who was then about 6-7, 210 pounds. In the summer of 2009, Mitchell attended a camp at Virginia, where he also piqued the interest of head coach Tony Bennett.
“Akil’s someone that is an acquired taste,” McKay recalled recently, “but when you add up all the assets, he’s articulate, he’s a very good student, he’s a very conscientious person, and he’s an athlete. So to Coach Bennett’s credit, he thought, `Hey, here’s a kid that’s a Virginia fit that we can develop and that’ll have a buy-in to our system.’ ”
Bennett offered a scholarship to Mitchell, who committed to UVa in October 2009. The Cavaliers’ investment has paid off handsomely, as the coaches at Charlotte Christian were confident it would.
“We all believed that he had a really good upside,” Brown said, “and that’s coming to fruition.”
Mitchell knew that schools such as Clemson, Maryland and Florida State had chosen to pursue other players after evaluating him. “I just took it as motivation,” he said this week at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I knew I could play in the ACC, and I felt like I had all the things that were necessary to play in the ACC. It was just a matter of timing and a matter of being kind of a late bloomer.”
Indeed, the young player virtually nobody wanted has, in his junior season, blossomed into one of the ACC’s best post players. Mitchell, now listed at 6-8, 234 pounds, is averaging 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals for a team that’s won seven of its past eight games to move into third place in the ACC standings.
UVa (18-6, 8-3) takes on ACC rival North Carolina (16-8, 6-5) at noon Saturday in Chapel Hill. With 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey sidelined with mononucleosis, and 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins slowed by a leg injury, Mitchell is now the Cavaliers’ starting center, and he’ll again be asked to carry the heaviest load in the frontcourt Saturday.
It’s a challenge he’s come to love, however strange it may occasionally seem to a player who roamed the perimeter in high school. Mitchell leads the Wahoos in rebounds, steals and field-goal percentage (54.1), and he’s shooting a career-best 67.3 percent from the line. Among ACC players, he ranks third in rebounds and is tied for seventh in steals.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Mitchell said. “As long as we keep winning, I’m happy.”
Anthony Gill isn’t shocked by Mitchell’s success this season. Gill, who’s sitting out this season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina, was a grade behind Mitchell at Charlotte Christian.
“He was a hard worker,” Gill recalled. “He definitely was in the gym every day with me when I was working out.”
Mitchell did not, however, grow into his body in high school, Gill said. “In college, his footwork started to get better, everything like that. He just kept developing over the years, and he is what he is now.”
When he graduated from Charlotte Christian, Mitchell was only 17 years old, and UVa considered redshirting him in 2010-11. He ended up playing as a freshman, but with minimal impact. Mitchell averaged 2.4 points and 3.0 rebounds (and 15.1 minutes) in 2010-11. He shot only 33.8 percent from floor — 12.5 percent from 3-point range (1 for 8) — and a dismal 51.7 percent from the line.
As a senior at Charlotte Christian, Mitchell had attempted 141 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, making 44, and he envisioned himself playing on the perimeter at UVa. His new coaches had other plans for him. They saw him as a 4, a power forward whose quickness and athleticism would give him an advantage against bigger, stronger players.
He might have been reluctant initially, but Mitchell eventually embraced that role.
“I talked a lot with Coach McKay my second year,” Mitchell said, “and it was just about realizing what was going to get me on the floor, where I could be most successful. Coach McKay really helped walk me through that.”
McKay said: “I think guys just realize, `Hey, it’s better to be on the floor and be where my coaches and teammates need me, as opposed to being where I want to be.’ Again, to his credit, he’s got a dimension of selflessness there. He’s sacrificed a role that he’d hoped to play in order to play a role that he’s very admirably owning.”
The breakthrough for Mitchell, a sociology major who’s minoring in global culture and commerce, came midway through his sophomore season. On Jan. 19, 2012, against Georgia Tech, 7-0 center Assane Sene went down with an injury in Atlanta.
Mitchell took Sene’s place next to All-ACC forward Mike Scott in the frontcourt and started the final 15 games for a UVa team that advanced to the NCAA tournament.
“It was a blessing in disguise for me,” MItchell said. “With Assane being on the bench, he could kind of walk me through a lot of things that he wouldn’t have been able to walk me through on the floor. It was just an opportunity for me to learn.”
Against NC State in the ACC tournament, Mitchell scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, the first double-double of his college career. He finished the season with averages of 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds and and a field-goal percentage of 50.5.
“Out of necessity, he’s thrust in a role where he has to be like, `Hey, I’m a starter now, and here I am a sophomore in the ACC, and I’m going against [Tyler] Zeller and [John] Henson,’ ” McKay said. “And then I think practicing with Mike Scott every day helped him. I think Akil learned from seeing how Mike matured and approached his daily assignment. Mike brought a level of intensity and focus and purpose that I think Akil has carried over to this season.”
Gill is among those who marvel at the interior force Mitchell has become at UVa.
“He was more of a perimeter player [at Charlotte Christian],” Gill said, “and he came here and developed his game a lot more. His touch is a lot better inside. His offensive rebounding and his defensive rebounding have gotten a lot better, just having that mentality to go to the glass every time.”
Brown agreed. “What’s a total shock to me is his rebounding.”
Crucial to his development, Mitchell said, were the trips he took to Europe in 2012. The first, in May, was with an Athletes in Action team that toured Poland and Germany. The second, in August, was with the `Hoos, who played five games in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
Mitchell averaged 13.4 points for the Cavaliers in Europe, second only to classmate Joe Harris (15.6), and led them in rebounds (10 per game). Virginia’s European opponents expended little energy on the defensive end, however, so McKay and the rest of the coaching staff weren’t sure what to make of Mitchell’s offensive output.
“I thought, like most, that you and I could have scored over there in Europe,” McKay told a middle-aged reporter. “We could have gotten 20 a game. I thought, `Well, that’s good for his confidence, but reality will hit when we tip it up [in 2012-13], especially in the ACC.’ But the reality is that Akil’s approaching a double-double on any given night.”
One of Mitchell’s most memorable performances came Jan. 6 against North Carolina at JPJ, in Virginia’s ACC opener.
Three days earlier, he had severely sprained his right ankle after landing on a teammate’s foot in practice. Mitchell didn’t practice Jan. 4 or 5 and wasn’t expected to play against the Tar Heels. He knew his team needed him, though, and on a heavily taped ankle Mitchell contributed seven points, two steals and a game-high 11 rebounds in 31 minutes to help UVa knock off UNC 61-52.
“He played as hard and as tough as any player on the floor,” McKay said.
Would the college coaches who passed on Mitchell when he was at Charlotte Christian have predicted as much? Probably not. Still, there’s “always an unknown in recruiting,” McKay said.
“When you watch a player in high school, you think one thing about him, and then he gets to college, and your impression of him changes immediately. With Akil, I thought, `Boy, he’s got some pieces that might make him a good player,’ but after watching him his first two seasons I never thought he would have some Mike Scott numbers [as a UVa junior]. He’s really done a terrific job.”