After an extremely up and an extremely down college career, expectations were relatively tempered for the Pistons second round pick last season. But many felt that with his performance as a freshman at North Texas, he was one of the more talented players in the entire draft.
And it's easy to see why. There's a lot to like about a big man who put up 15 points per game, shot 44 percent from three, grabbed 10.5 rebounds and blocked 3 shots per game.
But after persistent rumblings about his work ethic and underwhelming performances in the D-League and Summer League, Mitchell will be expected to add some polish to his game that has been all flash up to this point.
2013-14 Year in Review
Tony Mitchell never really had much of a chance to crack the rotation for the Pistons last season. Buried on the depth chart and with a coach that showed little interest in developing his rookies, he wound up playing only 79 minutes.
But he managed to flash quite a bit of potential in those 79 minutes. His per minute numbers gave the indication of a guy who is capable of scoring, rebounding, and putting up some solid defensive numbers.
It was the highlight reel that was the most fun though. At 6'9 with a 7'2 wingspan and 38-inch vertical, Mitchell excels as an above-the-rim player on both ends of the floor. We saw some peeks into his electric potential last season.
We also saw plenty of impressive dunks in practices, including his dunk contest with assistant coach Rasheed Wallace.
But that's all we saw. Substantive updates that indicated he was learning how to utilize his impressive blend of athleticism and shooting to develop as a weapon in the pick and roll, that he had been a defensive force in practices or the D-League, these never came.
Along with his fellow second-round pick Peyton Siva, he had a couple of stints with the Pistons' former D-League affiliate the Fort Wayne Mad Ants to get a bit of game experience. Siva had a rough start to his NBA career, but used his time in northeast Indiana to find the confidence to run a NBA offense. Siva played great for the Mad Ants and when he returned to the Pistons, he looked like a different player. Mitchell on the other hand seemed to coast through the experience.
When the Summer League hit in Orlando this July, the player who took the court looked the same as the one we saw from the previous season. While Kentavious Caldwell-Pope took huge strides forward with a league-best 24 points per game along with 7 rebounds and 1.8 steals, Mitchell floundered with 6 points and 4 rebounds per game. It was actually a step back from his previous summer league, where he at least averaged 8 points and 7 rebounds.
Granted, last year's coaches for the Pistons did a resoundingly poor job of developing Mitchell, creating objectives for him to reach and carrots to encourage progress. He was at the end of the bench and essentially forgotten about. During Drummond's rookie year, he was tasked with playing with high energy, focusing on rebounding, and playing defense. His minutes increased as he was successful with those tasks. Monroe was brought along somewhat similarly.
We never heard from Mo Cheeks or John Loyer what they were looking for out of Mitchell, what he could do to have the opportunity to see the court. But that shouldn't be an excuse this season under the much more vocal Stan Van Gundy, who has already tasked Mitchell with focusing on his effort and consistency in workouts.
2014-15 Projected Production
Mitchell has the talent to be an excellent player in this league, as his combination of size and talent is rather rare. His potential fit in a frontcourt of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe is particularly tantalizing. The question is his disposition and work ethic, his ability to focus on the aspects of the game that don't necessarily make the highlight reels.
With Josh Smith shifting primarily to power forward, there won't be many frontcourt minutes available unless if a trade is made. But with the franchise's investment in the Grand Rapids Drive, Mitchell will still have opportunities to show progress.
The production Mitchell offered over the last year, whether on the court for the Pistons, in the D-League, or the Summer League, has mostly come off of garbage work from banging around in the paint. If Mitchell is to take a step forward this season, it'll be time for him to show that he can expand his game and offer more. He'll need to show more aggressiveness on the offensive end, even flashing his jumper as a pick and pop threat, and more confidence on the defensive end.
It was likely the fact that his contract was guaranteed that gave Mitchell the chance to audition for the new leadership while other young players who showed more last season like Peyton Siva and Josh Harrellson were replaced. His rookie contract continues through the 2015-16 season, but as a team option. It will take clear steps forward for Mitchell to inspire Van Gundy to pick up that option.
Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, the gap between his ceiling and floor this year is immense. With Monroe suspended for the first two games of the season, he could crack the rotation early, shine, even inspire a trade of Smith or Monroe, and look like a long-term piece. Or he could waste away another season looking lost in the D-League.
But while we can hope for the best, at this point he's not really shown a reason for believing that the best is very likely.
25 games for Pistons, 10 mpg, 3 points, 3 rebounds, .5 blocks
30 games for Grand Rapids Drive, 25 mpg, 8 points, 7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks