Tim Cato // News Editor
Several of the Detroit Piston players were on their phones texting in the narrow visitor’s locker room deep in the American Airlines Center. One sprawled on the floor, stretching before the game, while another chatted at length with a traveling beat reporter about the upcoming game and even the Super Bowl.
And then there was Tony Mitchell, counting the tickets requested for his friends and family and addressing the envelopes so they landed in the right hands. He estimated there were about 18 for his first return to Dallas since the start of the NBA season.
“It was just good to be home. I miss UNT; I miss the atmosphere of a college campus,” he said. “I bleed green until I die.”
After spending two years at UNT on the basketball squad, the 6-foot-8-inch forward was drafted 37th overall by the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft – the first UNT player drafted in 31 years.
Mitchell holds the school record for blocks both in a single season and in a career in 55 games and won the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year award in 2011. He has only played 43 minutes with the Pistons this season, but his head coach believes he has the skills to succeed.
“Tony has a good future because he’s a hustle guy,” Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks said. “He can block shots, he can rebound. He does a lot of little things that will keep him around the league.”
One part of Mitchell’s development is time spent in the NBA Development League with the Piston’s affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. He averaged 6.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in nine games, although he only shot 42 percent on field goals.
“He had more time to play and figure out some things he needed to work out,” Cheeks said. “Just getting minutes and being on the court helped him out more than anything.”
For Mitchell, there are players all around him on the Detroit roster who he can learn from as a rookie, such as assistant coach Rasheed Wallace and guard Chauncey Billups – both who were stars on the 2004 championship-winning Pistons.
“You go through learning from all these other vets, their tips and what they went through during their years and their career,” Mitchell said.
And sometimes it’s more than just how to play basketball – Mitchell said they help his work ethic and even practical aspects like managing his money.
But even surrounded by NBA All-Stars, Mitchell doesn’t forget the people from his past. Mean Green head coach Tony Benford attended the game against the Dallas Mavericks this past Sunday and the two still talk from time to time.
Mitchell credited him with making sure he became a better man during his time at UNT. Benford also helped Mitchell’s work ethic.
“When he was here, I told him once you leave here, you have to establish great habits,” Benford said. “Your habits create who you become. You’ve got to be accountable about it.”
Even though he’s played limited minutes, Mitchell has at least one fan from around the NBA. When asked who he wants to see in the NBA All-Star Weekend Dunk Contest, Toronto Raptors guard and reigning Dunk Contest winner Terrance Ross named Mitchell as one possible contestant.
“Hopefully I get the invite,” he said. “That would be really exciting for me.”
Mitchell entered the game with 47 seconds remaining on Sunday night with the game out of reach of the Pistons. But his appearance was a reward to the scattered UNT fans wearing green throughout the arena.
And for Mitchell, any chance he gets to play is just a glimpse of what his future could be.
Feature photo: Tony Mitchell returns to the Dallas area, now as an NBA player. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer