North Texas star Tony Mitchell's journey could lead to NBA

The recruiting process in college athletics is much like pursuing a love interest.

In the end, what will be will be. But with the future's great unknowns you can never exactly say never.

And that's how first-year North Texas basketball coach Tony Benford must have felt when he was reacquainted with Tony Mitchell, one of the nation's best basketball talents, whom he had courted aggressively as an assistant at Marquette, only to lose out to a rival.

"It came down to us and Missouri," said Benford, a former assistant at Marquette and lead recruiter on Mitchell, then a 6-foot-8 high school senior at Dallas Pinkston and now a 235-pound sophomore forward for the Mean Green. "Tony is a great kid, a really hard worker, and he's got a lot of ability."

As it turned out, Mitchell's future wasn't at Missouri. He landed at North Texas after eligibility issues interrupted his career in Columbia before it even began.

He showed glimpses of stardom in playing half of last season after becoming eligible.

Mitchell's next stop will likely be the NBA, possibly as soon as June, depending on if he chooses to forgo his last two years of college eligibility.

He appears to be in a win-win situation. Mitchell loves his home and his teammates at North Texas and the NBA scouts love his ability.

UT Arlington (2-1), which lost to Oklahoma by only four points, will get a view up close of that ability at 7:30 tonight when the two regional rivals meet at the Super Pit in Denton.

"I never got discouraged" about the Missouri situation, Mitchell said. "I was upset I didn't go there, but at the same time it led me to the right path, to North Texas.

"I'm appreciative for where God has led me."

Mitchell leads North Texas in scoring (15.7 per game), rebounding (8.8), blocked shots (16 total) and steals (10) through the 3-3 start.

He has also shown an ability to make the 3-pointer, hitting 8 of 21 attempts this season.

One NBA official said Mitchell would have "absolutely" been a first-round pick had he chosen to leave a season ago.

This season, Mitchell is considered a probable lottery pick, primarily because the 2013 draft is considered weaker.

"He's immensely talented, has NBA athleticism, size and skills, as far as rebounding and blocking shots, he can make a 3-pointer," the NBA official said. "He has all the physical tools to be an NBA player."

The questions, scouts say, is how well the competition in the Sun Belt Conference will prepare him for the world's best players, and the "intangibles."

Mitchell, though, was exposed to the best the country has to offer at the LeBron James Skills Academy, where he received high grades.

Mitchell is familiar with the critique about the "intangibles." Does he have the maturity to be an NBA franchise cornerstone?

"I needed to mature as a college student and a basketball player," Mitchell said about his decision to come back to North Texas this season. "I'm working on being a leader on the floor and being accountable, working on off-the-court things [such as school], not just on the court."

Benford said what one NBA team will get is a player whose athleticism is "off the chart" and who, at the college level, can guard anyone on the floor, from the point to the center. The coach believes he could do that at the next level, too.

He's also unselfish. Too selfless, said Benford, who added that he is encouraging (demanding?) that Mitchell be more aggressive on offense.

He averages about 11 shots a game, but Benford wants that to increase to at least 15, if not 18.

"He's the most humble superstar I've been around with the ability he has," said Benford, who sees Mitchell as a hybrid power forward-small forward in the NBA. "He'd rather pass it than shoot. Most great players are a little selfish. He's not that way.

"We need him to shoot the ball more."

Mitchell said he doesn't know what he'll do yet after the season. His immediate thoughts are on UTA, which handed it to North Texas a season ago, a 33-point rout at Texas Hall.

Mitchell didn't play in that game. Benford was still employed in Milwaukee.

"It all worked out," Mitchell said of his journey to Denton. "I'm just living my college career. Just still working."