- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENTON, Texas -- Twenty-one NBA scouts and front office men packed the press row at the Super Pit for North Texas' home game against Sun Belt-leading Middle Tennessee.
Under the previous coaching regime, that would have passed as a pretty good crowd for a Mean Green basketball game.
North Texas has made amazing progress in coach Johnny Jones' 11 seasons. He inherited a program that won a total of 20 games in the previous four seasons; the Mean Green have at least 20 wins in each of the last five seasons, which include a couple of NCAA tournament appearances.
There's never been more buzz about North Texas basketball than now, even though this is somewhat of a rebuilding season for the 16-13 Mean Green, who open the Sun Belt tournament Sunday against Louisiana-Lafayette in Hot Springs, Ark. That's because North Texas has never had a talent like freshman phenom Tony Mitchell.
It's all but certain that Mitchell, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward with a 41-inch vertical leap and 7-foot-4 wingspan, will become the first North Texas product to play in the NBA since the 1970s. It's a matter of when.
If Mitchell wants, he can make a one-and-done leap to the league, where he projects as a fringe first-round pick if he declares for this year's draft.
"There's no limit to how good he can be," Jones said. "He has the potential to be a high lottery pick in the right time."
That's not just the spin of a coach who wants his most talented player to stick around at least another season. It was the consensus opinion of several scouts surveyed about Mitchell, who has played only one semester of college basketball, paying his own way for a year at North Texas after he couldn't enroll at Missouri because the NCAA ruled him an academic nonqualifier.
Mitchell was a consensus top-20 recruit after attending four high schools in three states. That journey included spending his junior year at Center of Life Academy in Florida, a charter school where he took five unaccredited classes that caused his issues with the NCAA.
However, Mitchell feels like he's found a home at North Texas, which was his fallback plan when he committed to Missouri as a high school senior at Dallas Pinkston.
The Vote4Tony campaign, a shtick-filled push by the Mean Green marketing folks, complete with stickers worn by fans, kiddingly attempts to persuade Mitchell to stay in school for all four seasons.
"That's ridiculous," Mitchell's mother, Angie, said in a rather serious tone.
Realistically, the hope is that Mitchell spends one more year at North Texas.
Mitchell, a first-team All-Sun Belt selection and the league's freshman of the year after averaging 15.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game, hasn't made a decision about the draft. However, he's leaning toward returning to school, spending much more time talking about the Mean Green's potential next season than the NBA.
If Mitchell returns, the entire North Texas rotation will be back next year. The Mean Green are also adding John Odoh, a shot-blocking, glass-cleaning 6-foot-11, 240-pound junior college big man whose presence will allow Mitchell to play much more on the perimeter, putting him in position to develop the ballhandling skills that scouts want to see.
Mitchell also looks forward to playing a full season with point guard Chris Jones and swingman Jordan Williams. The two freshmen were the Mean Green's leading scorers before Mitchell became eligible, but flunked out after the first semester. Jones and Williams are on course to be back next season, which has Mitchell thinking about the Mean Green as a legitimate March Madness threat.
"We have the potential to be a top 25 team in the nation," Mitchell said. "We talk about that like every day. I'm very excited. ... The league is not going nowhere no time soon."
Mitchell also seems to understand that waiting at least another year could be a wise financial decision.
It's hard to envision the 19-year-old falling out of the first round now because he's such an intriguing prospect. It's likely that an established contender would take a flier on the high flier around the bottom of the first round as a developmental project.
It's noteworthy that Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, San Antonio Spurs vice president of basketball operations Danny Ferry and two Dallas Mavericks scouts were among the NBA horde at the Super Pit in the two-point loss to Middle Tennessee, when Mitchell missed a potential tying tip-in high above the rim in the final seconds.
When asked whether Mitchell's athleticism reminded him of anyone, one scout laughed and said Blake Griffin. Jones, a former LSU point guard, mentions a guy he played against at Georgia named Dominique Wilkins. Another scout compared Mitchell's athleticism and style to a young Shawn Marion.
"You can't teach athleticism and length," a scout said. "And he has all you could want of those two things. But he's raw."
Mitchell is an above-the-rim highlight waiting to happen and has impressive shooting range (43.2 percent on 3-pointers), but there are a lot of gaps in his offensive game. Scouts said he needs to develop an off-the-dribble and back-to-the-basket arsenal. They also mention that they'd like to see his overall court awareness improve, which should come with more seasoning.
"We feel that our time with him could be numbered," Jones said, "so we want to do everything we possibly can to make sure he's the best he can possibly be."
Mitchell, who Jones describes as incredibly low maintenance, and his inner circle understand that he's far from a finished product. Nick Smith, the coach at Pinkston whom Mitchell considers an advisor, calls it a win-win situation for Mitchell and North Texas if he returns to the Mean Green.
Angie Mitchell isn't ready to go quite that far, saying that she'll discuss options with her son at some point after the season. She demands that Tony get his degree in sociology, but the plan is for him to be in the NBA when he graduates.
Whether Mitchell declares for the draft will be a business decision, based in part on his basketball development.
"He's pretty much halfway there," Mitchell's mother said. "I think he has a lot of work to do."
Halfway there? That sounds good for those hoping that NBA scouts will swarm the Super Pit again next season to see Mitchell.
There's a chance, however, that North Texas' first modern-day NBA player will wear a Mean Green uniform for the final time over the next few days in Hot Springs.
Tim MacMahon is a reporter and columnist for ESPNDallas.com.
Tony Mitchell is bound to be UNT's first NBA player, it's just a matter of when.