With less than 11 minutes remaining in the first half of Virginia’s 46-38 win over Tennessee on Wednesday night, Coach Tony Bennett inserted junior forward Akil Mitchell into the game to play alongside four freshmen. It was just the sort of situation Mitchell was ill equipped to handle just a year ago, if only because it’s a situation in which Bennett would have turned to Mike Scott.
So upon entering the game, Mitchell went to work on his best Scott impression. He received the ball on the low block his first possession on the floor, turning and faced his defender. He then offered a jab step before going into the familiar little fadeaway jump shot that was Scott’s bread and butter last season.
“I can’t really say I stole my game from Mike or I watched a whole lot of anybody,” Mitchell said after notching his fourth double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) of the season. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 9.7 rebounds through nine games this year.
“I just kind of made up some moves that would work for myself and played a lot of one-on-one with Mike and Darion [Atkins], who is a really good post defender. We just worked all summer.”
That sequence in Wednesday night’s victory ignited a 17-2 run in which Mitchell and Atkins combined for 12 points, and it was a testament to their two-hour workouts with Scott at John Paul Jones Arena this summer.
Mitchell and Atkins, a sophomore from Landon, have become Virginia’s most proficient secondary scoring options behind guard Joe Harris to start this season. Each was simply known for rebounding and defense a year ago, but they’ve teamed up to help offset the loss of Scott’s production this year.
Together, Mitchell and Atkins are averaging 20.7 points and 14.9 rebounds per game this year. But it’s the way they’re scoring, with baby jump hooks and mid-range jumpers that look eerily similar to Scott’s repertoire of moves, that has been the most encouraging part of Virginia’s recent six-game winning streak..
“I think you’re seeing Darion and Akil having a very nice stretch of basketball and come into their own,” Bennett noted following the Cavaliers’ win over the Volunteers.
In that game, Atkins proved once again that he is Virginia’s best post defender this season, blocking a team-high three shots and holding Tennessee leading scorer Jarnell Stokes to just five points. Both he and Mitchell are quick off their feet, a trait that has given opposing players fits inside.
But the coach should really thank Scott for doling out lessons on how to defend an elite post player before beginning his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks.
“Us three, we definitely went at it. All it did was help us defensively,” Atkins said. “The more reps you get up against guys like that, especially a defender like Akil, I’m going against someone who’s quick and athletic like me and then I got someone that’s bigger and vice versa. I just got up a lot of reps with them and it was to my benefit.”
Added Mitchell, “We just tried to make each other better and get better as we go.”
So far, the plan seems to be going according to script.