Dez Wells needed all of two seconds to uncover the appropriate comparison for Charles Mitchell’s performance against Delaware State. The 6-foot-8 freshman posted 19 points and 14 rebounds, both career highs, in Maryland’s 79-50 home rout on Saturday afternoon.
With Hornets center Kendall Gray sidelined for an “institutional problem,” according to Coach Greg Jackson, Mitchell took center stage, rumbling through the paint for easy layups and snatching seven offensive rebounds. So, naturally, it didn’t take Wells long to share his thoughts.
“Charles Barkley,” Wells said, shaking his head in disbelief as he stared at Mitchell’s gaudy numbers in the box score. “He was really, really, really good.”
Sure, the first name matches with the famed Round Mound of Rebound, but this was vintage Mitchell, who turned in his third career double-double in a season-high 24 minutes. To put that into perspective, Alex Len also has three double-doubles this season.
Mitchell entered stuck in a vicious cycle, where low playing time forced him out of shape, which caused a weight gain and, in turn, even less playing time. Once among the nation’s top rebounders per 40 minutes, Mitchell played just eight minutes against South Carolina State and 11 against both Monmouth and Stony Brook.
“I think it’s real simple,” Turgeon said. “He gained weight. He wasn’t playing minutes, we weren’t doing the extra conditioning which he needs, he was probably eating a couple pizzas at night that he shouldn’t have been eating. And he got back to his discipline.”
Over Christmas break, Mitchell returned home to Atlanta, where Maryland’s director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp kept in touch daily. “Going to the gym today?” Tarp would ask over texts, making sure Mitchell wasn’t succumbing to the typical holiday temptations of sweets and fried foods.
In return, Mitchell texted Tarp detailed accounts of his meals, self-imposing a conditioning penalty for a missed message. The punishment, a high-intensity four-minute treadmill workout called a “tabata,” hasn’t been necessary in recent weeks. Mitchell’s been on his game.
On a roster littered with charismatic personalities, Mitchell boasts arguably the widest grin and most infectious laugh. But even he became disheartened by a lack of playing time, knowing full well only consistency and performance would get him back onto the floor.
“ Every freshmen has these slumps. I think this was my freshmen slump,” Mitchell said. “I was down on myself because I wasn’t playing a lot. I took it as a learning experience.
“Just that I wasn’t on the court playing minutes I wanted to play. Sitting on the sidelines, knowing that the reason you’re not in the game is because you did something wrong. That’s always bad. To know you have to change and do different things, doing extra work just to get yourself back or better.”
Blessed with self-awareness and insight atypical of most freshmen, Mitchell conditioned more, coming to Comcast Center for workouts, even after two-a-day practices when sleep and rest seemed the preferable option. His mother stayed on his case about healthy eating at home as well.
But even Mitchell didn’t expect such a performance this quickly, even if his roommate saw it coming all along.
“I’m not surprised. He’s amazing,” Allen said. “He works so hard in practice. He’s getting better every day, you can tell. That’s what Chuck did out there, giving all those rebounds, second-chance points, he really helped us on the boards. Without Chuck, I don’t think we would have out-rebounded them.
“It definitely helped him. Helps him build confidence, overall just helps him wanting to come out next game and do it again. He’s been putting in extra work, doing extra cardio, trying to lose weight, eating on a diet. He’s going to keep it up. Chuck’s going to be fine.”
More than fine, in fact. Especially with Alex Len turning in just six points and four fouls in 17 minutes, Mitchell provided the bona fide offensive weapon at the power forward position that Turgeon’s been searching for.
“Like he was playing against high-schoolers out there,” Wells said “He was getting every rebound, tipping every ball. He has really soft hands. He’s always in the right place at the right time. The ball gravitates to him. He’s a great rebounder.”
Mitchell’s rebounding prowess, he said, stems from a basic thought process, more difficult in practice than theory: If the basketball’s in the air and Mitchell jumps first, it’s his. No questions asked. Sometimes, Mitchell rips rebounds away from teammates. That’s just the way he’s wired.
“I’ll say, ‘My bad,’ ” Mitchell said. “But if I’m closest to it, it’s my ball.”
Built like a tank, Mitchell can surprise opponents with his athleticism. He’s quick to launch for rebounds and floats turnaround jump hooks with both hands. Mitchell has also been performing his go-to move, a low-post spin, since watching Portland Trail Blazers forward J.J. Hickson, a fellow alumnus of Wheeler High School, but it still catches defenders off guard.
“Never. Never,” Wells said, when asked if he expected Mitchell to move like he does. “Even in practice. He still gets the big men with the move. It’s amazing.”