CHARLOTTE — More than five years later, Virginia forward Akil Mitchell still remembers his official visit to George Washington as “surreal.”
Though he grew up in Charlotte, Mitchell’s family hails from the Washington area and he had his sights set on playing his college basketball there. In the Colonials, led by former Coach Karl Hobbs at the time, he saw a program that appreciated how he blossomed after a late growth spurt during his junior year of high school.
Until, that is, George Washington’s coaches called him and his father into an office after he had trekked to Washington for a campus visit. Hobbs informed them he was pulling Mitchell’s scholarship offer, because “he was kind of trying to put a team together that would save the program and he didn’t think I was the guy that would help them right away,” Akil said.
Anthony Mitchell spent the next 30 minutes arguing with Hobbs and his assistants, angry at the game they had played with his son. Only when Akil told him he wanted to go home did his anger subside. But it was an experience Anthony hasn’t allowed his son to forget.
“Whenever I think Akil is kind of slumping or getting tired, or doesn’t have that extra boost, I’ll call him and I just say, ‘Coach Hobbs’ or ‘GW,’ and it’s almost a guaranteed double-double the next game,” Anthony Mitchell said.
Akil Mitchell couldn’t help but smile when talking about it Wednesday at ACC men’s basketball media day, back in his old stomping grounds after earning third-team all-conference honors during a breakout campaign at Virginia last season. After all, his entire basketball career has been based around defying the expectations set by others.
Anthony Mitchell has vivid memories of picking up his crying son two years in a row after being cut by the middle school team. He had all the skills, but at that point Akil was “stout and slow,” according to his father.
Mitchell didn’t make a school basketball team until his sophomore year at Charlotte Christian School, and even then he had to deal with the barbs of former teammate Seth Curry because “I was 6-5 and couldn’t dunk.” But Anthony Mitchell talks with pride about the moment his son stepped back into the school gym before his junior year of high school, after a summer filled with workouts, and wowed everyone with his sudden burst of athleticism.
“He went from couldn’t dunk to basically putting his head on the rim,” said Anthony Mitchell, who played at Carroll and H.D. Woodson and spent two years playing professionally overseas.
When Mitchell arrived in Charlottesville in 2010 as part of Coach Tony Bennett’s first recruiting class at Virginia — Bennett only offered him a scholarship during the fall of his senior year of high school — he considered himself a small forward, and few predicted he would turn into one of the faces of the program. But after biding his time behind Mike Scott, a first-team all-ACC forward in 2011-12 who now plays for the Atlanta Hawks, and growing a few more inches, the 6-foot-8 Mitchell emerged as the Cavaliers’ best interior player a season ago.
He averaged a career-high 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, notching 12 double-doubles in the process.
“He thought he was gonna be a wing and shoot a lot of three-pointers,” Bennett said. “But I told Akil and his Dad, ‘I am recruiting you to be a front-court player.’ He’s really embraced that.”
Teammates still marvel at how Mitchell morphed from an athletic wing into a threat on both ends of the floor inside. Senior Joe Harris talked Wednesday of how Mitchell dominates rebounding drills in practice and understands his role within Bennett’s finely tuned system.
“Thinking about Akil and how much he’s improved since the time we’ve gotten to school is amazing,” said Harris, the only other member of Bennett’s first recruiting class that is still in the program. “Akil came in and everybody had kind of written him off and nobody gave him a chance. The guy’s just a warrior.”
This offseason, a broken bone in Mitchell’s right hand, suffered at the LeBron James Skills Academy, forced him to work extensively on his left hand. He has also added several post moves to his repertoire. Anthony Mitchell, meanwhile, raves that Cavaliers fans “have seen maybe 50 percent” of what his son can do on the basketball court.
On Wednesday, Akil Mitchell was reminded of how far his game has come when he drove past his old middle school, where he couldn’t make the team, en route to his interview obligations. He referred to it as “a full-circle” moment.
“To think about how many hours in the gyms around Charlotte I’ve put in, just to have the opportunity to be here and then to come back . . . I thought basketball wasn’t gonna be my thing,” Mitchell said. “I give a lot of credit to my family for sticking behind me and really encouraging me to keep trying.”