ower Gym is loud.
The practice home of Boston College men’s basketball is filled with noise from the moment you step in through the doors. If the Eagles are going to be good, it probably needs to be. The ACC will punish teams mercilessly if they can’t communicate. Perhaps such an atmosphere would intimidate a newcomer.
But Steffon Mitchell doesn’t look intimidated.
Stationed on the block as the team works on its zone defense, the 6-foot-8 forward looks like he was born to play in head coach Jim Christian’s system. His large frame doesn’t inhibit him from keeping up with smaller players, and at 222 pounds, Mitchell is well-equipped to battle in the post. He doesn’t struggle to communicate with other defenders, never takes a possession off, and exudes professionalism that is hard to find in a player so young, specifically on the defensive end of the floor.
Mitchell says it’s the hardest lesson he’s had to learn on the basketball court.
“Back in the day, in AAU I played on the Minnesota Fury,” he said. “We would score a lot, shootout games, defense wasn’t that big of a priority. But, I think that as it kept going on later in the AAU season we focused more on defense, and that got us to win more games.”
His focus shows at practice. One moment he’ll be in the paint bodied up against a bigger player, the next he’ll be switched out onto point guards behind the 3-point line. He never looks overwhelmed, and when Christian stops play to point out an error, Mitchell absorbs the information, asks a question or two, and then gets back to work.
His high school coach Bruce Kugath, hailing from Shakopee, Minn., wouldn’t be surprised.
“I’m pretty involved in our youth program, so I’ve seen Steffon as a player from third grade on up, and the thing that impressed me even when he was very young was that he was very competitive and just a basketball junkie,” Kugath said. “He just played and played and shot and shot and he never really changed.”
Perhaps Mitchell’s work ethic stems from his early indoctrination to life in basketball. His father, Juan, coached Shakopee’s girls’ basketball team, and Steffon has played under his guidance since second grade. It was the perfect incubator for building a basketball player who can do it all.
“I think he just had a burning desire to be a good Division I college basketball player ever since he was a little kid,” Kugath said. “Basketball, I think, was always his passion, and I don’t think that’s changed.”
That attitude brought Mitchell immense success at the high school level. In addition to his defensive efforts, he graduated from Shakopee as the school’s all-time scoring and rebounds leader—Mitchell racked up 1,985 points and 800 rebounds during his four-year career. Kugath believes Mitchell had close to 500 assists as well.
It’s hard to imagine Mitchell, probably closer to 6-foot-5 at the time, serving as his team’s primary ball handler, but his court vision justifies the temporary position change. By the time Mitchell graduated high school, he had already learned how to be the most versatile player on the court, filling any role a coach or situation would demand from him.
During one practice this preseason, Mitchell came down with a rebound, and sensing opportunity, passed up on outletting the ball and instead dribbled easily up court to run the fastbreak. It only took him moments to find a streaking Vin Baker, Jr. with a nifty pass, leaving Baker an easy dunk.
Moments like that have shined a light on Mitchell’s potential, and Christian has taken notice. The head coach has indicated Mitchell will play the three and the four, relying on his excellent rebounding ability and high basketball IQ to make a difference on the court.
“Right now, he [is] one of our catalysts even though he’s a freshman,” Christian said. “He sets a tone out there for us—he’s very, very important.”
t’s taken a lot of work for Mitchell to get this point. After Shakopee, he decided to go to prep school for a year to hone his game. Despite his tremendous success at the high school level, he, and Kugath, knew he had room for improvement. Kugath and Mitchell had a conversation during his sophomore year, in which Mitchell voiced his concerns about his usage as a center rather than as a perimeter player. His goal has always been to be a D-I college basketball player, and although Mitchell is big, he already knew that in college he would be best suited to play on the perimeter.
Kugath asked him to sacrifice. In order for Shakopee to get wins, they needed Mitchell, their biggest player down low. The results spoke for themselves, as Shakopee finished third in their league twice behind Mitchell, who shattered school records in the process. Mitchell would work on his perimeter game outside of the regular game plan, and whenever a situation would call for it he would step behind the 3-point line to run the offense.
He wouldn’t have to sacrifice for long though. Mitchell went to Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas for his prep year. While there, he’d work under head coach Kyle Bankhead, who was immediately impressed.
“What stood out about him, I think he’s an every-day guy, and what I mean by that is he brings his lunchpail every day to work,” Bankhead said. “He has the same attitude every day, and he doesn’t let outside influences change who is is.”
While at Sunrise Christian Academy, Mitchell worked more on the outside shot he had previously sacrificed. According to Bankhead, Mitchell’s natural position in college is as a face-up stretch four. Mitchell can pass and shoot, and has moved away from some of the less natural post-game he grew up playing.
Both Kugath and Bankhead felt that before Mitchell could excel at the collegiate level, his footwork and body type needed to be worked on. Mitchell is a good athlete, especially laterally, but after so many reps in the post at Shakopee, Sunrise was the perfect place to refine his athleticism. In prep school, Mitchell was freed to operate primarily on the perimeter, only venturing to his old spots in the post to take advantage of mismatches.
Now, as he begins at the collegiate level, Mitchell has had extensive exposure to low post and perimeter play on both ends of the court. His presence gives the Eagles a unique asset to take advantage of various inefficiencies in opposing game plans. Mitchell’s broad skillset gives BC more options when the team is trying to take advantage of any weakness an opposing team will have. If the Eagles play their cards right, Mitchell could play a huge part in adding to the team’s win total.
Bankhead is quick to mention that Mitchell’s improved shooting ability is a big key to his success at the college level. He believes that if Mitchell can reach his 3-point shooting potential—making 40 percent of those shots or so—he’ll be extremely difficult to guard, regardless of the athletic improvements he’s worked on the last few years.
Mitchell’s outlook also translates to his big game performances. Kugath mentioned that although Mitchell is extremely unselfish on the floor, to the point where sometimes against lesser opponents he isn’t aggressive enough, against better teams Mitchell’s game escalates to new levels.
Mitchell functioned more as a ball-handler alongside his primary scoring capabilities and never shied away from the big stage. Bankhead adds that a lot of Mitchell’s time at Sunrise was geared toward learning to be more aggressive in big moments, but also further integrating Mitchell’s flexibility into important gameplans to create advantages opposing teams couldn’t deal with. His defensive capabilities alongside his inside-outside game and high basketball IQ make him difficult to keep up with, and his selfless playing style endears Mitchell to his teammates.
Baker, Jr. has experienced that selflessness firsthand. He believes Mitchell’s rebounding ability opens up incredible opportunities for his teammates.
“We have a lot of good shooters,” Baker, Jr. said. “When he rebounds like he does offensively, it just opens up for more opportunities, more second-chance points.”
Kugath couldn’t be more proud to have coached Mitchell, the ultimate team player with a passion for winning and an attitude that makes him a Swiss army knife on the court. Mitchell has turned into a weapon that BC cannot only use, but could push the team to another level.
Bankhead, who has stood witness to much of Mitchell’s progress into a player with immense potential, thinks the college basketball world is about to be taken by surprise.
“I just think it’s important everybody knows how wonderful a kid he is,” Bankhead said. “He’s a special, special kid. I don’t think BC even knew how good of a kid they were getting. If you were behind closed doors, they’d be scratching their heads like ‘Dang, I didn’t know he was going to be this good.’”
Christian didn’t either.
“I think he’s the guy that nobody knew about, and in some regards even I didn’t know, how good he was,” Christian said. “He’s really good … I think if you asked the guys on our team ‘Which guy on our team takes the most pride on doing the little things to win,’ I think it would be unanimous: Steff Mitchell.”
ack on the practice floor, Mitchell is guarding on the perimeter. He and his teammates don’t get the coverage right on a play the scout team is running, and give up a tough basket. The ball bounces to Mitchell, who gathers it, and in a brief moment of frustration gives it one hard dribble before lobbing it back out to run the play again.
This time, the play comes to an end when Mitchell and his teammates lock the coverage up perfectly, and Mitchell closes out quickly on a 3-point attempt to make a difficult block.
He comes up with the ball and a smile, quickly handing it back to the scout team to run the next play. He daps up his teammates, then gets back into his stance.
Power Gym is loud, but Steffon Mitchell is ready to bring the noise to Conte Forum.
Featured Image by Tiger Tao / Heights Staff