SANTA CRUZ -- Tony Mitchell's freakish leaping ability is well documented. Hundreds of thousands have viewed his theatrics from the past two NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contests on YouTube. The Fort Wayne forward was recently featured on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays. And he's even apt to use his teammates as unsuspecting dunk props during practice.
In Game 1 of the NBA D-League Finals, however, it was Mitchell's long-distance aerial assault that stole the headlines.
With under a minute left and the game still within reach for Santa Cruz at 94-90, Mitchell, who shot 4-for-16 through the game's first three quarters, stepped way back and confidently drained a deep 3-pointer that took the air out of a sold-out Kaiser Permanente Arena.
"We saw this last year with him. He'll struggle, he'll struggle and then all of a sudden he'll hit dagger after dagger," said Fort Wayne President Jeff Potter, who was sitting courtside. "He hit every big shot we needed down the stretch because they were giving us everything they had. They played good D, but he stepped out to 30 (feet). What are they gonna do?"
Earlier in the quarter, Mitchell -- who averaged 20.2 points per game in the regular season and finished with a game-high 25 points Thursday night -- hit two other 3-pointers, one with 6:14 left and another with 5:37 remaining, that helped to diffuse a pesky Santa Cruz team's attempt at a rally.
"That's Tony," said Fort Wayne guard Ron Howard, who was named 2014 NBA D-League Co-MVP earlier in the day. "That's what he's done since halfway through his rookie season last season. He makes big shots, he makes big plays and that's what we expect of him. He's capable of doing that and he's the best in the league doing that and he came up big again tonight."
After a performance like this one, it's clearly evident that Mitchell's career arc is on a steep incline. After winning NBA D-League Rookie of the Year last year, the Alabama product went to play overseas before returning to Fort Wayne in mid-January. Since returning to the NBA D-League, he not only defended his Slam Dunk Contest crown, but he earned a 10-day Call-Up with the Milwaukee Bucks.
"Tony is a fantastic talent. He's frankly too good for this league," Potter said. "He should be in the NBA."
For the time being, however, the Mad Ants are happy he is on their side. The mercurial Mitchell provides an irreplaceable blend of brilliance and unpredictability that seems to mesh well with the team's veteran core.
"He's without a doubt the most athletic guy in this league, hands down, and we expect him to do crazy things like he did tonight," Howard said.
And who knows, maybe with another dose of crazy, Mitchell will lead the Mad Ants to their first-ever title.
Courtesy Anthony Oliva, NBADLeague.com