At 5-foot-8 and except for those long arms, he didn’t look like a future star at the collegiate level.
But that only made the events of one particular gym class a touch more memorable. Playing a pickup game with his buddies, a missed shot triggered some latent instinct.
“It came off the rim and I jumped, put it back in and touched the rim,” he said.
That day, a dunker was born.
Mitchell then did some growing and a lot more jumping before making his mark as one of the more athletic players in the SEC as a 6-foot-6 sophomore at Alabama.
Averaging 15.8 points a game, he became the first Crimson Tide player in three seasons to score 20-plus points in four straight games in Saturday’s win over Ole Miss. The streak will get a test at 8 p.m. Thursday at LSU (10-15, 2-8 SEC) followed by a 6 p.m. Saturday visit from Arkansas.
The follow slam that kicked off his dunking career has turned into a calling card for the instinctual player who is growing into his expanded role in his second season with the Tide. Along with leading scorer JaMychal Green (16 points per game), Mitchell is a big reason why Alabama (16-8, 8-2) has not been outscored in the paint this season and leads the SEC West by three games over Mississippi State.
They’ve also contributed to the increase in zone defenses the Tide’s faced in recent weeks in hopes to stem the inside production the two have accounted for.
That just plays into the new emphasis Mitchell’s placed on his game.
“He’s improved on his jump shot,” Green said. “He’s knocking down a lot of jumpers this year and it’s helping out because it’s opening up the lane for me.”
Through 24 games, Mitchell’s connected on 17 of his 3-point attempts after making 15 all of last season.
But it’s still his jumping ability that draws the loudest cheers in Coleman Coliseum. Green didn’t hesitate when heaping praise on his teammate.
“He’s the most athletic guy in the SEC right now,” Green said. “He can jump with all of them out there.”
Mitchell factors largely into a statistical category that doesn’t appear on any NCAA publication, but is recorded by Alabama media relations. The Tide has 95 dunks this season to its opponents’ 18.
That isn’t a number that coach Anthony Grant said was topic of much discussion in practice or the meeting room.
The growth in Mitchell’s game isn’t lost on Grant, though.
“There’s a lot of talk about the scoring he’s had over the last four games,” Grant said. “But I think he’s rebounded the ball consistently for us. There have been times over the course of the year where he’s led us on occasions.”
He’s also tied for the team lead with Senario Hillman forcing 1.8 steals per game on Alabama’s defensive-minded team.
As a team member, Grant has a hard time identifying Mitchell’s personality saying only “Tony is Tony.”
Green took a stab at describing the different demeanors of his teammate.
“Tony, he’s a character,” Green said. “One minute he can be goofy and one minute he can be serious. You never know what you’re going to get out of Tony.”
As Grant pointed out, Mitchell didn’t exactly emerge from obscurity this season. He started 18 of 30 games and scored 9.2 points as a freshman after growing into his naturally long arms and rising into a coveted recruit in Swainsboro, Ga.
By his senior year at Central Park Christian, he was ranked among the top 40 high school players in the nation.
His busy schedule keeps him from getting back to Georgia too often, but when he does, there are plenty of friends ready to reunite.
A select few were there for Mitchell’s life-changing moment in gym class and the topic occasionally finds a way into conversation.
It was the first act in a career quickly being defined by one of the more explosive players in the SEC.
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star.