CREIGHTON, Neb. — When John Mitchell III arrived in Creighton, Nebraska, midway through his eighth grade year, it didn’t take long for Ryon Nilson and the other Bulldog coaches to figure out that he would have an impact on their boys’ basketball program.
But even they could not have imagined that impact.
Mitchell enters tonight’s (Tuesday) home contest against Hartington Cedar Catholic just 22 points away from 1,000 for his career. If he passes that milestone tonight, he will do it in just his 37th game for the Bulldogs.
Mitchell arrived in Creighton from Rochester, Minnesota, he more than held his own against his fellow middle schoolers.
“We knew he would have an opportunity to contribute for us (as a freshman),” Nilson said. “But in junior high you get such varied talent levels. But we had some expectations of what he could do on the floor as a freshman.”
As Mitchell waited his time — eighth graders are not allowed to play varsity in Nebraska — he watched his new hometown team.
“I watched them a lot,” he said. “I knew they would all be seniors (his freshman year). I practiced my shots, tried to get better to be a good fit for them.”
Mitchell more than lived up to those expectations.
The 6-1 guard scored 23 points in his varsity debut and broke double digits in all but one game as a freshman, averaging 24 points per game for a 14-10 squad.
But the guard’s impact wasn’t just felt in the scoring column.
“The crazy thing was, we relied on him as a leader,” Nilson said. “We had a number of seniors, but he led our team on offense and, a lot of times, on defense as well. To put that much responsibility on a freshman is not something I’ve done before.”
Mitchell did more of the same — as well as spending his summer with the Lincoln Supreme basketball team — in order to get better for his second varsity season.
“He has really worked to improve his shot,” Nilson said. “But the biggest thing has been leadership. He was a unanimous pick for team captain as a sophomore. That was pretty impressive.”
Mitchell has lived up to that billing. In 12 games this season he has averaged 33.6 points per game in leading the Bulldogs to a 10-2 record. He has shot 55% from the field, including 67% from two-point range. He is 31% from three-point range, with 29 made threes, and is 75% from the line.
Over the past eight games — all Creighton victories — Mitchell has scored at least 30 points in every game, averaging 37.8 points per contest. He has scored 40 or more points three times during that span, including a 47-point outburst against Summerland a week ago.
Mitchell watches plenty of pro basketball, but noted that there isn’t any one player whose game he tries to model.
“I watch a ton of different NBA players, try to combine them into one,” he said. “For me, the whole game is mental. I don’t get down on myself.”
While Mitchell’s mental control has helped him thrive, so has his physical control.
“His body control is the number one thing,” Nilson said. “He is athletic, quick and jumps well. He has the ability to get to the lane and still be under control.”
Through his first 36 games, Mitchell has seen the full range of defenses meant to slow him down.
“This year, we’ve seen true double-teams, bracketed zones, some trapping, box-and-one. We’ve even had pure man (defense) teams come out in a zone against us,” Nilson said. “Every game now, we just expect to see teams come out in something they haven’t shown on film before.”
Part of what has helped Mitchell flourish for the Bulldogs is the willingness for everyone to work within the team concept, Nilson said.
“Everyone has bought into their roles. We say that every role is important, but every role is different,” he said. “We had a situation earlier this year where (Mitchell) scored a lot of points, but the only thing the kids were discussing when we got into the locker room was that they won.”
With just over a month left in the season — the final regular season game for the Bulldogs is one month from today — Mitchell has his sights set on one goal.
And it’s not about scoring.
“State,” he said. The Bulldogs have not qualified for state since 1987, and have never won a state tournament game. “That’s the goal.”
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