NBL: Akil Mitchell is the Breakers’ bench weapon

New Zealand Breakers head coach Paul Henare had a decision to make.

When his squad signed Akil Mitchell in the offseason, Henare had to decide whether to start the 24-year-old, or stick to what he knows, and that’s keeping NBL veteran Mika Vukona in the Breakers’ starting line-up. It was the first big choice of Henare’s debut season as an NBL headman, and even he admits he wasn’t too sure what he was going to do.

“I sat down with [Mitchell] and Mika at the start of the season and I said, look, I don’t know which way I’m going to go in terms of starting,” Henare said, after his side’s round five overtime victory against Melbourne United.

“To me, it’s a constant work on taking away the title of starter. You look at the minutes played and it all evens out at the end.”

Just over a month into the season, and Henare’s settlement on moving Mitchell to the bench is looking like a masterstroke.

In a season where numerous imports have struggled to find their footing in the NBL, Mitchell has thrived in a bench role.

Starting the game in a warm-up top, as opposed to a uniform, was a change for Mitchell. In his final two seasons with the Virginia Cavaliers, Mitchell was a permanent starter, before starting in 30 of his 49 NBA D-League games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Last season, playing in France with Olympique Antibes, Mitchell averaged 27.5 minutes per night, which is indicative of starters minutes.

His coach, however, is pleased with Mitchell’s metamorphosis into an energy big off the pine.

“Akil is growing in confidence and knowledge of the league," Henare said.

"He is coming off the bench, and we got a couple of guys who are coming off the bench who are not happy with it, but have learned to adapt and adjust to different roles than they’ve had in the past, and Akil’s been great.

“Akil and Mika have formed a real bond, they’re like brothers. One comes in and sets the tone and the other comes in with more energy. I think it’s a real advantage for us to have those two guys at the power forward.”

Mitchell’s impact was felt in full force in his squad's dramatic 98-92 win over Melbourne, as the North Carolina native flashed his athleticism, explosiveness, basketball IQ and defensive capabilities.

While his stats don’t jump off the page, as Mitchell finished with 12 points and five rebounds in 26 minutes of action, the effect he made on the court was clear, especially in the dying moments.

“Different guys finish the game and that’s when it’s the most important,” Henare said after the United win, a sentiment that Mitchell can attest to.

With the Breakers holding a 94-92 lead with 31 seconds left, Melbourne gave the ball to Cedric Jackson, who was causing problems throughout the contest by posting up other guards. However, in a bold move, Henare put Mitchell onto Jackson on this possession, which neglected Jackson’s ability to post up against a larger, stronger opponent.

As Jackson goes to drive against Mitchell, who seemed to have him covered at the rim anyway, Rob Loe provides good help defence, which ultimately leads to Thomas Abercrombie’s game-clinching dunk on the other end.

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“That was a panic call,” Henare said of Mitchell guarding Jackson in the final minute. The results, however, were positive for Henare and it showed Mitchell’s aptitude to guard multiple positions on the defensive end.

Mitchell displayed his defensive skills earlier in the game, as his quick hands were able to strip the ball from Tai Wesley here. In a sequence that exhibits Mitchell’s innate athletic ability, he is able to dribble the ball from half-court, step around Nate Tomlinson and finish the play with a nasty slam-dunk. To see a 6'9" forward move at this quickness, and be in such control of his body on the fast break, is electrifying.

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This kind of intelligence on the defensive end to poke the ball away from Wesley at the perfect time, and the quickness and precision it takes to execute such a move cleanly, is unforeseen in big men. Additionally, the way Mitchell glided down the court and finished with an athletic move when being faced by two Melbourne defenders is mightily impressive.

It isn’t just the highlights that make Mitchell so impressive, though. His high intelligence on the court is seen on these two plays, as Mitchell recognises favourable situations in both instances.

In this example, Mitchell sees that his man, Wesley, decides to double Corey Webster after the screen. As Webster sends a quick pass to Abercrombie, it leaves the lane open for Mitchell, as Wesley is too late to rotate back onto him after helping on Webster. This leads to an athletic finish from Mitchell at the basket.

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Here, Mitchell’s slight hesitation on giving a dribble hand-off to Kirk Penny gets Wesley out of defensive position. As soon as Mitchell notices Wesley hasn’t got his feet set, Mitchell explodes to the rim, moving faster than a big man usually does.

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On this play, Mitchell shows his ability to work his way through traffic and still make the correct decision. As he receives the ball from Ben Woodside on a pick and roll, Mitchell goes to leap, but is met by Wesley, who plays good defence. With David Andersen behind him, Mitchell is forced to make a quick choice. Despite being mid-air, Mitchell is still able to deliver a perfect pass to Vukona. Even though Vukona misses the shot, Mitchell's passing and basketball smarts is on display.

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Finally, Mitchell is also able to bully defenders in the low post, as he does to Andersen here. As he faces Andersen up and drives baseline on him, Mitchell uses his strength to create room between himself, the basket and Andersen, before nicely finishing with a reverse lay-in.

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“Through watching tape and talking to our US scout Jonathan Givony, I knew we were getting someone that can guard 1-5 if needed which gives us some great flexibility when it comes to our defence,” Henare said when Mitchell signed, via NBL.com.au.

“Offensively he will bring a great energy and with his athleticism, will be a crowd favourite I’m sure.”

Six games into the season, and Mitchell is bringing all of these qualities, and more, to the court.