Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Collins Hill junior basketball player Devin Mitchell is a top college prospect and one of Gwinnett County's top scorers. Mitchell tied a school record with 41 points and was named the tournament MVP at the inaugural Gainesville Big Red Shootout as the Eagles beat Gainesville 78-74 in double overtime December 29.
Even the best players can be humbled, and Devin Mitchell's humbling moment came the summer before his freshman season at Collins Hill.
The skinny, rising ninth-grader was immediately given the assignment of guarding rising senior Saah Nimley, an ultra-quick and athletic guard who led Gwinnett County in scoring the season before and is now a standout guard at Charleston Southern. He went head-to-head regularly in practice with Nimley, who showed no mercy.
"Oh no, he didn't go easy on me. I wish he would have," said Mitchell, now a Collins Hill junior. "I had never seen anything like Saah before. It was crazy. I came to summer practice and Saah was just killing me. Coach put me on Saah the whole practice. I was like, 'If he can do that good and he's only 5-foot-6, I can do something if I work hard.' That woke me up. I look up to him a lot."
Collins Hill head boys coach Eric Nathan, then an Eagles assistant, remembers those head-to-head matchups well. Mitchell had the height edge, but Nimley's strength and speed were overwhelming for the youngster.
"Saah just pounded him every day," Nathan said. "I think it challenged him. They played a little bit over Christmas break this season and I think Devin was really proud of how far he'd come. He said, 'I can get by him now. I couldn't get by him before.' There's no doubt when you play against better players you're going to get better.
"Better players take things away and Saah was a lot quicker than Devin, and Devin had the height advantage and all he did was shoot over (Nimley). Now he's able to dribble and use the bounce against him."
Those early mismatches with Nimley are part of a series of events that propelled Mitchell to where he is now --one of Gwinnett County's top players and one of the state's top junior recruits.
The first boost forward in basketball came shortly after Mitchell, who is from Rockford, Ill., moved to Georgia when he was 11. He played some basketball in the parks in his native state, but didn't play the sport for an organized team until he joined a Mill Creek recreational team of fifth-graders.
In his first game, his team won 18-16 and he scored all 18 points.
"That's how I figured out I was pretty good," Mitchell said. "Since then I kind of stuck with it."
Another learning experience came three years later, courtesy of his eighth grade coach at Twin Rivers Middle School. Mitchell had admittedly been floating along, relying on his natural talent, but was pushed to do more by Phil Bollier.
"In eighth grade, Coach (Phil) Bollier is the one who really got me going," Mitchell said. "He told me I had the chance to be really good and that he was going to push me. That's the first time I've really had someone push me to get a lot better.
"I really didn't take basketball serious until I got to eighth grade. Coach Bollier really helped me with my fundamentals, my shooting."
Mitchell's desire to improve has stayed with him since that eighth-grade season.
One noticeable change this season is Mitchell's additional size and strength. At 6-foot-4, 175 pounds, he's still not super thick. But it's certainly better than the 155 pounds he played at last season.
"I'm a lot better (this season)," Mitchell said. "Last year I think I kind of hit a wall where I didn't score as much or do as much. I've been working hard in the weight room and everything's starting to come together. I'm not as tired. I can keep going on."
Mitchell's 11.3 scoring average was second on the team last season. His point production has risen greatly this season to 20.9, but his all-around game has also improved tremendously.
He averages 4.6 rebounds and 3 assists, the latter stat aided by more solid ballhandling. He gets heavy attention from opposing defenses, but has responded with some excellent passing, like his dish from a double-team Tuesday night to Darius Joell, who knocked down a 3-pointer that decided the game.
"I think Devin was a shooter last year, now he's a scorer," Nathan said. "He can handle the ball so much better. It's not just scoring, which he does so well, it's his ability to find people. Against Meadowcreek he only had 12 points, but he had seven assists. He's able to find people and get other people involved."
The new and improved Mitchell is a coveted college prospect, too.
His offer list already includes the likes of Georgia, Cincinnati and Ole Miss, while teams like Florida, Florida State and Alabama are recruiting him harder of late. He also hopes to hear from some Big Ten schools, since he grew up watching Illinois and always wanted to play in that conference.
His play also has impressed the guy who used to wear him out in Collins Hill practices.
"He's improved a lot," Nimley said of Mitchell's game after they played last month. "I always knew he was going to be a player, though."
Mitchell even tied Nimley's school scoring record for a single game this season, scoring 41 points in the finals as the Eagles won the Gainesville tourney. He earned MVP honors and matched one of Nimley's top feats.
"When I was a freshman, I was real competitive with Saah," Mitchell said. "I always told him I was going to break his (scoring) record. He was like, 'No, you'll never get close to it.' It was funny because the night before (Gainesville) I talked to him and I was like, 'I'm going to break it tomorrow.' And he was like, 'No, you're not going to touch it.' So I went out and tied it. I had to let him know."