CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Steffon Mitchell hears the whispers around him. He knows his reputation for elite, lockdown defense, and he understands his place in the conversation of the ACC’s most feared rebounders. For three years, he embraced the challenge and guarded the best of the best in order to help his team win. Last week, before joining ACC Network’s “Operation Basketball” special, all three studio hosts – including former NBA and Duke big man Carlos Boozer – lauded Mitchell’s efforts on the defensive end, calling him the best in the league. It’s time for your 2020-21 men’s basketball preview.
He also knows the unbound lack of limitations in his game and how his game evolved well beyond the box constructed by written analysis or spoken word. For three years, he watched experts talk him into finite dimensions. Now, he’s ready to prove that his offensive numbers from last season aren’t a fluke and that his all-around game is ready to shine.
“There’s nothing better than playing against the best of the best,” Mitchell said. “You get to prove yourself as a team and as players. If you win games, you get national recognition. If you play well (individually), it looks better for everyone on the court. If you come to the ACC, you have to be ready for (tough) games like that. Those games are what you get up for as a college basketball player. You get to play the No. 1 team in the nation, and you couldn’t ask for much more.”
Mitchell’s evolution places him in a pantheon among some of the most beloved Boston College basketball players of all time. He quickly established his floor presence as a freshman, replacing double-double machine Teddy Hawkins in the lineup after his injury, and became a mainstay in the lineup for the rest of the season. He routinely averaged more than 30 minutes per game and became the first BC freshman to average better than eight rebounds per game.
He was the only player last season to average just under eight points and just under nine rebounds per game with more than three assists and two steals, and he posted a 1.92:1 assist/turnover ratio as he earned top 10 in the ACC in each category. He was the tallest defensive player in the top 30 in the nation in steals and posted eight double-doubles, including one against Syracuse with 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
He did so while playing in a box carved outside of his scoring prowess. He drove the basket both along the baseline and down the paint, but more traditional centers and power forwards overshadowed him. He received passes for transition buckets, but guards and small forwards moved and finished with more finesse and flash.
He was the first BC player named to the ACC’s All-Defensive Team last year, but the Eagles were 4-2 when he scored in double figures. He went the first eight games without a made three-pointer, but he hit at least one in five consecutive games in February. It came as a larger stretch where he hit a three in a stretch of both six-of-seven and seven-of-nine games, but it also occurred while the team shifted through injuries and shortened its bench.
“We weren’t a consistent 3-point shooting team,” head coach Jim Christian said, “but we added two guys in Rich Kelly and Freddie Scott that are over 40 percent shooters. That’s going to help us dramatically, and then we get a guy back like Wynston Tabbs, who is a very good 3-point shooter. We’re growing in the areas we need to grow in, and when we scrimmage, we have two (players) at every position. Our backup point guard, night-to-night, is not our starting two-guard. We can come at teams in different ways with 10 players who have played college basketball and are older. We’re still waiting on other things, but it’s totally different.
“Rebounding will come from five guys,” Christian added. “Makai Ashton-Langford is an athletic guard and can make Ky Bowman-esque plays, and he and Jay Heath will need to rebound.
“But Steffon Mitchell is one of the best in the country. We know we want to play fast and with good pace, and we have to rebound in order to play at a good pace.”
For Mitchell, the fourth season is an opportunity to prove he belongs at the next level. The NBA and the professional ranks always covet players who can crash the rim, and every playoff team has a lockdown defender who studies matchups against top-flight scorers. A majority of players are the Ben Wallace’s, Marc Gasol’s, Draymond Green’s, and Rudy Gobert’s, who all either went to teams in the late first round or later. They are the unheralded, unselfish team players with overall components in their game.
They are, in short, the Steffon Mitchell’s.
Boston College will open up its 2020-21 season with its opening game of the 2K Empire Classic against No. 3 Villanova. The game will tip-off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 25 from the Mohegan Sun Arena as part of the resort’s Bubbleville. The game can be seen on ESPN with the radio broadcast available on WEEI 850 AM.