Akil Mitchell doesn’t wanna stop learning with AEK

By Cesare Milanti/ [email protected]

If you are aware of how Akil Mitchell can turn into a basketball monster on the court, you would never imagine which type of person the 30-year-old from Charlotte is when he’s not in the gym.

“I’m a nerd. I love to read; I love anything with technology. I love to follow tech and financial markets. If there’s anything for me to learn, I jump into it. I love Star Wars and anime. I’m one of those guys”, he said when asked how he would describe himself off the court.

It’s strange to see this mix. But apparently, Akil Skywalker can switch pretty well when he steps on wood flooring. He has always done that, since his first days.

He’s coming off a long way that started in Virginia when he hadn’t made his mind up about a potential future in the basketball world. “Back then I didn’t even think about playing pro. After my third and junior year there, one of our assistant coaches, Ritchie McKay, told me that I was going to be playing professionally for a long time if I wanted to. That was the first time I really thought about it”, he said in an interview with Eurohoops.

He was surrounded by talented guys such as Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, Mike Tobey, Billy Baron, and Devon Hall. “We had some good players, I played with Mike Scott and Mustapha Farrakhan before. I knew that there was a possibility, but then to see all of those guys having good professional careers. Even Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill. The list of names is so long that I knew that if I focused and put my everything into it, then I can also have a good career”, he added.

And from the NCAA experience with the Cavaliers, where he was inserted in both the All-ACC Third Team and the ACC All-Defensive Team in 2014, his learning process started.

Undrafted, then signed by the Rockets but moved to the G-League. Then Summer League with the Brooklyn Nets, which ended up being another disappointment.

Akil moved to Europe, to the French team of Antibes, and from then on he hasn’t stopped circling places on his globe. One in particular, though, filled his heart. “I’ve been really blessed to see a lot of the world. In terms of living and lifestyle, they’ve all been different. I still say some of my best experiences with basketball were in Israel with Gilboa-Galil”, he said.

The reason is simple and involved the whole world. “It was Covid-19 season, but we had some great players on that team (Edgar Sosa and Joe Thomasson among others, ed). I think it was special just because of the way we came together and were able to win. We didn’t have a lot of talent, and none of us were making a lot of money. But the guys really bought in and you see something special happen with very few professional teams like that. I’d probably say that that was the most important place for me. I had to grow up a lot as a man as well. I enjoyed it”, he added.

Before that chapter in the Winner League, where they reached the semifinals stage, Akil Mitchell had started the season with Trieste, in Italy, his career dream. “It was really strange. I had always dreamed about playing in Italy. My parents married there and Positano used to be my screensaver for a lot of time. It was literally a dream to go to Italy and play there, but to have it in like that was so weird. It was sad I had to leave Italy like that”, he commented on his time with Trieste being interrupted.

 

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If you think of a place where to hoop, Akil has probably spent some months there. He has played in France, New Zealand, Germany, Israel, Italy, Turkey… and now Greece.

Moving from Brose Bamberg to the black-and-yellow side of Athens, the American power forward has quickly become an important asset for AEK. It was easy to choose this club as his next chapter.

“I had a lot of conversations with the coach over the summer. I knew the history and the platform that AEK had. I’ve never been to the Greek League before, and it has a lot of history. I wanted to be able to play with a team that could have made some noise in the BCL, and I really really trust coach Ilias. The vision that he had for me on the team this year was one that I knew I would be able to play and fit well in”, he commented on his decision to join the Greek side.

In the weeks that followed Mitchell’s arrival in the Basketball Champions League with his new team, experienced guards like Tim Frazier and Janis Strelnieks joined him, and a roster full of noteworthy elements. Kenny Williams and Cameron McGriff, just to name some.

The Virginia Cavaliers product knows how important everybody is inside that locker room and how to face tough moments during the season. “Those guys are high IQ-basketball players. All of them are really high-IQ players. We’re all kind of learning from each other. It’s our first time playing together with this group. We’ve taken our bumps from early on, but we’ve learned from all of our mistakes. Right now, I think we’re a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence”, he said on AEK’s current roster.

The Greek team ended its group stage right behind Tuomas Iisalo‘s Telekom Baskets Bonn and ahead of Errick McCollum‘s Pinar Karsiyaka, ending up in the Play-Ins clash against Tofas Bursa.

In the best-of-three series won 2-0 by AEK, Akil Mitchell stepped up and delivered as an MVP.

In Game 1, he had 16 points and 7 rebounds behind closed doors, while in Turkey he produced a monstrous double-double of 21 points and 14 rebounds, with 8/12 FG and 6 assists, becoming only the third player in BCL history with a 20/10/5 stat line.

Now, Ilias Kantzouris’ team has a tough challenge ahead, known as “Group K of the Round of 16”, where the black-and-yellow side will meet Unicaja Malaga, Galatasaray NEF, and the winner of the series between Limoges CSP and MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg.

Akil is aware of the level of these opponents, especially talking about the Andalucian side. “Unicaja is another one of those Spanish teams that seem to just really know how to play, they play at a high level and there’s a reason they were in the Round of 16 from the beginning. That will be another really good challenge for us, tactically it will really challenge our IQ and our smarts. But it’s a team I really do think we match up well with”, Mitchell said about Unicaja.

Then, he went on to talk about his feelings toward the matchup with the Turkish team. “The same about Gala, they’re also a really talented team. I don’t know if Dee Bost will be there anymore, and he’s a big part of that team. But they still have guys who can really square the ball like Dylan Ennis and Sadik Kabaca. They have some talent. It will be another physical game where I have to step up and play hard. But we’re in a lot of confidence right now. It will be a good challenge for us”, he added.

AEK’s tough challenges, however, aren’t only in the Basketball Champions League, where they want to become the third team in the history of the competition able to lift the trophy twice after San Pablo Burgos and Lenovo Tenerife.

The team from Athens has to face well-equipped opponents in the Greek League as well, where they can perform derbies against Peristeri, Panathinaikos, and Olympiacos.

In the first Greek League game played in 2023, in fact, AEK lost to the red-and-white enemies, that heavily prevailed 111-71. But for Akil Mitchell, despite going against a European superstar like Sasha Vezenkov, that was just another game.

“I’ve known a lot of those guys for years. I’ve been friends for a long time with Moustapha Fall and Tarik Black. There was no star power for me. I know they are one of the best clubs in Europe, and they shot the ball out of the ball against us. They broke a three-point record. But they’re human and the next night they go against AS Monaco and score only 60 points. So for me, it’s just another chance to compete, another chance to play basketball and enjoy playing the game that I love”, he said on Olympiacos.

A similar path with the same attitude has been recently shown by Mathias Lessort as well, who played a significant role in the EuroCup but completely stepped up in the current EuroLeague.

Seeing how close the Basketball Champions League and the EuroCup have come in terms of the level of teams and players, it won’t be surprising to see Akil Mitchell making the big jump, sooner or later.

He would surely like it. “I really hope I can make that jump. I know that I can compete at a high level. Lessort is another player that I’ve watched really taking a big jump this year. It’s energy and intensity, he doesn’t take plays and games off. That type of effort is what can really help a club win”, he said on the French center.

“That’s why we’re having a good season here with AEK because we watch guys like him and we try to bring that intensity and energy every game. I don’t know if I will and if I want, but I know that what I can do every game is try to bring the same energy and intensity. Or better”, he added.

It’s a long process that can bring you from one country to another, but the most important is to keep on learning. Akil Mitchell knows it, and his performances are the natural consequences.

PHOTO CREDIT: Basketball Champions League

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