With dreams of Wake Forest

Cuthbertson star always had eye out for favorite

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 15, 2013 

— As the Cuthbertson High boys’ basketball team sat on the bench Friday night after the national anthem, an impromptu introduction came from the stands.

“Number 4, Shelton Mitchell!” boomed someone sitting among the Forest Hills junior varsity team a few rows behind Cuthbertson’s bench.

They knew they were in for a treat to watch Mitchell, who a week before verbally committed to play for Wake Forest as its top recruit in the class of 2014. The junior guard was averaging more than 21 points and nearly four assists, leading Cuthbertson to a 13-1 record entering the game against Forest Hills.

The future Deacon didn’t disappoint, scoring 34 points to lead all scorers as the Cavaliers won 91-72. He showcased his skills with three thunderous dunks, deft dribbling and a fluid shooting stroke.

Those attributes undoubtedly lured Wake Forest and coach Jeff Bzdelik to recruit Mitchell since his ninth-grade season, and Mitchell said the two-plus year recruitment played a deciding role in his commitment on Jan. 4.

Also, Wake Forest is the alma mater of his basketball idol, Chris Paul – another point for the Deacons.

“I thought I was ready, and they’ve been with me since day one,” Mitchell said after Friday’s game, wearing a black Wake Forest hoodie. “I thought about it with my family.

“I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity that I could have, especially with Wake. I knew I liked them all along and I knew I wanted to go there, so why not?”

‘Slow him down’

Mitchell said he was ready to make his commitment in December, but Cuthbertson coach Mike Helms asked his guard to take a step back.

“Wake’s just been his first choice from the get-go, and he came to me about three weeks ago ready to make the decision,” Helms said. “We tried to slow him down a little bit and then he came back and said, ‘Coach, I’m ready, it’s the right fit for me and I don’t think anything’s going to change my mind. I want to get the process over with so I can relax and focus on basketball.’ ”

Mitchell, at 6-foot-3 and 175-pounds, isn’t the quickest on the court, but he’s crafty with the ball. That, in part, attracted such schools as Arizona, Clemson, Connecticut and Missouri, who offered scholarships to the guard, considered by Scout and Rivals recruiting services to be the state’s top junior guard.

“Guys like him you recruit to hand them the basketball because what they do is operate offenses,” ESPN national recruiting analyst Dave Telep said. “The best way to describe him is extremely trustworthy.

“He’s going to be an extension of his coach, and players like him are valuable because he has two things: a winning gene and the ability to be your captain.”

On his first trip to the free-throw line Friday, opposing fans chanted: “Duke didn’t want you.” Mitchell hit both free throws, and minutes later he stole a pass and slammed home his third dunk of the night with his left hand.

Mitchell looked to that same section of the crowd and mouthed something. A technical foul followed.

“People start talking and I want to come back,” Mitchell said. “But I didn’t think I was going to get a tech. It wasn’t anything serious or about to fight, it was just playing.”

His competitive nature and hatred for losing is what Helms called the best aspect of his player’s game. Mitchell has lost only three times at Cuthbertson since his sophomore year, including a 58-55 loss to Kinston in the 2A state championship last year.

But unlike perennial college basketball powers Duke and North Carolina – in-state schools that held out offering Mitchell a scholarship while scouting higher-rated prospects – Wake Forest has struggled in recent seasons. Bzdelik coached back-to-back last-place finishes in the ACC and had a 21-42 overall record.

Wake Forest currently sits 9-6 overall and 2-1 in the ACC in Bzdelik’s third season, but last year he was on one of the hottest seats in ACC coaching. Helms said he’d talked to Mitchell about the possibility of a coaching change.

“Would that change anything?” Helms said. “Honestly, I don’t know if it changes it because he’s loved (Wake Forest) from the first day he went on campus.”

Mitchell, who has been recruited primarily by 12th-year Wake Forest assistant coach Jeff Battle, said his commitment to the Deacons is strong, and once his mind is made up there’s no wavering.

“It won’t concern me until it happens,” Mitchell said of a coaching change. “I’m not going to look at it now and say what-if. Until he’s gone or until I hear something for sure from them, for now I’m not really worried about it.”

Chris Paul’s view

Mitchell met Paul, a five-time NBA All-Star, when he was 14 and playing in the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions in Chapel Hill.

“I see a lot of my game in him, except Shelton is way more athletic than I ever was,” Paul said in an email through a Los Angeles Clippers spokesman.

Mitchell’s relationship with Paul has something to do with his affinity for Wake Forest. Paul starred at Wake Forest for two seasons, leading the school to its first No. 1 national ranking, before being selected fourth overall in the 2005 NBA draft.

The Clippers guard started an AAU team called the CP3 All Stars for four age groups in 2007. Since he was 15, Mitchell has played for the team, which travels across the country in the summer as part of the Nike circuit.

Mitchell talks to Paul occasionally, and his last conversation with the NBA star was just days after the commitment to Wake Forest.

“He was happy,” Mitchell said of Paul. “He said he felt it coming, but he wasn’t going to say anything to me. He said (Wake Forest) was a great place for me but for me to do what’s best for me. He didn’t want to be in my ear.”

Paul affirmed that.

“He isn’t making his decision because of me,” Paul said. “He comes from a great family. He has two wonderful parents who’ve always stayed on him and made sure he does everything the right way. He definitely has a chance to be special.”

That’s high praise from a two-time Olympic gold medalist. But while Mitchell hopes to one day replicate some of Paul’s successes, he said he has his own plans.

“I wouldn’t say I’d like to model my game after him, but I would like to do some of the things he’s done, especially with him being an All-Star the past six years and being the best point guard in the league,” Mitchell said.

“But I wouldn’t say I’d like to be like him. I’d like to be like myself.”

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