Ajay Mitchell had been in America for just a few months when he got The Word from his new UC Santa Barbara basketball coach:
That was no easy task when you’re a 19-year-old freshman whose first language is French.
“I was just trying to fit in here during the first couple of months last year,” Mitchell told Noozhawk. “Coach spoke to me about it and was like, ‘We don’t have time for that … You’ve got to be one of the leaders of this team.’
“I’ve been working on that since I’ve been a starter, and this year it’s become a lot easier.”
UCSB’s best seasons have been spearheaded by its greatest lead guards: Brian Shaw (Class of 1988), Carrick DeHart (1990), Ray Kelly (1993), Branduinn Fullove (2004), Alex Harris (2008), Orlando Johnson (2012) and Gabe Vincent (2018). Current coach Joe Pasternack knows that has to be true now.
As Mitchell goes, so go the Gauchos.
He used his savvy and size as a 6-foot-5 point guard to lead UCSB with averages of 15.0 points, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game. But he is still trying to get a feel for when to take over a game and when it’s better to facilitate others.
He tried to score the Gauchos back into their Nov. 18 contest at Northern Arizona and made just 5-of-15 shots in a 63-54 loss. He was less assertive on Tuesday at Duquesne, scoring just 10 points with one assist, and UCSB faltered again, 72-61.
But Mitchell picked his spots well to help UCSB (5-2) pull away in Saturday’s 82-71 win over Pacific. He scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half while also involving Ajare Sanni (22 points), Miles Norris (18) and Andre Kelly (11).
“In the games last year, that’s what happened, too,” Pasternack said. “But there’s no more feeling things out. We need him for 40 minutes.”
Mitchell’s development as the Gauchos’ starting point guard began to reap results last year during the last five weeks of the season. The team had struggled until the end of January with an 8-9 record but caught fire to win nine of their final 11 games. Mitchell averaged 16.8 points per game on 54.1% shooting and 3.1 assists in those 11 contests.
It earned him the Big West Conference’s Freshman of the Year Award and a spot on the all-league first team.
“My mindset changed,” Mitchell said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to be one of the leaders and pull this team up.’ Learning how to play college basketball helped me a lot.”
An Important Import
Mitchell came to UCSB with a basketball résumé that was especially impressive considering his tender age. He started for Belgium’s U18 team at the European Championships, excelled at the NBA Academy Games in Atlanta, and played as an amateur in two professional leagues.
He was a teenager among men while playing for Nanterre in France’s elite Espoirs Division and for Limburg United in Belgium’s top pro league.
But his greatest culture shock as an expatriate in the sunny, seaside town of Santa Barbara were the demands that were put on him as an NCAA Division 1 athlete.
“It was getting used to the intensity of practices, working out twice a day every day, doing weights … stuff like that,” Mitchell said. “The first week, I was tired after every practice. I’d go to bed at about 6 o’clock. But I got used to it, and now I’m good.”
Assimilating in a foreign country that’s nearly 5,700 miles from home came easier. One of his fondest memories was how warmly he was greeted by his new teammates.
“Everyone on the team went to a barbecue at the house of a teammate (Max Sheldon), and we all hung out over there for hours,” he recalled. “It was great to see how close we could get in a couple weeks.”
It helped that he’d been exposed to American culture by his father. Barry Mitchell had been a basketball star at Norfolk State and was the MVP of the old Continental Association Basketball — precursor of the NBA’s G League — when he played for the Quad City Thunder in 1992.
He met Ajay’s mother, Fabienne, after coming to Belgium to play for Sunair Ostende two years later.
Ajay was born in 2002 while his dad was starring for Liège in Belgium’s BNXT League. He got the chance to watch him play when his dad came out of retirement at age 48 to play for BC Alleur in Belgium’s lower division during the 2013-2014 season.
“Even at that age, I knew I wanted to be a basketball player,” the younger Mitchell said. “He went to college, and my sisters went to college, and I was like, ‘I want to follow that path as well.’”
One sister, Alexis Mitchell, earned All-Big Ten honors as a middle blocker for the University of Wisconsin volleyball team. His other sister, Ashley, played for Northwest Missouri State. Ajay also has an older brother, Barry.
“My mom is still in Belgium, and our being away is pretty hard for her, but she understands that I have to be here to achieve my goals,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard, but I call her every day and we stay really close.
“My sisters are still in Wisconsin and Kansas City — we’re all over the map — but I stay in touch with them a lot, too.”
Big Goals for the Big West
Mitchell finished his freshman season with averages of 11.6 points and 3.7 assists, but also with the bad baste of a 67-64 loss to Long Beach State in the Big West Tournament semifinals. The defeat became a motivating force during his offseason workouts.
“When I got here last year, it was all about getting to the tournament, and it didn’t change,” he said. “Even after losing, we were like, ‘OK, that cannot happen ever again,’ and I hope it doesn’t happen again while I’m here in college.”
The defeat also convinced such veterans as Norris, Sanni and Calvin Wishart to take advantage of the bonus year offered by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic and return for another season.
“They were all like, ‘We’re not leaving on that … We’ve got to run it back,’” Mitchell said. “It’s great to have them back, too.
“The sky’s the limit for us if we just keep doing what we have to do, keep working hard every day.”
Mitchell turned the angst of last year’s Long Beach State loss into muscle. He hit the weights during the spring and summer and added 24 pounds to his 6-5 frame. He now tips the scales at 196.
“He’s gotten a lot stronger, more athletic, more confident in our system,” Pasternack said. “Better leader.
“Early last year he was unsure of himself. I think he’s gained a lot of confidence from all the games he played. He’s getting better and better.”
The Gauchos did have to fill the void left by Amadou Sow, a 6-9 forward who won All-Big West honors during all four of his seasons at UCSB. Sow is now averaging 13.2 points and 5.2 rebounds for Blois, a team in France’s top professional division.
Kelly, a 6-9 and 255-pound graduate transfer who earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention at Cal, has helped plug that hole with averages of 11.3 points and 9.0 rebounds.
“When he got here, we were trying to figure that out: ‘How can I get him the ball? How can he get me the ball?’” Mitchell said. “We’ve been working on that this whole time, and I think it’s getting way better.”
Mitchell resisted overtures from several professional clubs in Europe when he signed his national letter of intent with UCSB in the fall of 2020. He has also tabled all thought of following such Gaucho greats as Shaw, Johnson, James Nunnally, Alan Williams and Vincent into the NBA.
“At some point for college players, you always have that in mind,” he said. “I just try to take one step at a time.
“Each day is a different day, and I just try to work hard every single day … I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh, what am I going to do in two years?’ I’m just thinking about the next day.”
And those are The Words that have become music to coach Pasternack’s ears.