Junior point guard won the Big West’s Player of the Year Award last year after leading the Gauchos in both scoring and assists
UCSB had already installed a massive video board and a section of theater seating to the 40-year-old arena. The future called for a new locker room, new practice court, the final three sections of new chairbacks …
And a new basketball point guard.
Ajay Mitchell, no longer new and lanky, felt a sense of ownership while watching the Gauchos’ home improvement reach completion this fall.
“Ever since coach (Joe) Pasternack got here, you can see the program taking one big step after another,” he told Noozhawk after an afternoon practice served as its own form of reconstruction for a mostly new Gaucho team.
And it explains why Mitchell, the reigning Big West Conference Player of the Year, won’t be playing in some bigger arena for a power conference school when the college basketball season begins this week.
“I know a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, he might transfer now,’” Mitchell said. “But in my head, I was always like, ‘Santa Barbara is a good spot to be,’ and I felt totally comfortable getting ready to play again for the Gauchos.”
Mitchell must carry a big load as the Gauchos move on from last year’s 27-8, championship season — the winningest in school history.
He’s one of only three regulars returning to the Thunderdome for the 2023-2024 opener at 7 p.m. Thursday against Portland State.
But he has grown into the task as well as the body.
“Ajay was poised even as a freshman, but every year he gets even more mature,” Pasternack said. “Coming from a foreign country, where English wasn’t his first language, and being named by the conference as our university’s scholar-athlete of the year, is just amazing.
“He comes from an amazing family and he’s an even better person than a basketball player.”
Sizing Him Up
The lefthander from Liège has come a long way from the summer of 2019.
“He was really, really tiny at the time,” Pasternack said. “Like around 170 pounds.”
Mitchell conceded the point.
“I was always the shortest guy on the team,” he said. “I always had to use my quickness off the dribble … And also my IQ, of being able to find my teammates and read the game the right way.”
But it didn’t take long for UCSB’s new kid on the block to transform himself into the big kid in the backcourt. He’s sprouted to 6-foot-5 while packing on an extra 35 pounds of muscle.
“My dad was 6-6, 6-7, but he was like me growing up — skinny and short,” Mitchell said. “He started growing during his junior, senior years of high school.
“I’ve kind of taken that same path.”
That route also included the game of basketball.
He met Ajay’s mother, Fabienne, after heading overseas two years later to play for Belgium’s Sunair Ostende. They had four children altogether: Ajay’s older brother, Barry, and sisters Alexis and Ashley, both of whom played college volleyball in America.
Ajay followed his father’s footsteps into Europe’s pro basketball ranks while still a teenager. He kept his amateur status while playing for Nanterre in France’s elite Espoirs Division and for Limburg United in Belgium’s top league.
But he considered himself just a cog in their machines instead of the main lever he’s become at UCSB.
“Where I was at in Belgium, it was more like a team-play style, so it was harder for me to score,” Mitchell said. “Here it’s easier because it’s more one-on-one for me.
“The first few weeks, you just try to fit in and get into it. But coach Pasternack didn’t want me to just fit in, he wanted me to stand out and be the best player I could be.”
Mitchell’s play at the NBA Academy Games in Atlanta had attracted more attention from Europe’s pro scouts. He resisted their overtures while accepting Pasternack’s offer of a college scholarship.
When asked what attracted him the most about Santa Barbara, he said, “The beach is too easy, so I won’t say the beach.”
Mitchell insists that nothing can be easy about what he wants to accomplish in basketball.
He mentioned UCSB’s top-rated academics, and the basketball success that Pasternack has brought to the campus.
But he finally settled on something more personal as the main attraction:
“It’s probably the people around us here, especially in the program,” he said.
A Frosh Approach
As a freshman, Mitchell helped pivot a Gaucho team that won nine of its last 11 games after suffering through an 8-9 start.
He began to assert himself while averaging 15.4 points on 53.7% shooting — 40% from three-point range — and 3.3 assists in league play to win the Big West Freshman of the Year Award.
“Over time, he really stepped up his leadership in an incredible way,” Pasternack said. “When he first got here, he didn’t really communicate or talk to the coaches, his teammates.
“Now he’s always leading by his voice. It’s just special to see his development.”
It all clicked last year. Another late-season surge in the Big West race enabled UCSB to catch UC Irvine for a regular season co-championship, and then win the league tournament in Henderson, Nevada.
Mitchell led the team in both scoring at 16.1 points per game and in playmaking with an average of 5.2 assists.
But team chemistry, he insisted, was the real difference-maker.
“My freshman year, it wasn’t as close as this, especially at the beginning of the season,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t really do a lot of stuff together.
“We really didn’t think it was necessary, and we fell short.”
Last year’s team made of point of sticking together during the season’s low points.
“We lost three in a row in conference and it was like, ‘We need a reaction,’” Mitchell said. “Everyone brought it together and bought into the process.
“That was a great example of how to deal with adversity.
“The returners know how it was, and the new players listen to us and are going to buy in, for sure.”
The French Connection
He’s been building relationships this year with such key newcomers as Yohan Traore, a 6-10 sophomore from Tours, France.
Traore, who was rated as one of the nation’s top recruits two years ago when he played for Dream City Christian School in Glendale, Arizona, saw limited action at nationally ranked Auburn last year while playing behind several veteran stars.
“Actually today, when I asked Yohan to come see me, I noticed Ajay saying something to him in French,” Pasternack said. “There are a lot of expectations for Yohan but he’s never really played college basketball.
“Ajay has done a lot to make him feel comfortable here.”
Mitchell opted not to return to Belgium during summer break so he could work on his game. He’s determined to improve on last season’s three-point percentage of .264.
He sought the advice of several coaches, including Jerry Pimm, who guided the Gauchos during their glory days of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
“I’ve always felt that I’m a good shooter, but last year I didn’t shoot well at all,” Mitchell said. “I think there’s a part of that which was mental, but it was also about working on the release.”
He also wanted to work on bringing five new impactful players into the Gaucho family.
“I was happy working out and meeting the new guys as soon as possible and not being far from the team,” Mitchell said. “I do still miss home — it’s hard to be so far away — but I also have my family coming in sometime during the year.
“My mom is going to be here for Christmas.”
“Ben Shtolzberg told me after transferring here, ‘Listen, we had a lot of talent at Creighton, but we have a lot of talent here, too,’” Mitchell said. “It’s great to see great new players like him and the others join us returners.
“The most important thing is to build that connection now. Once we’re in season, when things go bad, we’ll all be together in this and have each other’s backs.”
Feeling a Draft
Pasternack said there’s no question that “he’s an NBA point guard.”
“Ajay is the best point guard I’ve ever coached,” he said. “Gabe Vincent (now a point guard with the Los Angeles Lakers) played the two for us — Marcus Jackson was our point guard back then — so I don’t include him.
Mitchell considers ESPN’s draft projection to be nothing more than “a reward” for all his hard work.
“It also tells me that there’s a long way to go … more work to do,” he said. “Obviously, the goal is to keep working and become a first-round pick.
“But the goal today is really just to get better. Every day, 1% better. That’s what I’m focused on — that and winning big things with this team.”
He knows there’s still more they need to build at the Thunderdome.