Peter Carr/Lohud.com Photo
Entering this spring season on the AAU circuit, Spring Valley's man-child forward Kai Mitchell flew well under the recruiting radar.
A short list, which included Monmouth, Elon, and Manhattan, had virtually nothing to do with the actual assessment of Mitchell's game.
Mitchell wasn't equated with the high-profile status of various less accomplished players, solely due to questions surrounding his true position.
Is the bruising 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior a four, the position he plays at Spring Valley?
Is he a swingman?
Can he guard bigs down low? Can Mitchell bulldoze 6-foot-11 centers as effectively as he dishes and changes floors?
Consider him a bit of everything, a big versatile recruit.
Flanked by the 6-foot-9 Jon Nwankwo in the paint this spring, Mitchell answered the lingering questions clouding his recruitment process.
Nwankwo, a Minnesota-commit, grew by leaps and bounds this summer.
Now at Victory Prep in Florida, Nwankwo evolved into offensive threat featuring a feathery hook with both hands.
Adopting Nwankwo as his interior brother in arms, taking advantage of the freedom to attack the rim with one dribble, and doling out interior passes, Mitchell instantly fled from obscurity.
"It let everybody, including Kai himself, see what he really is at the next level," said AAU coach Andy Borman.
"Because it allowed me to play him with his face to the basket, which is what he is. He's really a face to the basket kid. It eliminated a lot of the questions, it eliminated a lot of the doubt. Many were thinking, 'how is this kid going to transition?' He was playing a more similar position to what he'll play in college."
Mitchell has the tools to wear multiple jerseys for Iona. He'll prolong his career with the Gaels following a post-graduate year.
"There are 100 different names for Kai," Borman said.
"Point forward, he's a big guard. He's just a basketball player. He's gotten better at everything--finishing, rebounding, ball handling, passing. He can guard multiple positions."
With guard-like vision and a dependable 17-foot jumper, Mitchell is deadly for his all-around game. This made him appealing to Iona.
"I like the way Iona's coaches work out their players and go about developing them," said Mitchell, who averaged 16.3 points and 12.0 rebounds, helping spearhead Spring Valley to a berth in the Section 1 final.
"I feel the program would be a good fit because they'll push me and get me to the next level. That and that it's close to home made me decide on Iona."
It was a tough decision.
Monmouth head coach King Rice, an outspoken personality and former North Carolina star, had been in persistent pursuit of Mitchell.
Accelerating Mitchells' decision was the fact that Spring Valley teammate, point guard Rickey McGill, was also sold on the Gaels. Both players committed three weeks ago.
McGill and Mitchell have formed a radiant 1-2 tandem, an inside-outside punch helping catapult Spring Valley into Section 1's upper-crust.
McGill, who is Mitchell's cousin, knows the bullish senior's game as well as anyone.
They've been playing together since they were eight.
They first met at a local Rockland County CYO tournament, one which saw them go at each other as opponents. The mutual respect evident, a basketball brotherhood was born.
Mitchell cited 6-foot-6 small forward Luke McLaughlin of Tappan Zee as another member of this lifelong basketball clique.
"We've been playing together forever," said Mitchell of McGill. "We know each other's games so well."
McGill, perilous in the driving lanes, beyond the arc, from 18 feet, and also a noted ball-hungry defender, de-committed from Manhattan early in the spring. Given the uncertainty hovering over the program following the Steve Masiello situation, given the fact the McGill's couldn't contact the embattled coach, McGill opted to re-open his recruitment.
Growing into a vocal leader, McGill took game-changing matters into his own hands various times this season and throughout the summer.
He stamped his imprint with a 23-point, eight-rebound, five-assist performance in the Sectional semifinal 67-66 win against Clarkstown South. McGill shouldered the weight of facilitator in the BCANY summer games, leading the team in steals and assists en route to a 2014 Gold Medal.
With Iona two seasons away, both players continue to grow and expand.
Defensive flexibility and versatility have been essential tenets of Borman's system.
"Two years ago, Kai could guard a center or a power forward," Borman said.
"Now Kai could guard a center, a power forward, a wing, or a guard."
Mitchell grew up enamored with the game of Kevin Garnett, though he never patterned his game around any particular player.
Being sound at all categories of his game has always been his biggest aspiration as a player.
"The biggest improvement I'd say I've made is becoming more of a basketball player and doing everything," said Mitchell.
"I'll do anything to help us win the game."
Iona is known for playing a quick pace.
This speedball brand, which never allows the defense to get set, benefits the style both McGill and Mitchell have thrived with. The Gaels' court spacing could potentially empower Mitchell's passing game.
McGill, had interest from LaSalle, Drexel, Northeastern, Quinnipiac, and Kent State, to name a few.
"One of the best things about Iona is their workouts and their player development," said Borman, who coached at Division-I UC-Berkeley San Jose State.
"When you talk about a kid like Rickey McGill's upside, I mean I can't wait for him to be in the gym working with those coaches and those kids regularly. I think that's when we'll know his upside."
McGill is currently playing football at Spring Valley. He made a late decision to play wide receiver his senior season, renewing a football jones discovered during his Pop Warner days. That was, of course, before basketball won him over.
"He says he's been doing damage (in football)" Mitchell said.
"I'll have to go see for myself."