It was nearly 10 years ago, yet Kai Mitchell recalls the first time he approached Rickey McGill. It was at a Rockland County CYO tournament.
McGill and Mitchell, a potent inside-outside punch during their career at Spring Valley HS, were up against each other as opponents.
Each possessing ahead-of-their-time talent, the game shaped into a sheer one-on-one battle between the two of them. Mitchell would pull off a move, McGill would counter with one of his own. It was as advanced a duel as you'll witness at the youth basketball level.
Fast forward to 2015. McGill is at Iona, where he'll have the opportunity to bolster an established backcourt. The Gaels feature an NBA prospect in 6-foot-4 A.J. English, as well as a high-scoring and bolt-quick sophomore in Shadrac Casimir.
Mitchell, whose jack-of-all-trades stock appealed to Iona during a largely underwhelming recruiting process, will follow. He'll undergo a post-graduate year at St. Thomas More (CT) to shore up his academics, entering as a Class of 2016 recruit.
McGill is a high-motored guard with competitive juices coursing through his bloodstream. Proficient at attacking and leaning on a mid-range game, McGill's a consistent 3-point shot short of all-league expectations. The 6-foot-1, 165-pound guard shed feast-or-famine tendencies from his junior year as a seasoned senior, gaining his license to kill during high-pressure moments. McGill cemented his clutch characteristic by draining a buzzer-beating 3-pointer as Spring Valley defeat edSaugerties, 65-62, in the New York State Class A regional.
At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Mitchell's frontcourt passing, sneaky athleticism, and high basketball IQ fits into Iona's style.
Having brought tiny Rockland County to major relevance in 2014-15, both players will acclimatize to a higher level. It will be leaps-and-bounds above any tier they've experienced.
McGill's upside is yet to be determined. He relishes a challenge. Akin to a boxer who waits for the opponent to initiate before exploding with counterpunches, his competitive edge is sustained. He'll play to the point of punch-drunk fatigue, as well.
At Iona, McGill will be in a situation where he's pushed everyday. He'll have the opportunity to get 500 shots everyday. English averaged 20.1 points and 5.1 assists last season and is now bench pressing 300 pounds.
Casimir, a 5-foot-10 guard out of Stamford, Conn., took many by surprise as a freshman. He erupted for 40 points in just his fourth college game, a 126-76 trouncing of Delaware State.
He averaged 14.5 points on the season, streaky during some sequences and a blurring hard-to-guard threat during others. The summer workload has helped Casimir develop more point guard-like instincts.
With this caliber of backcourt strength set, McGill will have to ascend the ropes all over again. Tenaciousness is one of the freshman's stronger attributes, one likely to vault him into meaningful minutes.
"Rickey can really guard any guard position," said Andy Borman, who coached McGill and Mitchell on the AAU circuit.
"If he's going to carve out a valuable role at Iona, as ironic as it seems I think it's going to be done on the defensive end of the ball. If he's the type of guy who says 'let me guard their best player' and he steps up and embraces that challenge, I think he can help them right away. This is probably the first time in his life where he's walked into a situation where he wasn't the best player on the team right away."
Becoming more adept as a point forward helped pave Mitchell's path to Iona. He had minimal interest heading into his senior year, mainly because he was forced to play out of position in high school. Enhancing his all-around game, developing a reliable 16-18-footer, and showcasing a deft passing ability for a big helped alter his image.
Another year under his belt will help him physically, mentally, and academically.
"What we've done by sending him to St. Thomas More is provided him with a structured environment, with probably the best coach in the Northeast in Jere Quinn," explained Borman.
"I don't think Kai would have been ready for that setting last year. I think he's ready. He's going to take full advantage of it. I think he's in a great spot to be successful."