From the moment Maryland freshman Charles Mitchell emerged as a legitimate Division I prospect a few years ago, the comparisons to another undersized and overweight power forward were pretty obvious.
Mitchell had studied Charles Barkley, but mostly he listened to Portland Trail Blazers forward J.J. Hickson, who starred at the same Atlanta-area high school Mitchell later attended. Hickson went off to North Carolina State for one season and was a first-round draft choice of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008, the year Mitchell started high school.
"He always told me, 'Rebounding will take you where you want to go, rebounding will help your team more than you know,'" Mitchell recalled earlier this season of a conversation he had with Hickson, now in his fifth year in the NBA.
A dozen games into his Maryland career — and coming off his most impressive performance with career highs of 19 points and 14 rebounds last Saturday against Delaware State — Mitchell is still too early in the process that could determine whether he will follow Hickson and the others into the NBA.
But the 6-8, 260-pound freshman has already started to follow their lead.
Like Barkley, who eventually shed his "Round Mound of Rebound" nickname by reshaping his body, Mitchell dropped nearly 30 pounds between his arrival at Maryland last summer and the start of the season. More recently, he lost the six pounds he put on when his playing time was cut last month.
While Hickson led the Wolfpack in both scoring and rebounding as one of the top freshmen in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Mitchell has proven to be a high-volume rebounder (one every 2.3 minutes or 17.4 a game) and more than capable low-post scorer for the Terps.
Mitchell has attributed his success to the weight loss, and has come a long way from being a 288-pound high school senior who said he was once recruited by a Georgia assistant coach to play on the offensive line for the home state Bulldogs despite never playing organized football in high school.
"It helps a lot because … I'm more aggressive going to the offensive end and getting up and down the court, being more vocal on defense," Mitchell, who Monday was named the ACC's Rookie of the Week, said after losing the initial weight. "I feel more explosive all around."
Going into Tuesday's final non-conference game against IUPUI (6-11) at Comcast Center at 3 p.m., Mitchell will try to keep his production up and the pounds off as Maryland (11-1) approaches the start of the ACC season Saturday at home against Virginia Tech.
Calling himself "the new Charles Mitchell" and admitting that he had returned to "bad habits" that caused him to put on a few pounds, Mitchell said Saturday that he had spent the past few weeks doing a lot of running outside with Kyle Tarp, the team's director of basketball performance.
"Before, after practice, in the parking lot, I'd just get up and run, just get my body back where it used to be, just to stay focused," Mitchell said. "It took a lot. I just had to get back to being able to help my team win. I got back in better shape than I was."
Tarp said Monday that since Mitchell failed to score and snatched only three rebounds in 11 minutes against Monmouth Dec. 12, the freshman had not missed a day when he hadn't done some sort of extra conditioning of "high intensity" workouts. Tarp said that Mitchell also sends a text message detailing every meal.
"After the Monmouth game, he had one of those recommit moments. [He asked] 'What can we do to get this back on track?'" Tarp recalled. "He kind of set all these parameters. We did all of this over the summer, but we kind of backed off a little. To his credit, he has busted his tail to get back where he was. If he misses a meal text, he set the punishment to remind himself what he needed to do."
The last member of this year's freshmen class to sign with Maryland, Mitchell has been arguably the most impressive newcomer aside from sophomore transfer Dez Wells. Mitchell has had three double-doubles and has been in double-digit rebounds four times, including 10 in a season-opening loss to then No. 3 Kentucky.
Mitchell was the first Maryland freshman to get double-digit rebounds in his first game since Buck Williams in 1978, though Mitchell is too young to remember the school's fourth-leading rebounder. Told after Saturday's game that he had set personal bests for points and rebounds, Mitchell chuckled.
"I didn't know that," he said with a smile. "I just play."
If Mitchell's rebounding has not been a surprise given that he pulled down 15 rebounds in Maryland's one exhibition game, his offensive game has been better than expected, as he demonstrated against Delaware State. He hit 8 of 12 shots, mostly on layups and follows. He even hit 3 of 4 free throws after missing his past five attempts and coming in shooting 6 of 16 for the season.
Mitchell is more skilled than any of Maryland's big men putting the ball on the floor, and uses either hand when he shoots. His hands are not only soft, but also quick for a player his size. After making only 4 of his first 12 shots this season, Mitchell has made 30 of his past 47 field-goal attempts, including 11 of his last 16.
Asked Saturday about Mitchell's low-post offensive game, Turgeon said, "I wish I could take the credit, but he was a good player coming out of high school. He was well-coached in high school, he had a really good AAU program that worked with him."
Turgeon said that Maryland fans have only seen a glimpse of what he thinks Mitchell can do, especially in the the low post.
"Charles has a left and right hand down there," Turgeon said. "It's a big adjustment to this level scoring down there compared to high school, but I think it's more or less than he hasn't had the opportunities, and [on Saturday] you saw him. He's still going a little too quick, but he can score down there. He can really score."
But it is his rebounding that will keep Mitchell on the court, and on a path that could some day help him follow his old friend Hickson — not to mention the Hall of Famer known as Sir Charles — to the NBA.
"Coach always says that the guy in the front should get the rebound, but Charles goes after everything," said Maryland freshman guard Seth Allen. "He's a monster, that's what's so good about Charles. He just has that mentality that 'I want every rebound.'"Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times