The Role Player : All the Pieces That Fit : He Turns Opponents Into Players of Weak

Times Staff Writer

The Others Vincent Frances, Brea R.J. Hamblin, Fullerton David Hill, Mission Viejo Kevin Jones, Valencia Ralph Laird, Foothill Jim Sammon, El Dorado Bob Zimmer, Corona del Mar In the hearts of most high school basketball players, the task of playing defense ranks with such popular pastimes as mowing the lawn, flossing teeth and conjugating Latin verbs.

Just the mention of defense has been known to lull teams to sleep.

So the argument could be made that Mater Dei High School's Mike Mitchell is a guy with his priorities upside-down. One thing is certain: his interests are at the opposite end of the court compared to most player's.

Unlike his celebrated teammate, you-know-who, Mitchell doesn't have a statistic to his name to signify his exceptional ability.

But if Mater Dei star Tom (31-points-per-game) Lewis was playing for the opposition, Mitchell would be the one assigned to guard him.

"We put him on the other team's best player," Mater Dei assistant coach Dave Taylor said. "Mike is so versatile, we can put him on anyone--no matter who's the best. Whether he's a guard, a center or a forward, Mike takes him."

A little attention from the Monarchs' designated defender has been known to transform Players of the Week into temporary Players of the Weak. In basketball parlance, Mitchell is known as a Stopper.

A couple of numbers offer a clue to Mitchell's ability. Despite being 6-foot 6-inches and 200 pounds, the senior is quick enough to lead the team with 53 steals. Mitchell's impact may best be measured in one Mater Dei statistic. After 22 games, the Monarchs have allowed opponents less than 47 points per game.

Here's what the coaches are saying about the senior forward's performance:

Santa Clara's Louis Cvijanovich: ". . .awesome. . ."

Mike Murphy, who directs the Angelus League's second-place team, Pius X: "He destroyed us. I think he's the best all-around player they have . . . He's terribly underrated."

Foothill's Jim Reams: "Division 1 quickness and size make a large difference in high school. He's 6-6 and fast as a jet."

However, the impression that matters most to Mitchell is the one he made on Fresno State Coach Boyd Grant and assistant Ron Adams.

Adams saw him play last summer. Shortly after, Mitchell signed a national letter of intent to play for Fresno, known in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. as Defense City.

What did the Fresno recruiters say to Mitchell to convince him to sign early?

"They said they're looking for team players," Mitchell said. "They say they're scoring all their points on the defensive end of the court instead of the offensive end. They say their best job is to hold another team under 40 to 50 points."

Mitchell seems to fit Fresno's defensive mold like a hand in the face.

"I think he's one of the best ones (defensive players) we've recruited in the last five years," Grant said. "I don't think anyone we've gotten was as far along as Mike in ability to play defense and rebound.

"I felt he was a player who could step right in and make a contribution to our program. He could play defense for us right now."

The Bulldogs are in second place in the PCAA, but Mitchell remembers talking to Grant by telephone after Fresno had lost to Washington, 53-45, Dec. 1.

"(Grant) told me, 'We really could have used you against Washington,' " Mitchell recalled. "I said, 'I'm just 17, and I've got to finish this year, first.' "

Anyway, Mitchell was busy Dec. 1. That was the same night the Monarch defense set a school record for the fewest points allowed an opponent. Dos Pueblos lost, 69-26.

Grant, whose teams led the nation in defense three of the past seven years, says Mitchell has "all the things a great athlete should have--good strength, gracefulness and good movement.

"But the first thing I look for in a player is a good personality and a good attitude--like Mike's--and someone who's team-oriented."

That about sums up Mitchell's nature. In fact, he can hardly get through a sentence about basketball without using the word team.

A typical Mitchell comment was his assessment of his ideal player, Laker Michael Cooper: "He's more of that team player, the one who will always help everybody out. If somebody gets beat, he's the first to take the charge. He's the first one back if the other team is on the fast break. He's in the team mold. He keeps the team together, like the model on the team."

Mitchell talks about playing defense the way most players gush about scoring 30 points. Points? He has an average of 13 per game but seems to shrug off scoring as if it were incidental to his responsibility.

"The main part of defense is the desire to stop the guy you're guarding," Taylor said. "I almost think Mike gets a bigger kick or joy out of that than scoring."

Said Mitchell: "I just feel that when I'm playing defense, that's when I get my 'points.' Defense is the main priority on the basketball court. Offense is there, but it doesn't really happen until you play defense. Unless you play the defense, you won't get the offense."

One of Mitchell's finer performances this season was against Matt Honikel of rival Servite. Mitchell limited the Friars' top shooter to four points in the first three quarters. Honikel, who averages 20.9 points per game, finished with 10 points.

In the St. Bernard's game, sophomore Dave Whitmore went on a tear with 19 first-half points against the Monarch zone. When the Monarchs switched to man-to-man in the second half, Mitchell limited Whitmore to four points.

Murphy gave Mitchell credit for the sub-par performance of Pius X 6-9 senior center Richie Antee, who managed 12 points against Mater Dei. He averages 22.

Finally, there was St. Paul's John Scott, who averages 17.8 points a game but scored only 6 against Mitchell.

There's one game that even Taylor, who has coached Mitchell for three years, found painful to discuss.

That was the faculty game. The protege drew the assignment of guarding his defensive mentor. And look who's frustrated now.

"He has such long arms that you can't shoot over him, and yet he plays a little off you, so you can't drive around him," Taylor said ruefully. "I could hardly get a shot off."

Taylor, a former Orange Coast College and Cal Lutheran guard, had an average of 10 points a game in college. Mitchell limited him to six.

"Now I know how opposing players feel," he said.

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