Matt Mitchell has always been able to adapt to the situation. Whether it was turning Kawhi Leonard’s SDSU jersey retirement game into the notorious ‘Matt Mitchell’ game vs Utah State—where he scored 24 of his game-high 28 points in the second half, willing his team to victory. Or adjusting to the different style of play in the professional basketball league in Europe.
His evolution from less recruited high school Sophomore—to breaking out his Senior year earning Matt offers from Utah and SDSU—has been one that Aztecs nation won’t soon forget. He ultimately chose to be an Aztec to stay closer to home with the program was the best fit for him on and off the court.
Matt Mitchell recently sat down with Sons of Montezuma for an exclusive interview just days before tipping off his NBA Summer League with the Denver Nuggets this past week. The always thoughtful Mitchell’s full audio & video interview is available on our Sons of Montezuma “Kiss the Rings” podcast episode.
This past year playing for SIG Strasbourg of the French LBN Pro A league, Matt is the youngest on the team. Mitchell’s first season in France was a full-on learning experience. Being outside of the USA for the first time and allowing him to travel has had a special impact on his life. “The experience was wholesome,” he noted. Traveling to 5 different countries and taking in the cultures and history of Europe left a mark on him.
“It’s not really something that happens at 23. That was something I had to figure out. There’s not a lot of 23 year olds playing in the top leagues overseas in Europe. So that was definitely a blessing to take that opportunity and make the most of it going into the summer.“
From Riverside, to San Diego, to France—Matt Mitchell’s path usually leads him to become the face of each team he has been a part of. But even though American basketball players stand out in the small population French town of Strasbourg, Mitchell wants to be known as anything but a “celebrity”.
“I don’t really like that word celebrity. It’s too flashy for me.“
The arena there for Sig Strasbourg holds 6,000 fans—or almost exactly half of what SDSU has at Viejas arena. It’s not the biggest franchise Matt will ever play for, but the fans in this small French town have made a large impact on the Aztec living abroad.
“I think it was very personal for me with the fans. The fans are all about the SIG Army. I think for me it was more personal in that, these are people that support you all through the year and show up to different events and outreach things. These fans are out there with the players trying to make a difference and make a connection. For me that was a fun ride with a fanbase that is so up close and personal.“
It took about a month for him to adjust to the Euro style of play. The travel in the league is rougher with buses & trains to all over for the road games. And while most of his Sig Strasbourg team spoke English including the head coach (a rarity among the Euro league) it was the play on the court that took some adaptation to his game.
“In Europe it’s all about dominating in a small space. If you can dominate your man in front of you without worrying about secondary defenders, you are one step ahead. In the NBA, where guys are more athletic and you got that first guy out of there, you can focus on getting to more of your expanded game of being able to play with different athletic moves. In Europe it’s very hard because once you get passed your first guy, you have two or three guys waiting on you. Where as in the NBA it’s maybe the next one guy with a shallow contest.“
The versatility of Mitchell’s game is second to none. In his time at SDSU, Matt went from a starter, to coming off the bench his junior year, blossoming into a force on the memorable 30-2 Aztecs team that was robbed of an NCAA Tournament appearance by COVID-19.
After such a stellar Junior season on a high profile team, coming back for his senior season and being paired with his SDSU running mate Jordan Schakel. Jordan who is currently a member of the Washington Wizards organization in the NBA Summer league and Capital City Go-Go’s, was an attractive prospect.
“That year really was a team effort. And you can’t forget Jordan Schakel. I say it all the time, me and Jordan—we built that for four years and that momentum going into our senior years and that was definitely a special year to me.“
Matt was able to sustain his success and have one of the greatest individual seasons in program history during the 2020-21 campaign. Earning both Mountain West player of the year and MVP of the conference tournament for the first time ever by an Aztec.
Matt’s career at SDSU was legendary and his humbleness is compelling. But a year of growth in France and having the right perspective of it all is what makes Matt such a league worthy candidate.
“The league is flooded with offensive talent. So me going into the NBA, I don’t think the Denver Nuggets or any team in the league is looking for me to be a Lebron James or a Kyrie Irving. They’re looking for me to defend and knock down shots. And if that’s all you need me to do I’m putting 110% into knocking down shots, playing defense, switching to guard whoever it is 1 thru 5. It’s what I do what i’ve prided myself on doing since I was a freshman in high school.“
Heading into a worldwide basketball summer, often times players have the big decision to make. Either take a chance at basketball success in the United States, or cash in on six or maybe even seven figure paychecks at the highest levels of worldwide competition.
“I think basketball will find it’s fit for you. If you respect the game, it will treat you graciously. I think honestly I just learned a lot the last 10 months. Having the year I had in college it was very important for me mentally and physically not to take a step back but stay grounded and keep taking small steps forward. And showing people that I’m NBA talent and I can help a team win.“
For Mitchell the decision to play overseas rather than try his hand in the G-League appears to have paid off. His college experience at San Diego State was one of many cherished experiences and great relationships built. By the time his senior season had come to an end, the possibility of playing a fifth COVID season was there for the taking. But Matt had fulfilled all that he had in the red & black. It was time to travel the world, experience life outside of California and finally earn money as a self sustaining adult in this wonderful basketball ecosystem.
“I’ve always loved basketball since I was four years old. My dad put a ball in my hand as soon as I was born. My dad was a Laker fan, so I was all about the Lakers. Just growing up, I dreamed NBA … I was all about Kobe, Lebron… I wanted to be like them.“
The NBA Summer league has come down to the final few games ending on July 17th. While the actual structure of the 5 game showcase for rookies and G-League players is not a high paying affair (players are reportedly earn $136 a day, on top of having travel, lodging and two meals a day covered by the teams) it is a another way to gain visibility in person for NBA coaches and GM’s.
Whether this summer proves to be a springboard for Mitchell joining an NBA roster come October or not, the experience added to the 23 year old is invaluable.
“It’s all starting to come into fruition and now that things are starting to lay out in front of me, I see the opportunity of a lifetime.“
One things for sure … No matter the uniform, timezone, or arena Sons of Montezuma will be ‘LOCKED IN’ on Matt Mitchell.
Watch below to see Matt’s full interview with the Sons of Montezuma Podcast! Matt goes in depth about his journey spent in France this past year, his basketball upbringing, his favorite highlights of his SDSU career and which coaches and players he learned the most from in his time at SDSU.
You can watch Matt Mitchell in the NBA Summer League as the Denver Nuggets face off vs the LA Clippers this Wednesday, July 13 at 4pm PST on the NBA Channel.