Will This Future NBA Star Put Western Kentucky on the Map?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he believes he can single-handedly turn a team around.
During the week of the McDonald’s All-American Game — one of the most anticipated gatherings of top-rated high school basketball talent — the blue-chip recruits headed to the blue-blooded schools teased Mitchell Robinson about his college choice. “We joke about how they’re not going to make the tournament next year, how he’s going to have to do all the work but still be losing,” says 6-foot-11, 250-pound Kentucky signee Nick Richards. “We just joke around with Mitch a lot.”
Why all the joking? Because Mitch — 6-foot-11, 215 pounds and, according to Scout.com, the sixth-best player in the 2017 class — signed with Western Kentucky, a school that went 15–17 last year. Robinson, who averaged 25.7 points, 12.6 rebounds and six blocks as a senior at Chalmette High, in Louisiana, liked the environment at the Conference USA school located in Bowling Green, he tells OZY, but a bigger reason for his surprising decision was the coaching staff: head coach Rick Stansbury and assistant Shammond Williams. The latter, a former North Carolina guard, is Robinson’s godfather.
As a result, Western Kentucky is getting its first-ever McDonald’s All-American, a long, athletic rim protector with an improving jumper. (He was Chalmette’s second-best three-point shooter this past season.) “He’s got all the physical tools,” says Jim Martin, the coach of Robinson’s East squad at the McDonald’s Game and head coach at Providence School of Jacksonville, Florida. “He’s going to be a really good player at the next level.”
He was transcendent at the high school level. During a 74–50 victory against rival Holy Cross his junior year, Robinson had a triple-double of 20 points, 20 blocks and 16 rebounds. His performance included a sequence in which he blocked a shot on one end, sprinted down the court, slammed home an alley-oop dunk on a fast break, sprinted back and blocked another shot. “Almost every game, he had a highlight dunk that brought the crowd to their feet,” says Chalmette coach William “Butch” Stockton.
Robinson also impressed at the McDonald’s Game. In addition to scoring 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, he closed out so effectively on Jared Jackson Jr. that he swatted the Michigan State signee’s three-point attempt. “He blocks everything,” says P.J. Washington, a Kentucky signee and Robinson East squad teammate. “I wish he’d come to Kentucky.”
That Robinson is headed anywhere to play basketball is impressive, considering he didn’t start playing competitively until the ninth grade. His grandmother, who raised him in Pensacola, Florida, persuaded him to give the game a serious look when he moved to the New Orleans area, telling him it could provide a better life for him. Once Robinson moved to Louisiana, Williams, then a Tulane assistant coach, took the laconic youth under his wing and further guided his career. “At first, I wasn’t into basketball,” Robinson says. “Then I fell in love with the game.”
Because of Robinson’s late start, he is a particularly tantalizing prospect, as he is still moldable.
That love of the game and his raw, undeniable talent made Kentucky — the basketball powerhouse located in Lexington — Robinson’s dream school. But instead of choosing the Bluegrass State’s banner program, which has made it to 17 Final Fours, he chose one that has reached the Sweet 16 twice since 1980.
As soon as Robinson had verbally pledged to Western Kentucky, the state’s — and nation’s — best basketball program, Kentucky, began recruiting the late bloomer. But after scrutinizing Kentucky’s games on television, Robinson said the Wildcats’ style of play didn’t fit his own. “They go too fast for me,” he says. Unlike the Wildcats, he doesn’t want to run and gun and play fast-break basketball — and he wants to hone his hook shot, the ultimate old-school move.
Martin and Stockton agree the slender Robinson needs to improve his strength and his back-to-the-basket game. Right now, he is an elite defender, but he will need to better his limited offensive game if he wants to star at the next level — and beyond. But because of Robinson’s late start, he is a particularly tantalizing prospect, as he is still moldable. “His future is really bright,” Martin says.
The same could be said for Western Kentucky’s basketball program. Known as a dogged recruiter as head coach at Mississippi State from 1998 to 2012, Stansbury went after Robinson from the get-go, phoning him twice a day, every day. “It’s obvious Mitchell is one of the most talented big guys in the country,” Stansbury said in a statement released by Western Kentucky. “His best days all lie ahead of him.”
After retiring as the basketball coach with the most wins in Mississippi State history — though insiders claim he was forced out — Stansbury became the associate head coach at Texas A&M. Robinson had initially committed to A&M before Western Kentucky hired Stansbury in March 2016. To seal the deal with Robinson, Stansbury hired Williams, who played for seven years in the NBA, as a Western Kentucky assistant coach three months later. Godfather and son were a package deal, Robinson says.
Fans of SEC schools have accused Stansbury of unscrupulous tactics — no doubt in connection with his recruitment of Renardo Sidney, a talented player who was suspended for the 2009–10 season and the first nine games of the 2010–11 season because he and his family received illegal benefits. But Stansbury also recruited Mississippi natives and future pros Erick Dampier and Rodney Hood — and would’ve landed Monta Ellis and Jonathan Bender had they not gone straight to the NBA — to Mississippi State, and he already has assembled Western Kentucky’s best-ever incoming class. In addition to Robinson, the Hilltoppers have landed consensus top-75 guard Josh Anderson and Taveion Hollingsworth, Kentucky’s 2017 Mr. Basketball winner as the top prep player in the state.
Come next year, if Robinson can gel with his fellow freshmen and elevate his offensive game to match his defensive prowess, Bluegrass blue bloods Kentucky and Louisville may face some unexpected competition from the overlooked school to the southwest — Western Kentucky. “I can put them on the map,” Robinson says.