First impressions aren’t everything. That’s probably a good thing for Wapello’s Keaton Mitchell.
Wapello coach Ken Spielbauer still remembers the first time he saw Mitchell on the basketball court.
Mitchell certainly didn’t resemble the player that’s fresh off a senior season where he averaged 20.4 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while leading the Indians to an 11-9 record and becoming the co-SEISC North Division Player of the Year.
“He came into the gym as a second grader and was crying in the corner,” Spielbauer said with a chuckle.
The lanky 6-foot-7 forward remembers it well.
“I was running down the court, got tripped and I skidded my knee,” Mitchell recalls. “I thought the kid did it on purpose and I got mad and ran into the corner. It’s always (Spielbauer’s) go-to phrase for me, telling people ‘you could go from someone who doesn’t want to be there and end up being player of the year.'"
The next year Mitchell was doing everything at "little kid practices" and the veteran coach could see the potential.
Then Mitchell improved enough to stand out on the junior high team. Two years later, he was a contributor on the varsity as a sophomore. Fast forward another two years and he was arguably the best player in the conference, as he ranked second in the league in scoring, second in rebounding and first in blocked shots.
“I was glad I was able to do that,” Mitchell said of sharing conference player of the year. “I’m glad I was given the opportunity and put in such a role where I was able to get that.”
It wasn’t always easy for Mitchell and the Indians, though.
Led by Trenton Massner, Wapello played at a frenetic pace and was an offensive juggernaut last year, averaging 73.6 points per game, the second most in Class 2A.
Mitchell averaged 14 points and nine rebounds for that team and had a breakout performance at the state tournament with 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in Wapello’s loss to top-seed Treynor.
But he was nowhere near the player he became this season, where he increased his numbers across the board despite Wapello playing at a much slower pace to help offset its turnover woes. The Indians 391 turnovers were the fourth most in Class 2A.
“People started focusing in on him,” Spielbauer said. “We used him as a passer and a press breaker. In the future, he won’t have to do that stuff but it still made him a better player.
“He did the stuff he did while getting double and triple teamed and he touched the ball probably half the number of times he should have.
"If he’d played like this last year, we would have won the state championship."
Two years ago, Mitchell never thought he’d become this sort of player. But it's been in the making since he was a child.
Basketball was always his favorite sport, and growing up he would often play one-on-one games in the driveway against Mariah, his older sister and current Western Illinois volleyball player.
“When we were younger, she had a little bit of height on me. She might have beat me a little back in the day,” Mitchell said. “We’ve always been a competitive family and all of that. I think that’s really helped.”
Spielbauer, who was also Mariah’s volleyball coach, egged on the competitiveness between the two by proclaiming Mariah number one and Keaton number two.
That all changed when Keaton became athletic enough to throw down a windmill dunk.
“Spiel brought Mariah into the gym one time and showed her I could windmill dunk,” Keaton said. “He said I’m number one until she could do that.”
However, Keaton partially has Mariah to thank for going from a shy sophomore to imposing his will on opponents over the next two seasons.
One of her teammates on the Iowa Rockets, a traveling volleyball team, had a brother who played for the Iowa Barnstormers, a nearby AAU program. The parents eventually convinced Keaton to try out and two years later he was improving his game playing in the Adidas Gold Gauntlet against Division I prospects.
“It ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made,” Keaton said.
His confidence soared and his jump shot developed. He went from never attempting a 3-pointer in a high school game to shooting 29 of 96 from that range as a senior.
Mitchell will look to expand his game even further ahead of arriving at Truman State, a Division II school in Kirksville, Missouri.
A redshirt isn’t out of the question, but the Wapello senior would embrace it. Spielbauer says he’s the "perfect college four" if he continues improving.
Regardless of what Mitchell goes on to do, Spielbauer will always remember his double-double performance in a 46-45 win at West Burlington Notre Dame. Mitchell finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and a game-winning 3-pointer with less than five seconds remaining.
That memory is a far cry from Spielbauer’s first encounter with Mitchell in the gym.
“That was a big-time shot,” Spielbauer said. “If we played them 10 times, we maybe win once. And he’s going to keep getting better; he hasn’t come close to what he can do.”