WAPELLO, Iowa — Entering this season, it was evident Keaton Mitchell would have to do more for the Wapello boys basketball team.
The Indians lost 76 percent of their scoring off last season’s 23-2 state tournament team, including leading scorer Trenton Massner, who averaged 22.5 points per game.
“We always talked about that in the preseason,” Mitchell said. “We knew I’d be getting double- and triple-teamed in the post but I’d still have to push through it, make my moves and be ready to shoot from the outside.”
Indeed, Mitchell has done all of that and more this season as he’s turned into one of the most dominant players in Class 2A.
The Wapello senior is averaging 23.7 points per game as well as more than 10 rebounds and more than two blocks per game. The goal, Mitchell says, is to maintain those numbers.
Still, Wapello coach Ken Spielbauer believes there’s still a lot of room for improvement for his senior. Mitchell currently averages fewer than two assists per game, but his coach believes that can go up.
“I think people will be surprised as the year goes on how much better he gets in facilitating stuff,” Spielbauer said. “That’s hard for a big kid to do. I see him up around five (assists per game) after Christmas.”
The Truman commit improved in a lot of areas in an offseason, working with Spielbauer and playing with the Iowa Barnstormers 17U team. But, perhaps the biggest difference for the senior is his mentality.
Although he averaged 14 points and nine rebounds a season ago, Mitchell was admittedly nervous and “afraid to screw up” entering games, especially during the Indians' postseason run. Although Spielbauer joked his senior still “gets a little uptight,” now all it takes is a few buckets to put Mitchell at ease.
“I was kind of nervous going into games (last year), and I didn’t want to mess up,” Mitchell said. “But now I’ve kind of broken out of my shell.”
The breakout started at last year’s state tournament, where Mitchell had 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in Wapello’s 59-53 loss to No. 1 seed Treynor.
Now, the Wapello big man is proving he can do it all on the basketball court. He didn’t attempt a shot from beyond the arc a season ago. However, through nine games this season, Mitchell has already made 19 3-pointers and is shooting nearly 40 percent from distance. He’s as good as ever blocking shots and rebounding, too.
None of this is a surprise to his coach.
“He worked hard, and we worked hard all fall,” Spielbauer said. “I knew he’d probably shoot. I knew he could shoot last year.”
Mitchell spent the offseason working on his ball handling and in preparation for a bigger role on the perimeter with the loss of every guard who played significant minutes last season.
“I thought I’d try to step out and expand my range a little bit more,” the 6-foot-7 Mitchell said. “It will also help me going into college where being this tall is kind of normal.”
The development of his shot started a few summers ago on the Iowa Mavericks 16U AAU team. However, Mitchell was never asked to do more than be a post presence for the Indians a season ago, and for good reason.
Wapello had an elite offense that finished with a 53.1 shooting percentage, a 41.6 shooting percentage from beyond the arc and 73.6 points per game. All three of those marks ranked among the top three in Class 2A. This year, the Indians play at a much slower pace compared to last year’s frenetic style of play.
“Last year he didn’t realize how easy he had it,” Spielbauer said. “Trenton (Massner) took so much pressure off him, and those other guys could play. The defense was screwed no matter what it did, basically.”
The development of Mitchell’s shot continued last summer playing for the Iowa Barnstormers. He played on the Gold Team, which traveled on the Adidas AAU circuit and played in tournaments across the country from New York to California.
As a result, he played against some of the best players in the country such as Jalen Green, who is the No. 2 ranked player in the 2020 class. So, what did Mitchell learn in his summer of playing against top-notch competition?
“You have to be really aggressive,” Mitchell said. “On the AAU circuit, it’s sometimes almost street ball. It’s really intense; they push you around and rough you up. I had to be ready to get ready to shoot and make good moves.”
He certainly has so far this season in leading Wapello to a 6-3 record at Christmas break. Before the season, Spielbauer said he made a “cheat sheet” projecting his team’s record throughout the season. The veteran coach slated the Indians at 5-4 before the holiday break, but their ability to cut down on turnovers and Mitchell’s strong start have helped them exceed his expectations.
“(Spielbauer) said if we walked around town telling people we’re 6-3 they might not believe it because we had such a high caliber last year that we’re just going to drop down so far,” Mitchell said. “We’re actually not bad. We have a good team.”
Still, the season hasn’t gone without a hitch. Mitchell recalled the opening game in which Wapello had nearly as many turnovers as points in a 43-32 loss to WACO. Both Mitchell and Spielbauer understand there’s going to be growing pains this season.
“It’s work,” Spielbauer said with a laugh when asked about staying patient. “But they’re working hard, and that’s all I can ask.”
Noah Holland and Joe Stewart have both shown improvement. Despite battling bronchitis early in the season, Caden Thomas, standing at 6-foot-5 and averaging 8.1 points per game, gives Mitchell the opportunity to play more on the perimeter.
Still, it’s likely the Indians will go as far as Mitchell can take them.
“He’s just done a good job,” Spielbauer said. “You can have all the experienced kids who can be leaders, but if they can’t play nobody is following them.
“He’s only going to get better, too.”