When Nathaniel Mitchell decided he was going to coach basketball, he knew it would likely take him away from home. After spending three seasons as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets, seven years since the beginning of his pro coaching career, Mitchell is back in Toronto with the Raptors as an assistant on head coach Nick Nurse’s coaching staff.
“It's great,” he said. “It’s always good to be part of a good organization when you’re trying to continue in your career and the fact that it happens to be in your home city, your hometown, it’s even better. It’s been great.”
Mitchell first joined the NBA coaching ranks with the NBA G League’s Maine Red Claws as an assistant in 2014, before spending three years with Toronto’s G League team, Raptors 905, from 2015-18. Mitchell’s time in Mississauga with the 905 meant he worked with a young Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet during their first years in the NBA. Getting to be reunited with the two who are now star players for the Raptors after having been part of their early development years is extra special.
Canada Basketball appointed Mitchell, along with fellow Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren, to lead Team Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team during the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Americas Qualifiers windows that conflict with Head Coach Nick Nurse's availability due to the NBA season. Mitchell will also assume head coaching duties for the FIBA AmeriCup 2022 in Brazil this summer.
Mitchell’s love of basketball predates his own awareness of loving basketball. He has loved the game so long that he can’t really remember a time without it. He began coaching while still playing, coaching the junior team of his school while playing on the high school team himself.
“I loved working on my game and I brought teammates with me and I would lead workouts on things that I wanted to get better at,” he said. “It kind of just led me into [coaching].”
In his playing days, Mitchell was the point guard on the floor, and usually the team captain as well.
“I remember when I was younger, every coach I ever played for always told me I was going to be a really good coach,” Mitchell said. “I don't know if it was because I was the point guard on the team, or because I remembered all the plays and I knew where everybody was supposed to be, but I was [always] trying to be a leader.”
Even those around Mitchell who weren’t in the gym with him could see what was ahead. During a period when the NBA had been halted because of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-2020, Mitchell caught up with a former college roommate. As they were sharing where life had taken them in the years since their college days, his roommate wasn’t surprised to see that Mitchell had made it into the NBA coaching ranks.
“I asked him why and he said, “When we played video games in college, you were always setting up plays on the video game, you always wanted to play the right way.”
Mitchell’s success may not be a surprise to those around him, but it wouldn’t have happened without a tireless work ethic. From his years with Raptors 905 where he helped players like Siakam begin to develop into the All-Star he is today, to his time in Charlotte where he got to work with another established All-Star in Kemba Walker, as well as a young phenom in LaMelo Ball, Mitchell’s approach has remained the same.
“The things I really take joy in are the people I work with or people who have worked for me who have been able to go on and have success,” he said. “The people who have helped me along my journey, that was one of their things that drove them and it was passed on to me and I want to continue to do that.
Because Mitchell’s focus is firmly on helping his players continue to excel and improve, there is an easy mutual respect formed between him and the players he works with. The relationships he’s built over his career have endured even after he has moved on to his next stop.
“I think when you do things the right way and you treat people the right way, you end up keeping those things forever,” he said.
When news of Mitchell’s homecoming began to leak late this summer, the family group chat was busy, with everyone rushing to congratulate him. Perhaps the only downside to returning home was needing to set realistic expectations about ticket requests. During his three seasons with Charlotte, Mitchell usually had two visits a year to Scotiabank Arena. He now has 42 regular season games there, and plenty of friends and family who are excited to watch him work as a member of the coaching staff on Toronto’s bench.
Mitchell returned to Toronto not because it was home, but because he felt he could continue to develop and grow as a coach within the organization.
“When you’re in this business and you’re coaching, you’re always trying to find the best fit for you to help an organization win,” he said. “I didn’t even factor in the being home piece [of the puzzle], it was more of a bonus. I think that’s a testament to the organization that I’ve decided to come back to.”
Another bonus has been getting to see the growth of the people around him, including many of the faces he worked alongside during his time with the Raptors 905 organization.
“When I was with 905, Nick Nurse was the assistant coach,” Mitchell said. “I left the year he got hired as head coach. We did summer league together before I took the job in Charlotte. There’s so many people that were with 905, Dan Tolzman, John Wiggins, Chad Sanders, there have been so many people that have moved up doing their thing with the Raptors.”
One thing that has always been at the forefront for Mitchell, regardless of where he is coaching, is helping to advance basketball in Canada.
“I am committed to our young players getting better and our young coaches continuing to get better in our country as a whole,” he said. I’m big on developing our coaches and I'm always trying to be someone who is an outlet or resource for the young coaches coming up.”
From working out players during his own summer offseason, to answering calls and texts from other young coaches in Canada who are striving to grow their own careers, Mitchell is always ready to give back when it comes to basketball in Canada.
“Being here, or wherever I am, I’m always in debt to the country to give back and make sure it’s growing,” he said. “We need our young players and our young coaches to keep growing and continuing to get better so that our country is growing and I think we’re going in the right direction. Anything we can do to keep advancing.”