Former Norfolk State star Barry Mitchell found a home when he came to Belgium to play basketball, but his youngest son will head back across the Atlantic to pursue his own hoop dreams at UCSB.
Ajay Mitchell, an 18-year-old who’s playing as an amateur in Belgium’s top professional divisions, announced his commitment this week to play for the Gauchos next year.
“I’m very grateful to become part of their organization,” said Mitchell, a 6-foot-3 point guard. “I really liked the coaching staff — I knew they really wanted me to go there — and I think it’ll be a great place to live and to work hard.
“Their physical trainers are great, their coaches are great, and they really believe in me. I think it was my best option.”
NCAA rules prevent UCSB head coach Joe Pasternack from commenting about Mitchell until he signs his national letter of intent on Nov. 11.
Associate head coach John Rillie watched Mitchell play for Belgium’s U18 team during last year’s European Championships in Oradea, Romania. He averaged 11.5 points in eight games while shooting just under 40 percent from the three-point line. He also handed out 3.6 assists.
His stock continued to rise last July when he averaged 9.5 points while shooting 64.3% for the World Select Red team at the NBA Academy Games in Atlanta.
The “ThisisBasketball” recruiting web site reported that Mitchell had “started raising some eyebrows with his clearly visible potential and several clubs from Belgium and beyond were trying to entice the lanky point guard to join their program.”
Mitchell soon became the youngest player on Nanterre’s roster in the elite French Espoirs division. He’s now playing for Limburg United in Belgium’s top pro league.
“I’d say the best part of my game is probably my court vision and basketball IQ,” he said when asked about his basketball attributes.
His father, who won MVP honors in both the World Basketball League and the Continental Basketball Association, headed to Belgium to play for Sunair Oostende in 1994. He led that team to a Belgian League championship and a pair of Belgium Cup titles. He also played for Siemens Gent before signing with Liége for the 2001-02 season — the Year Ajay was born.
He later returned to the court at age 48 to play for BC Alleur in Belgium’s lower division during the 2013-14 season.
“He’s always helped me get better but he’s left all the basketball decisions to me,” Ajay said. “He never forced me to play. He just wanted me to live my best life and enjoy whatever I decided to do.”
He said both his father and mother, Fabienne, were thrilled with his choice of college.
“The first school for them was always Santa Barbara,” he said. “My sister Alexis was really happy, too, because she wants to come visit.
“Both of my sisters played volleyball in college and they told me that the university experience was really great.”
Alexis Mitchell earned All-Big Ten honors as a middle blocker for the University of Wisconsin while sister Ashley played for Northwest Missouri State. Ajay also has an older brother, Barry.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented him from visiting UCSB’s campus.
“Once things open up, we’ll get there for sure,” he said. “But I’ve talked a lot on the phone with the coaches, and I’ve talked to a couple of the players, too.”
He said his goal in basketball was to “get to the highest level possible — to the NBA, if I can.”
“But I want to first get my diploma,” Mitchell added, “and keep working hard to reach my goals.”