FRISCO, Texas — A famous Chinese proverb states a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
This quote is fitting for ex-Iowa State standout Naz Mitrou-Long, whose basketball journey has taken him from his native Canada to six years in Ames to splitting the past season-and-a-half between the NBA’s Utah Jazz and their nearby NBA G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.
“It’s a blessing to know that an organization has invested in you. Especially in the G-League, there’s a lot of turnover,” Mitrou-Long said during a recent road trip to Texas. “To be in an organization where you know you’re wanted, they believe in your growth and to actually feel yourself growing as a player and learning more about the game, it’s an awesome feeling.”
Last season, the former Cyclone averaged 18 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game for the Stars. So far this campaign, he’s chipping in 18.8 points, 5.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds and one steal a night.
Martin Schiller has been coaching the now 25-year-old with Salt Lake and likes the improvement Mitrou-Long has shown.
“First of all, he’s highly professional,” Schiller said. “Really works on his craft, a really high-standard professional and teammate.
“The biggest thing for us is improving his pick-and-roll decision making, which he did a tremendous job of last season. We’re really happy about his aggressiveness. Now he’s got to limit turnovers. That’s the next step.”
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Mitrou-Long hasn’t played exclusively in the G-League the past 18 months. He’s also had two NBA cups of coffee with the Jazz. His league debut came Dec. 26, 2017, at Denver when he drained a 3-pointer in a 31-second stint. He also appeared in a Nov. 5, 2018, game against Toronto, going scoreless in 3:40.
But Mitrou-Long sees his NBA cameos as only the beginning of his time in the league.
“Yeah, that was special to get in in Denver, knock down that top-of-the-key 3 and then getting my face kicked in the next play,” he said. “Again, that’s the highs with the lows and it gave me a taste of what’s to be, what I want, and the reason that I turned down a couple of offers overseas to stay here and pursue (my dream).”
And his rationale for not heading overseas this season was simple.
“I believe in myself and I believe if I continue to be a sponge, do the right things on and off the court, that dream will be fulfilled one day,” Mitrou-Long said. “It was awesome to get a taste (of the NBA), but I’m not one of those guys doing it just for the hype, doing it just to get in for 30 seconds. I want to continue to get better and hopefully one day contribute. Whatever (role) that is, just get on an NBA roster officially.”
Of course, one side benefit to remaining under the Jazz umbrella is staying close to former ISU teammate and close friend Georges Niang, who was on a two-way deal last season before earning one of 15 spots on the Utah roster this season.
“Yeah, it’s very cool. A lot of people don’t get to have their college roommate let alone their great friend be around them after college,” Mitrou-Long said. “They keep in touch from a distance. Luckily, we’ve been able to keep in touch and be around each other. It’s awesome to see his growth and continue to work together.”
Like Niang, Mitrou-Long wears a Cardinal and Gold bracelet to always remind him of his time at ISU. He actually wears two of them on his left arm, constant reminders of how integral his time in Ames was for his continuing basketball journey.
“Second to none. I wouldn’t trade my experience in Ames, Iowa, for anything,” he said. “I learned so much from each of my coaches. Just the community always being out and packing Hilton (Coliseum) every single night, it took the nerves of playing in front of big crowds away. It really molded me to handle myself as a professional on and off the court because the microscope’s always on you and I’m thankful for that.”
And as for handling the uncertainty which accompanies being on a two-way contract, an arrangement where he could be recalled to the NBA at a moment’s notice, that unknown is merely another integral part of the process, or journey, if you will, an aspect that carries with it a potentially huge future payoff.
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“It’s a great opportunity for guys like myself where you can be the 16th, 17th man on the roster and any opportunity you get to be up with the big team, you’re learning,” Mitrou-Long said. “You’re going through what it’s like to be an NBA player. It’s great to learn. It’s great to learn from some great minds, some great players, some NBA vets and even some rooks that you build relationships with.
“It’s an awesome experience. You don’t really know what tomorrow’s going to bring as far as knowing if you’re going to be up or down, but that’s what comes with the journey, man. You just have to accept it and again, be a sponge.”