Maybe, before this season, people thought TJ Mickelson was just a scorer.
He certainly did that at Black Hills — scoring 1,440 points in his first three seasons — before he transferred to Capital.
His role with the Wolves could, at times, make him appear one-dimensional. He’s not.
“I definitely think I surprised and opened some people’s eyes a little bit,” Mickelson said.
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The Class 3A South Sound Conference’s most valuable player has proved he’s one of the most complete players around.
The senior averaged 14.3 points, 8.5 assists and seven rebounds per game for the Cougars, which is why he’s The Olympian’s 2017 All-Area boys basketball player of the year.
“I knew coming in I wanted to show everything I could do — rebound, defend, pass and just win,” Mickelson said. “I just wanted to win.”
Before a broken collarbone stopped Mickelson’s season short of the playoffs, he led Capital, a last-place team in the 3A Narrows League a year ago, to a league title.
Capital coach Brian Vandiver said Mickelson accelerated the Cougars’ growth as a team.
“It’s a swagger, it’s a confidence,” Vandiver said. “He’s played so much basketball, he made the others believe. He really did.”
Vandiver is perhaps one of the few who knew just how high Mickelson’s ceiling was. Mickelson has attracted Division I attention since he was as sophomore, but it wasn’t yet clear just how versatile he was.
Black Hills coach Jeff Gallagher said he would tell anyone who would listen about Mickelson’s passing ability.
“There was always that perception, unfortunately,” Gallagher said. “At Black Hills, his passing ability wasn’t recognized.
“He was a scoring point guard, and that’s kind of the label that comes with that territory.”
Mickelson moved to Capital, the school he was originally slated to attend, to play with his brother Matt in their final season.
But Capital already had plenty of scoring threats — young, but talented guards like sophomore Chris Penner, who is averaging 19.3 points per game.
“I wasn’t going to score as much and I was perfectly fine with that, because coming in I always thought passing was my best attribute as a player,” Mickelson said.
“I knew I could show that — show the world that I could do that. I don’t think many people thought I could do that. They just thought I was a scorer.”
Mickelson quickly shed any labels.
“I knew he was really good — I didn’t know this good,” Penner said.
“I didn’t know he was as good as he was,” Capital senior Carson Bertelli said. “His passing is really good, that’s probably the best part of his game I would say.”
Mickelson’s distribution skills dazzle in a way Vandiver rarely sees.
“His ability to feel the game — I may never see this again,” Vandiver said. “You can’t coach it. You just have it or you don’t.
“He has a feel for the game that he knows offensively that it’s time to score. He knows who’s open, when they’re open. He knows what pass to feed them.”
Mickelson can still score in bunches, too.
He poured in 39 points — including a school-record 10 3-pointers — against Central Kitsap on Jan. 27, but other areas of his game are more consistently highlighted.
He recorded a season-high 12 assists against both Yelm and Aberdeen. He pulled down 17 rebounds against Shelton, and led the Cougars in defensive rebounds this year.
Throughout the season, Vandiver was often mesmerized by the angles Mickelson would take to the basket.
“He is strong,” Vandiver said. “He just knows how to read what is going on on the floor.”
Mickelson is often tasked with guarding the other team’s best player. He’s held some of the area’s leading scorers in check.
“I just try not to let them get the ball,” Mickelson said. “When they get the ball, that’s when they’re dangerous.”
“He’s always one step ahead of everyone else on the floor,” Vandiver said.
Vandiver said he doesn’t know how Mickelson’s addition to the team could have worked out better.
“The way our guys accepted him and loved him, and the way he immediately changed his game to fit what we had, you would have thought they played together the last three years,” he said.
Mickelson’s dream season stopped just a bit short, though.
The Cougars play in the 3A state tournament at the Tacoma Dome on Wednesday. But Mickelson will still be recovering from the broken collarbone and concussion he suffered on Jan. 31.
“I think I could play, I know I could,” he said. “But the doctor says no. He said it’s not fully healed yet.”
Mickelson took a scary fall against North Thurston just before the regular season ended. He remembers going up to try to block Gunner Nielsen’s shot.
His legs were clipped in the air. He crashed backward onto his head, landing flat on the court.
“The way I saw it from my angle, I thought it was going to be much, much worse than it was. … Your worst thoughts really start creeping in,” Vandiver said.
Mickelson woke up on the ground — for maybe a few seconds, he estimates, before he blacked out again.
He was surrounded by paramedics, coaches and teammates. Vandiver said he was mumbling about his shoulder pain, and drifting in and out.
“I was face down,” Mickelson said. “They were kind of pressuring my neck, digging my collarbone into the ground.”
He was out again.
The next thing he remembers is waking up in an ambulance with his mother, Julie. He couldn’t feel anything below his waist.
The worst case scenario occurred to him — “Am I going to walk again?”
“I was just trying to keep the best-case scenario in my head,” Mickelson said. “I was freaking out pretty bad because that’s such a scary thing.
“My mom was there supporting me and keeping me calm. I started (getting) feeling back, and I was just so relieved and just thankful.”
Coaches, teammates and family arrived at the St. Peter Hospital emergency room after the game concluded — Capital won, 64-59, to clinch the 3A SSC title outright — for support.
Mickelson was quickly discharged, though he needed surgery. He still showed up at practice the following day, and hasn’t missed a practice or a game since.
“He’s always got a smile on his face,” Vandiver said. “Everybody knows it can’t be fun. He’s worked his tail off the last four years to be able to go to state. To not be able to play is so unfair.”
But said Mickelson he recognizes the bigger picture — Capital is still playing.
“This whole entire year, these guys (have been) like family to me,” he said. “I just know it’s bigger than myself.”
Mickelson might not be on the floor for Capital’s final game, but still appreciates the journey.
“It’s meant everything,” Mickelson said. “Basketball is such a huge part of my life. It’s taken me to so many places, and I’ve met so many people and made so many relationships through it.
“It’s just meant the world to me. I’ve had so much support, and it’s been a really good four years.”