Every NBA team enters the draft with a wish list. For teams that have “Elite perimeter defender with offensive upside” scrawled near the top of theirs, kinda like the Phoenix Suns do, look no further than Donovan Mitchell, a 2017 All-ACC First Team and All-ACC Defensive Team guard.
The 20-year-old Louisville Cardinals sophomore can make a compelling case as the top defender in the 2017 NBA Draft despite his height (6’3 in shoes) and undefined position at the next level. But while his defense will get him a foot in the door, his rapidly improving offensive game and beyond-his-years maturity have to have teams thinking bigger when it comes to his ceiling.
For fans of defense, Mitchell is a pleasure to watch. For his opponents, not so much. If you are his primary matchup, expect to see him pressuring you 94 feet on a regular basis. Hoping to get the basketball? Better get ready to fight for even routine passes. Don’t see him and think you’re safe? Ask yourself: Do you feel safe in the Sumatran forest just because you don’t see the tiger?
In short, Mitchell is an agent of chaos on the defensive end of the floor. And guess what? He loves it.
“A lot of guys don’t really like to [play defense]. A lot of guys will score 50, but they won’t hold their opponent to 10 points. I take pride in that as opposed to scoring 50,” said Mitchell in a recent pre-draft interview with the Sacramento Kings.
Mitchell has said one of his main reasons for choosing Louisville was to play for the defensive-minded Rick Pitino, and the lessons imparted by his coach seem to have sunk in. He gets into a deep defensive stance as well as anyone at the college level, denies passing lanes on stationary targets and takes great angles to do the same on moving ones, and works hard to get over screens instead of getting caught by them, demonstrating a knack for squeezing through narrow seams just so he doesn’t have to surrender any extra ground to the ball handler by going under.
He talks on defense. He doesn’t get lost or lose focus. He maintains his awareness for help defense opportunities even when stranded on the weak side for awhile. If defense were a college course, he’d break the curve.
And all of this is on top of the unique gifts Mitchell himself adds to the equation. He possesses a 6’10 wingspan to compensate for his shorter stature and checked in at 211lbs at the Combine with one of the lower body fat percentages (5.9) among the participants. Mitchell also posted the top standing vertical at the Combine (36.5 inches), tied for the fifth-best max vertical (40.5 inches), ran the ¾ court sprint in a Combine-best 3.01 seconds, and completed the lane agility course in 11.53 seconds.
Best yet, he wastes none of these tools on the defensive end. His long arms help him contest shots, contain ball handlers, deny passes, and poke balls loose either from his own man or another in Mitchell’s vicinity. His speed, quick feet, and mobile hips allow him to bottle up smaller guards on the perimeter while his strong build lets him battle bigger players effectively. The combination of strength, length, and leaping ability allows Mitchell to rebound better than one would expect him to. And his tenacious mindset sees him dive for any loose ball, shoot into passing lanes (including simple backcourt inbounds plays), and never give up on a defensive stand, even in rare instances when he’s beaten initially.
“Being a perfectionist on the defensive end, if I give up a point, you’re not scoring on the next possession. That’s just my mentality, and I just try my hardest just to make sure I’m the best defender on the floor,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell led the ACC in steals and finished 23rd in all of Division I at 2.1 steals per game. He served as the head of an aggressive Louisville defense last season and held North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr. to eight points on 3-of-12 shooting on Jan. 29 — the first of only three games where Smith Jr. scored in single digits. Mitchell will enter the NBA with defense that doesn’t need “fixing”, and he will immediately find a role based on that alone.
While Mitchell’s defense will be NBA ready from the get-go, the offensive end of the floor is more of a question mark. There are aspects of his game that tantalize, but he needs to polish those aspects if he wants to rise from solid NBA player to All Star one day.
Mitchell averaged 15.6 points per game for the Cardinals, which was a significant jump from the 7.4 he averaged as a freshman. This can be attributed to the fact that he played a vastly increased role for Louisville as a sophomore, attempting 254 more field goals this past season. His field goal percentage did drop from 44.2 percent in 2015-16 to 40.8 percent in 2016-17, but the types of shots he attempted this season were different, with more than half of his field goal attempts coming from behind the 3-point arc versus 38 percent his freshman season. Conversely, his 3-point percentage jumped from 25 percent to 35.4 percent and both his true shooting percentage (.534) and effective field goal percentage (.498) improved year over year. As well, his free throw shooting improved from 75.4 percent to 80.6 percent.
His ability to shoot the basketball improved greatly during his time in college and even within the season. For example, his 3-point shooting over the first 20 games of last year was 32.5 percent but popped up to 38.7 percent over the final 14. Consistency in his shot is his next mountain to climb, but Mitchell has already proven willing to put the work in.
His shooting mechanics are relatively solid, even out to NBA range. His consistency holds better on standstill shots than shots taken off the dribble to this point, but it’s not as though he’s hopeless when on the move, showing promise utilizing screens and stepbacks to get his shot off. Until he proves he can more consistently knock down shots in a multitude of ways, though, he will be employed as a spot-up shooter. He ranked in the 90th percentile, according to DraftExpress, for “unguarded” shooting percentage last season, so the foundation for a consistent shot is there, making Mitchell a high-upside 3-and-D prospect at minimum.
Where things get more intriguing, however, is in his ability to attack the basket. Even though more than 70 percent of his shot attempts were jumpers, Mitchell shows a ton of promise as a slashing guard owed to his strength, athleticism, quickness, and length, and his big hands aid him as a lob target. He attacks off screens fairly well and has a handful of moves — spin move, hop step — to get to the basket. Let him get there in space, and he will flush it handily. However, Mitchell isn’t yet a great finisher overall and is prone to throwing up some bad shots for primarily two reasons.
First, he has a bad habit of needing to gather himself on drives. If he isn’t allowed that two-foot gather and is instead forced to attack in stride, he becomes much less effective and liable to put up a bad shot. This is especially odd since he has a solid frame to absorb contact on drives but doesn’t do that particularly well, either, drawing just 3.2 free throw attempts per game last year.
Secondly, he lacks a degree of touch around the basket, especially on higher difficulty finesse moves. For instance, he shot a paltry 26 percent on floaters last season as per DraftExpress, an area he himself admitted needed improvement. It is good that he recognizes his need to improve here because although his length compensates somewhat, he’s still a 6’3 combo guard and will need to incorporate a variety of shots and techniques into his arsenal to effectively score at the basket and against length in the NBA.
Finally, Mitchell isn’t someone who will slide seamlessly into the role of point guard for a team and shouldn’t be shoehorned into that role based on his size. While he filled the role for a few games when Louisville point guard Quentin Snider went down with an injury, he’s not the most natural playmaker. He will give it his best effort and can run the plays, but he’s not a creator nor does he possess stellar vision or decision-making. He averaged 2.7 assists last season and has had more than five assists in a game only once in his college career. In short, if a team drafts him with the intention of making him a point guard, they are wasting a pick and setting Mitchell up to fail.
Mitchell’s offensive game has plenty of room for improvement, but he’s shown the willingness to put in the work as his progress from his freshman to sophomore seasons demonstrates. If his work ethic manages to turn the flashes of potential into consistent production, there is no reason Mitchell can’t average 15-20 points per game in a few years.
Some guys are ready for the NBA on the court but not off it. That is not an issue for Mitchell. He is well spoken in interviews and gives thoughtful answers to questions, comes across as genial, and rarely doesn’t have a smile. He is almost like a Devin Booker clone in that regard.
On the court, he generally doesn’t waste time jawing with officials (zero technical fouls last season) but will be right there to help a teammate to his feet and offer pointers or an encouraging word.
He is able to offer honest critiques of himself, citing in interviews his inconsistent shooting and ability to score at the basket as the two areas he needs to improve upon in pre-draft workouts and beyond. He also knows that it will be his defense — not his offense — that will keep him on the court in the NBA.
And when Mitchell was asked who he thinks he compares to in the NBA, his answer was steeped in realism rather than bravado:
“Look at Avery Bradley. …He’s able to guard Kyrie (Irving) one whole series and then have to guard John Wall the next. Two totally different dynamic guards, and he’s able to do well on both and be a good scorer at the same time. So I think that’s what I strive to be like. You know, everybody can say ‘Yeah, I want to be like (Russell) Westbrook.’ Everybody can say that, but there’s only one of him, there’s only one LeBron (James). But if you look at a guy like Avery Bradley, who is a gritty defender and can go out there and score 30 and knock down shots, I feel like I can do that.”
But one of the best examples of how Mitchell is wired came when a reporter asked him during an interview at the NBA Combine who the toughest guy for him to guard was last season. Mitchell responded by citing DeWayne Russell of Grand Canyon University, who dropped 42 points on the Cardinals on Dec. 3. What stands out about his answer is that Mitchell wasn’t the primary defender on Russell in that game. He was matched up against GCU’s Oscar Frayer (who had four points) and only matched up with Russell 10 or so times all game, with Mitchell giving just as good as he got that night.
For that to stand out as his toughest defensive challenge despite personally doing a good job of containing Russell speaks volumes. Russell torched the Cardinals; he didn’t torch Mitchell. But in Mitchell’s mind, they are one in the same. Guys who view team failures as indistinguishable from their own are valuable beyond their on-court contributions because they won’t fracture the locker room when times get tough. There’ll be no “I did my job, you do yours” finger pointing. Rather, they are going to strive to move the entire team in the right direction. That’s rare to see in a young player.
Donovan Mitchell has been generating some recent draft buzz, and for good reason. He can guard positions 1-3 effectively at the next level and possesses an offensive game that could potentially jettison him to stardom if it keeps improving as it has been. Teams might be tempted to pigeonhole him as a point guard because of his height, but they should instead embrace his combo guard skill set in the increasingly positionless NBA.
A stronger, more athletic Avery Bradley is a good player comparison for Mitchell, but if everything breaks perfectly, it is not out of the question for him to become a Kawhi Leonard-type riser and exceed everyone’s expectations.