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Know The Prospect: Donovan Mitchell

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A Louisvillain at No. 8?

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NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Who you think the New York Knicks should draft No. 8 on June 22nd likely boils down to where you think they stand today. If you see a club with zero givens going forward beyond Kristaps Porzingis and maaaybe Willy Hernangomez, you pro’ly want the likeliest translatable talent, e.g. Dennis Smith Jr. If you’re focused full-speed ahead on length and two-way potential, you pro’ly prefer the greatest upside, e.g. Frank Ntilikina. If you see a club with strengths in one area (frontcourt) and glaring weaknesses in others (guards who can shoot), you pro’ly wanna shore up that balance, e.g. Malik Monk. If you see a club still a player away from establishing a definitive strength, you pro’ly take a guy who’ll put you over the top in that area, e.g. Jonathan Isaac.

If you think the Knicks have so little going for them they really oughta come out of this draft with more than one first-rounder, you pro’ly hope rumors of Moe Harkless and Portland’s #15 pick are founded. If they are, Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell makes sense mid-first round. “Mitchell, 20, was a standout pitcher, but at age 13, he decided to focus on basketball full-time,” writes Marc Berman. “He played with two AAU programs in New York City — the Riverside Hawks and The City. He doesn’t get referenced as a New York product, however, because he did almost all of his schooling at Connecticut and New Hampshire prep schools.” The Knicks have a mixed history with bringing hometown players back home, but all evidence points to Mitchell being raised right by his dad, a Met executive (my editor may disagree).

(Editor’s note: Why do people even bother watching baseball teams which don’t have Aaron Judge?)

Standing 6’3” with a 6’10” wingspan and NBA-ready physique, the hybrid guard is a solid prospect, one college/draft analyst Fran Fraschilla says is “going to make the league. He’s going to play in the league. He kind of reminds me of (former U of L guard) Terry Rozier, not in terms of being a point guard, but in terms of being an athletic guard who could turn into a defensive specialist." Maybe “defensive specialist” is selling the kid short.

He’s already inspiring the next generation.

The consensus is Mitchell will make it at the next level as a guard, where he’ll def dig the upgrade in leg room.

The $5,000,000+ question is what kind of guard will he be. Point? Off? Combo? Or will positionless play be the new norm, rendering such questions obsolete? Mitchell ran the point for the Cardinals after starting point guard Quentin Snider went down with an injury, and he ran it well. But Snider only missed a handful of games; does Mitchell’s limited run sell you on his ability to run the show in the NBA? Is Mitchell too short to play the two, or will his length ameliorate such concern? Do we sell American prospects short because we see enough of their games to pinpoint their warts rather than fetishize our dreams — Mitchell played twice as many minutes in the ACC as Ntilikina, a more highly-regarded long combo guard, did in the Ligue Nationale de Basket. If positions don’t matter, perhaps pairings do: what kind of guard would best complement the other #45?

“The team that drafts Mitchell needs to project his development through the lens of his specific set of talents,” wrote Kevin O’Connor, “rather than through the lens of a traditional point guard.” Talent like, say:

Mitchell is renowned for being stop-on-a-dime quick. Being fast at stopping and then starting again isn’t as sexy a measurable as timing De’Aaron Fox racing down the floor, but exceptional brakes are as useful for dusting defenders as a quicksilver first step. James Harden doesn’t have the entire league cursing while backpedaling because he’s Speedy Gonzalez. Mitchell had the fastest three-quarter court sprint time at the combine. So he’s fast going and fast stopping. Good deal.

Mitchell’s shown himself to be a plus pick-and-roll scorer, thanks to his aggressive drives and shifty body control, and is more advanced at this stage there than he is finding the roller. Again, though, he’s only 20. When I was 20 I got wrecked one night at college, somehow stumbled across the street to the nearest supermarket, climbed inside a pizza roll display case, and passed out. People grow. Speaking of growth, Mitchell’s length + strength + footwork = the highest steals rate among Draft Express’s top 100 prospects. This is a player who can pester for 94 feet, try for a steal, recover, block a shot, and lead a break.

His weaknesses are potentially alarming.

Mitchell ranked in the 90th percentile among shooters who were left unguarded, but only the 50th percentile when guarded. Basically he was Steph Curry when left alone and Eddy Curry when he wasn’t. This statistic becomes more concerning when you consider that 70% of his total field goal attempts were jumpers. Among Draft Express’s top 33 guards, Mitchell ranked 24th in AST/FGA ratio, and he only reached the 28th percentile for transition points per possession. When he’s good, he’s very good.

But when he’s bad, he’s awful.

You can see why Mitchell struggles on the move in the DX video above: his decision-making is what the French call “not good.” At 1:17, Louisville has an odd-man rush thanks to Boston College’s Jerome Robinson coming up limping. Mitchell is wide open behind the arc, but only for a moment; Robinson does his best to get up the floor and rejoin the action. Still, as soon as Mitchell gets the ball, he takes a few dribbles to the corner and launches a semi-contested three rather than forcing the injured Eagle to play defense on a bad wing.

At 1:42 he draws a double-team off a pick-and-roll. Mangok Mathiang is open on the roll, but Mitchell puts up a three while falling away from the basket. At 2:30 he pushes in transition, ends up one-on-three, and forces up a Hail Mary so unlikely Jesus himself would blush at the thought. The good news is so many of his mistakes are teachable moments. The bad news is there are so many.

Mitchell’s shot chart isn’t something MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference groupies would order a Fathead of. Only one-third of his field goal attempts were close-range, and he hit a below-average 50% from there. In fact, he shot below-average from straightaway and the left wing on both midrange jumpers and three-pointers. The shot chart is emblematic of other concerns.

Mitchell earned just four free-throw attempts per 40 minutes as a freshman and a sophomore. He was a Shane Larkin-esque 5 of 19 on floaters, and some of those misses really oughta count twice — when he misses, he often misses very, very badly. A pig could hide from a wolf for years in a house made of Mitchell’s bricks. His two-point field goal percentage fell from 56% his first year to 46% his second. He struggles against longer defenders, a worrying omen as he enters a league full of them. And if you watch enough video, you’ll notice everything with Mitchell is off of two feet. It’s true the things he can do off of two feet are impressive.

But predictability of any kind narrows the killing field for defensive predators.

In Mitchell’s defense, his college coach, Rick Pitino (who may be biased) said “he never had a player improve his jump shot from one season to the next — aside from Billy Donovan — as much as Mitchell,” who “turned down Villanova, Boston College, Florida State and Providence...to play in the nation’s toughest conference — the ACC...” Mitchell’s numbers were better against the ACC than the rest of Louisville’s competition. He tripled his three-point attempts from year 1 to year 2 while upping his accuracy from 25% to 35%.

This, coupled with scouts and sources repeatedly referencing his impressive IQ and mental makeup, speaks to someone who should be able to hold his own against tougher competition.

One day Mitchell will be in the playoffs, and Ian Eagle will exclaim “The hesitation!”

Maybe the biggest plus in the Mitchell column is that unlike Death, defense doesn’t take a holiday. Wingspans don’t wane on the back-end of a home-and-home.

Here he is fighting over a screen. CAN YOU IMAGINE ANYTHING MORE EXHILARATING THAN A KNICK FIGHTING OVER A SCREEN?!?

Maybe one thing.

In honor of the recently departed Adam West, I credit Mitchell with the best slapping of a Grayson since the Batman slapping Robin meme.

An intelligent, driven, two-way player whose shown improvement from deep usually provokes a reflexive “Give.” But if the Knicks don’t add a mid-round pick, is Mitchell someone you take eighth overall? If he’s Avery Bradley, do you A) trust the Knicks to develop him into that, and B) trust their ability to build a roster that maximizes such a player’s impact? Not a perfect analogy, but approximate: remember Malik Rose? Remember him on the Spurs, as opposed to the Knicks? On the Spurs he was a valuable rotation player who did a ton of non-glam goo and won two rings with them. On the Knicks he looked like a Jaguar hood ornament on the front of a beat-up Chevy Cobalt. The player hadn’t changed, but there is no context-neutral vantage in life. Can the Knicks afford a solid but unspectacular selection when today’s star is almost out the door and tomorrow’s may exit if things don’t improve sooner than later? Or is Mitchell the type of pick a team makes that would prove New York is no longer “not a model of intelligent management”?