It took Louisville shooting guard Donovan Mitchell one workout to realize his lack of size was a weakness he’d need to compensate for at the next level. Training alongside Oregon’s Jordan Bell in Los Angeles – both prospects signed with Creative Artists Agency – the 6-foot-3 Mitchell admitted his first session against the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year was an eye-opener.
“The first workout, he blocked every shot I took,” Mitchell said at Thursday’s NBA Draft Combine. “He’s a 6-foot-8 defender, long, very athletic; everybody in the NBA is just like that.”
Mitchell won’t undergo a growth spurt between now and next month’s draft. He’ll be labeled as undersized until he gives pundits a reason to tag him otherwise. No player shorter than 6-foot-4 has been selected in the lottery since 2013 (Trey Burke, 9th overall) and the Cardinals guard is still searching for a true position at the next level.
The good news for Mitchell, however, is he makes up for that lack of size in a number of areas and his unique skill set has him projected to fall somewhere late in the lottery despite his height. And in today’s NBA, where going small with as many versatile guards reigns supreme, Mitchell is bound to carve out his niche when he hears his name called in Brooklyn next month.
In his second season under Rick Pitino, Mitchell averaged 15.6 points on 41 percent shooting, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 32.3 minutes for the Cardinals as a sophomore. He led the ACC in steals (2.1) and was named first team all-conference and first team all-defense in the nation’s top conference. Undersized guards are rarely labeled as plus defenders, but Mitchell, touting a 6-foot-10 wingspan, believes he can contribute immediately on that end of the floor. The Cardinals ranked eighth in defensive efficiency last season, per KenPom.com.
“I think having that wingspan and being the defensive-minded person that I am will definitely help,” he said. “Because at Louisville you don’t step on the floor unless you play defense, and having that in your head and just mentally focusing on playing defense will definitely help my rookie year.”
Mitchell is far more than a defensive whiz. He cited two NBA players – Boston’s Avery Bradley and Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe – as career trends he could emulate at the next level. Both lockdown defenders, Bradley and Bledsoe each averaged career-highs in points this pats season while maintaining their staunch defensive presence.
Mitchell, too, was a consensus top-40 recruit who showed promise as a freshman. In his sophomore season, Mitchell used that versatility to lead the Cardinals to 25 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance. He saw time at both guard positions, tallying four or more assists in 10 games; he did that just three times as a freshman.
He’s more a volume scorer than an efficient one at this point; such is life for an undersized guard. But there are indicators that show he has room for improvement (outside of being just 20 years old). For starters, he logged the best standing vertical leap on Thursday (36.5 inches) and the fourth best overall vertical (40.5 inches). Athleticism won’t be an issue on creating his own shot. Mitchell was a constant highlight reel above the rim, and his quickness will help as much on offense as it does defensively. He improved his 3-point shooting from 25.0 percent to 35.4 percent on 154 more attempts as a sophomore. His 3-point shooting was a highlight from Thursday’s individual drills.
He’s bound to score at the next level; his versatility is simply an added bonus. Teams he’s spoken with have viewed him both as a point guard and shooting guard, and he wouldn’t put a label on himself at this point.
Perhaps his best intangible, one that height can’t measure, is his maturity. When asked if logging minutes in the NBA immediately would help his growth, he was one of the only prospects who cited the option of playing in the D-League as an option. He was also caught off-guard Thursday when asked by a member of the media what the defining moment in his life was.
“I told my sister – a lot of her friends have nice cars, nice this, nice that – and so I told her, I said, ‘First thing I’m getting, I don’t care what it is, first thing I’m getting you is the nicest purse you want, the nicest dress you want, and we’ll work on the car in a few years,’” he said with a laugh. “Definitely getting something for my sister. The smile she had on her face that day might have been the biggest smile I’ve seen on her face. I love her to death.”
Mitchell is young, oozing with athleticism and has only improved at every turn in his basketball career. Size is something he’ll have to overcome, but it’s the rest of his game that allows his 6-foot-3 frame to simply become a non-factor.