When former Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell was young, his friend’s dad never called him by his real name. He only called him “Spider.”
It’s a nickname that has stuck, and for good reason. Even as a kid, Mitchell’s long arms and propensity for steals turned heads. In college, he was everywhere, using his incredible length to poke the ball loose or disrupt a shooter’s vision.
But his frame didn’t garner national attention until he stole the show at the NBA draft combine in May, when the 6-3 guard measured a 6-10 wingspan and posted a 36.5-inch standing vertical.
That’s when “spider” started climbing up draft boards.
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“Things just changed,” Mitchell said.
The guard said he could have never expected to be a potential lottery pick at this time last year. He even said he heard rumors of a second-round grade when he declared for the draft in March after his sophomore season at Louisville.
Now, after Monday’s workout with the Charlotte Hornets – who hold the No. 11 pick in next week’s NBA Draft – it’s hard not to notice his spider-like frame, which could be his biggest selling point at the next level.
“He catches up (defensively) out of nowhere,” said Terrance Ferguson, another potential lottery pick who worked out with the Hornets on Monday. “You sure see his arms come in handy.”
Those who watched Mitchell play at Louisville shouldn’t be surprised by the pre-draft buzz. During his sophomore season, the first-team All-ACC guard led the Cardinals in points per game (15.6) and ranked second in assists per game (2.7). He was the team’s second-most reliable three-point shooter (35.4 percent) and even ranked fourth in rebounds per game (4.9).
But his calling card, as always, was on the other end, where the All-ACC Defensive selection earned a pesky reputation in the Cardinals’ full-court pressure defense. In 34 games, Mitchell recorded 70 steals – tied for 16th-most in the country.
“At Louisville, you’re doing something wrong if you don’t go for a steal,” he said.
NBA-level defense goes beyond long arms and steals, though, and Mitchell knows it. After Monday’s workout, Hornets coach Steve Clifford pulled Mitchell aside and demonstrated a proper defensive stance, when to sit back and when to strike.
In pre-draft workouts like Monday’s, Mitchell said he can get away with aggressive defense against players who lack the experience and basketball IQ of most NBA players. But at the next level, elite scorers such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker will rip through contact and draw fouls – which can quickly turn a quality defender into a defensive liability.
Mitchell prides himself as the best defender in the draft, and he bears a resemblance to former lottery picks Marcus Smart (2014) and Kris Dunn (2016), both top-6 picks, coming out of college. Both players were defensive stalwarts who lacked elite height but compensated with freakish wingspans.
Admittedly, those two were more athletic than the 211-pound Mitchell, who said fighting past NBA defenders will be a welcome challenge. But the Louisville product is a better shooter than Smart or Dunn – something evidenced in college and the pre-draft process.
Mitchell hit five straight threes to end Monday’s workout – he made 80 threes last year at Louisville, eighth-most in a season in program history – and he shot free throw after free throw from the same spot where Clifford modeled a defensive stance.
Every make deserved an encore. Every miss, dejection. It’s the perfectionist in him, he says.
He wasn’t perfect last season, at least not offensively. Louisville is far from a breeding ground for scorers, but coach Rick Pitino insisted on Mitchell being an offensive standout in 2016-17, even benching the guard against Indiana for playing too timid. Mitchell responded, scoring a then-season-high 25 points in a 15-point road victory in December.
He finished the year strong, as well, scoring at least 20 points in four of Louisville’s final five regular-season games.
He’ll likely have to show the same offensive punch to excel in the NBA. And his height has raised questions about his natural position at the next level.
But for the Hornets, a team in desperate need of a backup point guard, Mitchell’s playmaking ability and tenacious defense would be a welcome fit.
While No. 11 might have seemed high a few months ago, it’s a spot that “spider” could reach.
C Jackson Cowart on Twitter: @CJacksonCowart