Media view only the last few minutes of a Charlotte Hornets predraft workout, which usually means kids taking some free throws while drenched in sweat.
But it was hard to miss when Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell arrived at the Spectrum Center practice gym, if only because his 7-foot wingspan was so preposterously long, relative to his 6-3 height. Word leaked out from that day how impressive Mitchell looked. Did he think he made a good impression?
“I thought I was coming here, to be honest with you,” the Utah Jazz rookie said after scoring 35 points on the Hornets in a 99-88 loss. “I thought I did (catch the Hornets’ eye), that I’d be drafted (11th overall to Charlotte). But it didn’t work out that way, and I’m happy where I’m at.
“But I definitely did get that feeling at the draft.”
Instead, the Hornets chose Kentucky guard Malik Monk, a freshman who averaged 18.5 points for the Wildcats. Mitchell ended up being selected 13th overall by the Jazz.
The contrast between these two players’ rookie seasons has always been dramatic, but Friday’s game was particularly demonstrative: Mitchell, a strong candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year, made 10 of 20 shots from the field, 5-of-11 from 3-point range and got to the foul line 11 times, making 10. He played 37 minutes, grabbed five rebounds and spent parts of the game guarding the Hornets’ top scorer, All-Star point guard Kemba Walker (22 points).
Not that Mitchell was flawless; he committed five turnovers, including four in the fourth quarter, when the Hornets outscored the Jazz 25-16.
Meanwhile, Monk didn’t play Friday. That was his third DNP-coach’s decision in the last six games. He totaled 20 minutes in the other three of those games.
Did the Hornets blow the 2017 draft? It’s certainly early yet, just three months into Mitchell’s and Monk’s seasons. Coach Steve Clifford, who will be back from a medical leave to run practice Tuesday, said Friday he still thinks Monk has major long-term potential.
Part of the issue in this one seems to be fit. Mitchell has a defensive zeal and gift; it’s common for Jazz coach Quin Snyder to have Mitchell guard whichever opposing defensive player is that team’s most dangerous scorer. Also, Mitchell’s size, relative to his skill level, makes him a particularly good fit into where the NBA is evolving: Two-way players with both the length and the quick feet to switch defensively against pick-and-rolls.
The more surprising thing in Mitchell’s rookie season has been his quick impact offensively. He leads all rookies in scoring average, at 18.4 points per game.
"Everybody knew he was going to be a two-way player and had the potential to be a good offensive player,” Hornets acting coach Stephen Silas said pregame. “But this early in his 40 games of his career, I don't think anybody could have anticipated him being this polished as an offensive player, and their go-to guy really in a sense, especially at the end of games.
“I don't think anybody could have anticipated that, coming into the season."
Mitchell averaged 15.6 points last season as a sophomore at Louisville, before turning pro. One thing that works in his favor offensively, according to Jazz coach Quin Snyder, is how NBA teams’ long-range shooting tends to open wider driving lanes for players of Mitchell’s skill set. Mitchell is absorbing Snyder’s vision at a rapid pace. He scored a career-high 41 points against the New Orleans Pelicans, and totaled seven games of 25 or more points in December.
“There’s a lot more space in the NBA than in college. It allows me to do different finishes,” Mitchell said..“Offense has come a little faster than I thought. It’s about reading coverages and doing it at both ends.”
Mitchell never thought much about his 7-foot wingspan until it drew so much publicity during the predraft Combine in Chicago in May. Now he understands all the fuss.
“Now, I comprehend what I can do with that length, what I was blessed with,” Mitchell said. “I understand how I can get over screens and be more active on the defensive end.”