An NBA draft moves fast. A team has a maximum of five minutes to exercise a first-round pick when its name comes up in the annual June event.
Last June, those five minutes were busy for the Charlotte Hornets, picking 11th overall. They had worked out Donovan Mitchell, the long-armed 6-foot-3 guard from Louisville. In the last few days leading up to the draft, it became increasingly plausible that Kentucky guard Malik Monk, a gifted scorer, might also be available when the Hornets selected.
That presented a pleasant problem of sorts. Mitchell, with the extraordinary wingspan of a 7-footer, had huge upside as a defender. Monk wasn’t nearly as long-armed as Mitchell, but in his one college season, he proved to be an elite scorer, averaging 19.8 points.
As it played out, Mitchell and Monk were available to the Hornets. There was a lively final discussion that involved Monk, Mitchell and Duke guard Luke Kennard. Ultimately, the Hornets selected Monk. Kennard went 12th to the Detroit Pistons. Mitchell ended up 13th to the Utah Jazz.
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Nearly three months into this rookie class’s first NBA season, Monk is playing little. Kennard is playing slightly more. And Mitchell? He is showing early signs of being the biggest bargain in the 2017 draft class.
The Jazz plays its only game this season in Charlotte Friday night. That Mitchell is a solid defender already is no surprise. His body type is ideal for modern NBA defense, where the best players have both the length and lateral quickness to switch who they’re guarding to defeat pick-and-rolls. The more surprising element is on offense. Mitchell leads all rookies in scoring at 18.5 points. He is also second among rookies in steals (1.47 per game) and tops in free-throw percentage at 84.8 percent.
Add that up and you have a Jazz starter now, a star on the horizon. Mitchell has started 30 of his first 38 NBA games. He appears to be a huge piece of Utah’s plan to rebuild, after Gordon Hayward left for the Boston Celtics.
And Monk? Not so much. He got steady minutes the first 14 games of this season, though he has yet to make an NBA start. His minutes have tailed off dramatically: He played a total of 19 minutes in the past six games, 11 1/2 of those coming in Wednesday’s home loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Is the current data anything like a final assessment? Of course not. It’s ridiculous to call Monk a draft bust, just because he’s sitting behind veterans such as Jeremy Lamb and Michael Carter-Williams. But the early returns certainly raise questions about whether the Hornets’ front office swung and missed when they selected Monk over Mitchell.
The case regarding each:
The Monk File
The Hornets knew when they selected Monk that he was far from refined as a two-way NBA player. He played shooting guard at Kentucky, but his 6-3 height and slim build make him way on the small side of players at that position. The Hornets have played him some at point guard, in part because that position better fits his height. Monk played lots of point guard in high school, but what is asked of him as a playmaker and organizer at the NBA level is so much more complex than what he’s been asked to do in the past.
It comes as no surprise to the Hornets’ coaches that Monk would struggle defensively. They knew that going in: Monk wasn’t a strong defender at Kentucky, and the players he was assigned to guard in the SEC didn’t approach the consistent height, strength and skill of NBA wing players.
The more surprising aspect of Monk’s struggles has been his offense. He’s been somewhere between mediocre to poor as a shooter, averaging 34 percent from the field, 34 percent from 3-point range and 71 percent from the foul line. And his decision-making with the ball can look a little wild as he learns to dissect exotic NBA defenses.
The Mitchell File
Everyone in the NBA knew Mitchell had the length and tools to be a fine defender. He also played for Rick Pitino, one of the best teachers of defense at the college level in recent history. He has quickly emerged as what the NBA craves: versatile defense at one end, and solid defense at the other. Another rookie in this class, former Duke star Jayson Tatum, already epitomizes that two-way dynamic.
Mitchell didn’t arrive in the NBA known for offensive greatness. But he has already had a a 41-point game against the New Orleans Pelicans in December. In his first three games of the New Year, Mitchell scored 24, 15 and 27 points.
Projecting the future
Mitchell already projects as a multitime NBA All-Star and joins Rudy Gobert as the Jazz’s future.
Monk hasn’t assembled nearly that resume. But remember, Monk entered the NBA following a single college season, and an ankle injury cost him summer league and most of the offseason to work on-court with the coaches.
A recent comparison shows a first season is no final judgment on a rookie’s career. Guard Kris Dunn struggled similarly last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, so much so that Dunn was packaged to Chicago in the deal that acquired Jimmy Butler for the Wolves.
The new season has been great for Dunn, who has thrived with the Bulls. Not everyone absorbs the ways of the NBA at the rate Mitchell has. There’s still plenty of chance for Monk to still be all that.