Not drafting Donovan Mitchell is a mistake of sufficient magnitude that it could haunt the Charlotte Hornets for a decade or more.
It’s no secret the Hornets considered Mitchell, a long-armed 6-3 guard from Louisville, for the 11th overall pick before instead selecting Kentucky’s Malik Monk. Let’s flip forward eight months, and scan the box score from the Utah Jazz’ 106-94 victory Friday over the Hornets.
Mitchell, the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for January, scored 25 points and added six rebounds and three assists. Monk totaled three points on 1-of-3 shooting in 2 1/2 minutes after this game was decided.
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If you’re a booster of Monk’s prospects, you can argue he should be playing more. Let’s round back to that later in this column. What’s undeniable is Mitchell is thriving in the NBA in a way that would translate to any situation. He is definitive of how the NBA is evolving: Players equivalently adept as both a scorer and a defender, with limbs long enough to facilitate switching defense.
Plus, the kid sure puts on a show. His spectacular dunk Friday so ignited the home crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena that Jazz fans were still clapping 10 seconds later.
Mitchell is a guy who can sell tickets now and help form the foundation of a contender later. He was blessed with freakishly long arms, plus major athleticism. He is mature and bright. The only question about him heading into the draft was how dynamic he’d be as a scorer. He leads a deep rookie class in points at 19.1 per game.
“He’s heady, poised, and you combine that with his athleticism, his feel for the game,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, when asked about Mitchell pregame. “I think he’s shown a lot more versatility offensively than people realized” he would.
Mitchell is a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year, along with Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons and possibly Boston Celtic Jayson Tatum. He could be doing all this for the Hornets. He told me following the first Jazz-Hornets game he thought he was Charlotte-bound on draft night.
“I definitely did get that feeling at the draft,” Mitchell said, after scoring 35 points in Charlotte Jan. 12.
Instead, the Hornets are trying to figure out how to best get return on their investment in Monk, who turned pro after a single season of college ball in which he averaged 19.8 points.
I don’t believe Monk is a bust, as some have already labeled him. It’s far too early to write off what he might be. It’s easy to forget he missed all of the offseason before training camp, including summer league games in Orlando, due to a sprained ankle.
Monk doesn’t have ideal length to defend shooting guards, and he isn’t yet efficient making decisions as an NBA point guard. So mostly he sits and watches.
There is a faction in the Hornets’ fan base that believes Monk doesn’t play because Clifford hates rookies. That is not only incorrect, it’s easily debunked. Frank Kaminsky averaged 21 minutes his rookie season with Clifford. Cody Zeller averaged 17 minutes as a rookie.
Monk isn’t playing much because he isn’t showing he’s ready to play, not because Clifford has erected some unrealistic standard for him.
There’s a circular logic among some fans about all this, where they speculate Mitchell wouldn’t be doing what he is this season if he was a Hornet.
No. This is how Mitchell’s season would have gone as a Hornet: He would have started the opener, replacing the injured Nic Batum, as second-round rookie Dwayne Bacon did.
Mitchell’s impact at both ends would have registered on Clifford quickly. He would have made fill-in starts for Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He’d now be an impact sixth man, and still a Rookie of the Year candidate.
He’d be a huge piece of the Hornets’ future. But that’s another opportunity lost for this franchise.
Jazz 106, Hornets 94
CHARLOTTE (94)—Kidd-Gilchrist 2-4 2-3 6, Williams 2-7 6-6 11, Howard 2-7 1-4 5, Walker 8-19 0-0 19, Batum 6-13 0-0 13, Bacon 0-0 0-0 0, Kaminsky 5-12 3-3 14, Zeller 2-5 0-0 4, Carter-Williams 2-7 2-2 7, Monk 1-3 0-0 3, Lamb 4-7 1-1 10, Graham 1-1 0-0 2, Stone 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 35-85 15-19 94.
UTAH (106)—Ingles 9-15 2-2 23, Favors 3-8 0-0 6, Gobert 7-8 6-8 20, Rubio 3-7 0-0 6, Mitchell 8-21 6-7 25, O’Neale 3-8 0-0 8, McCree 0-0 0-0 0, Jerebko 4-9 0-0 10, Niang 0-0 0-0 0, Udoh 3-4 0-0 6, Neto 1-2 0-0 2, Burks 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 41-84 14-17 106.
3-Point Goals—Charlotte 9-24 (Walker 3-8, Lamb 1-1, Carter-Williams 1-2, Monk 1-2, Williams 1-3, Batum 1-3, Kaminsky 1-5), Utah 10-29 (Ingles 3-8, Mitchell 3-10, Jerebko 2-3, O’Neale 2-4, Neto 0-1, Rubio 0-1, Burks 0-1, Favors 0-1). Fouled Out—Howard. Rebounds—Charlotte 33 (Howard 9), Utah 49 (Gobert 11). Assists—Charlotte 17 (Walker 5), Utah 29 (Rubio 7). Total Fouls—Charlotte 18, Utah 17. A—18,306 (19,911).