(First posted at RealGM)
After a disappointing start to the season, when he hit just 36.4% of his shots through the non-conference part of Louisville’s schedule, Donovan Mitchell hit up the rest of the way, averaging 21.2 points per 40 minutes on 40% three-point shooting against ACC competition.
The six-foot-three combo guard had opportunity to run some offense towards the end of the year when Quentin Snider and Deng Adel missed some time due to injury but for the most part acted as an off guard, mostly preoccupied with creating looks for himself.
Louisville ran a motion offense that afforded him chances to catch the ball off a live dribble, with a head start on his man, but had two post players on the floor at all times, which combined with Mitchell’s suspect shot selection, resulted in fewer drives to the basket than his athleticism suggests he should be attempting.
But on instances where Mitchell was a little more committed to dribble penetration, he showed some traits of promise as a finisher and as a passer on the move. Some team enamored with the athletic prowess he exhibited at the combine is bound to dream of converting him into a lead ball handler down the line.
On the other end, Mitchell has the physical profile to play good defense, not just in terms of executing but as a difference maker, and has put in the effort to materialize such potential, as he led a team in minutes that ranked eighth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Mitchell’s statistical profile is not particularly impressive but he’s risen up the boards during workout season (currently ranked 11th in Draft Express’ top 100) because he is the sort of prospect teams can more easily dream reaching the highest of highs.
Mitchell’s top skill at this point of his development is his defense.
He bends his knees to get down in a stance, has the lateral quickness to keep pace side-to-side in isolation, has strength in his thick 211-pound frame to contain dribble penetration through contact, often puts in the effort to press opposing ball handlers 40-feet away from the basket when asked to and has the reach to act as a constant threat to pick their pockets.
Mitchell is only so-so at navigating over ball screens at the point of attack but puts his eight-foot-one standing reach to good use deflecting or blocking shots and passes trailing the ball handler from behind.
Despite being Louisville’s best on ball defender, Mitchell often found himself as a weak-side defender due to the nature of their aggressive switching scheme and proved himself attentive to his rotation responsibilities, translating his athleticism into both creating events and shot prevention.
After some head scratching effort on closeouts earlier in the season, Mitchell was more consistent later in the year, proving his ability to run shooters off the line, stay in balance to prevent a free path to the goal on a straight line and contest pull-up jumpers effectively.
He uses his six-foot-10 wingspan to make some plays in the passing lanes, averaging 2.6 steals per 40 minutes last season, but impressed the most with his rotations to the front of the basket as the last line of defense. Mitchell is an explosive leaper who can pick up the eventual shot block from time to time but doesn’t sell out to try doing so all the time, proving his willingness to draw charges as well.
But his biggest appeal is as someone able to pick up bigger players on switches. He is physical enough and savvy enough to front them in the post and prevent a direct entry pass. He is also tough enough and attentive enough to box them out in the glass, collecting 13.1% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor last season.
OFFENSE ON THE BALL
Defense is nice, especially intelligence and versatility on defense, but teams search for offense in the lottery and Mitchell is considered to have some star potential because of the flashes he’s shown of shot creation ability against a set defense.
He has a combination of handle and burst that make him look really impressive splitting double teams at the point of attack, driving to the basket on a straight line off the ball-screen. At the rim, Mitchell isn’t explosive enough to go up strong off one foot in traffic but can hang in the air and use his length for some over-extended finishes around rim protection.
He finished his 118 shots at the basket at a 55.9% clip last season, which is a disappointing mark for someone with his athletic prowess, but did a lot better the season before, converting such looks at a 67.3% clip, with 23 of his 37 makes unassisted.
Mitchell hasn’t yet developed a more polished skill-set operating in more imperfect conditions, though.
Louisville didn’t space the floor well, so the opponent could consistently pack the lane and prevent him from getting downhill often. As was the case, Mitchell didn’t show the ability to play with pace in pick-and-roll – waiting for driving lanes to open up with the movement of his teammates on slower developing plays or midget dribbling under the basket to try creating new opportunities with his own movement.
He is also unable to stretch the defense with the threat of his passing. Mitchell is a good passer who can find shooters on kick-outs to the strong-side or dunkers on drop-offs, assisting on 16% of Louisville’s scores when he was on the floor last season. But he hasn’t shown particularly advanced instincts passing across his body to shooters relocating on the opposite end of the floor or good timing on pocket passes or lobs to roll men – though it’s fair to point out the screeners at Louisville couldn’t dive hard to act as vertical targets because the spacing wasn’t good.
With a crowd always in front of him when he had to create against a set defense, Mitchell more often than not relied on pull-ups to get his shot off – as 73.4% of his shots were taken away from the basket and he averaged just 3.9 foul shots per 40 minutes last season.
He can dribble in-and-out to traffic cone his way to the basket but more often than not opted to hesitate or crossover into a pull-up, which he did in impressive fashion but often led to questionable shot selection. His stroke off the bounce looks good but he nailed just 35% of his two-point jumpers and made just 17 unassisted three-pointers in 34 appearances last season.
OFF THE BALL OFFENSE
Mitchell has a higher chance of becoming a meaningful contributor on offense operating off the ball. That poor start hid the substantial improvement he made in his outside shot. He finished the season nailing 35.4% of his 226 three-point shots for the year but his 40% accuracy against ACC competition does not appear to be a fluke.
One real issue provides a legit concern that this might just be one long hot shooting streak: some of his misses on open looks are pretty horrendous.
But three factors suggest his development into a potentially elite shooter is real. First, Mitchell hit that 40% mark on 130 attempts through 18 games, at a pace of 7.2 attempts per 40 minutes. Second, his foul shooting percentage also improved, which suggests some minor tweak in his mechanics did the trick. Third, the types of some of the shots he took encourage you to believe he is in line to become the sort of shooter who can moved around the floor to stress the defense in multiple ways.
Mitchell has a quick release and the ball looks good on its way out when he catches it in rhythm on catch-and-shoot opportunities off spot-ups. More impressive, though, is how he’s also proven himself able to sprint to the ball or around pindown screens, plant his feet in a pinch and let it fly off the hop in great balance.
As somebody who demands a hard closeout, Mitchell opens up straight line drives for himself and can explode off two feet with some space to take flight, also prominent in instances where he cuts behind the defense. Louisville ran a nice play to take advantage of his leaping ability where he used to give up the ball at the top of the key, run a semi-circle route around an elbow screen and get a lob.
 According to sports-reference
 According to kenpom.com
 According to our stats’ database
 According to hoop-math
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara