CRAWFORD | Into the spotlight: Louisville's Mitchell emerges as one of the ACC's finest
Louisville sophomore Donovan Mitchell has emerged as one of the top players in the ACC -- and the nation -- over the past month. A look back at his development at Louisville, and beyond.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — There’s a scene that Donovan Mitchell remembers from his childhood, playing over and over again, just one of those little snapshots of the kind we all carry in our memories. This one just happens to shed a little light on the University of Louisville sophomore, who is emerging as not just one of the top players in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but as one of the best in the nation.
“My mom told me, whenever she hired a babysitter to watch me, I would always play the same fireman video over and over again,” he said. “I’d play it for an hour, get dressed in a little sweatsuit, where I had to pull it over my shoulder like fireman straps, and I’d get on the couch and ‘drive,’ then jump off and fight the fire. Saved a bunch of people. A lot of lives were saved in my years of fighting pretend fires.”
Mitchell laughs as he says this, but what kid doesn’t want to be a hero? The Louisville basketball team certainly needed one when point guard Quentin Snider went down with a hip injury in mid-January, and it was little surprise that Mitchell responded, slipping into the point guard spot almost seamlessly.
But he did so without playing “hero ball.” In fact, the ascension of Mitchell into the ranks of the nation’s top players has coincided with the expansion of his game, his willingness to pass the ball, his improvement as a defensive player, and his focus on some of the things he paid little attention to for much of his pre-Rick Pitino life.
“He's an elite level player. Elite level,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said of Mitchell after he scored 26 points to lead the Cards to a 94-90 win over the Hokies last weekend. “He can score on all three levels. Great body. Great body control. Very physical. Because he's so strong, he's deceptively, in my opinion, an elite level athlete. He's very good.”
In high school, Mitchell was known primarily as a spectacular dunker. He slammed home his first dunk in the seventh grade, and dunked for the first time in a game in the eighth grade.
"I became infatuated with it really quickly,” Mitchell said. “I really enjoyed it. By my senior year, I was trying to create my own types of dunks."
As a freshman at Louisville, Mitchell was no stranger to the SportsCenter Top 10. Pitino called him one of the greatest leapers off two feet that he's seen. But as he prepared for his sophomore season, Mitchell put his Doctor of Dunk degree on the shelf to focus on other things.
"I’m not really focused on that this year," Mitchell said before this season started, and he's made good on that. "I’m focused on being the best leader for my team. I’m still going to be doing that, but I’m not as focused on dunking the ball."
Mitchell has dunked the ball just five times all season. But he's upped his production in every other area. He's already scored more points than he did all last season, same for rebounds, assists, steals, and just about everything else. He's been fouled more, and been to the free-throw line more, than any player on the team.
And his leadership has been exemplary. When Pitino suspended co-captain Mangok Mathiang for missing curfew late last month, he elevated Mitchell into the captain's position.
“Things really turned around for him with the Indiana game (on Dec. 31) when I pulled him out of the starting lineup,” Pitino said. “And he saw the light, what we needed him to be on offense. We needed him to score more, and move the ball. And now he’s a captain of this team, and a true leader.”
Mitchell grew up the son of a baseball player and later front-office executive. Donovan Mitchell Sr. played six seasons in the minors after being drafted by the Houston Astros out of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
As director of player relations and community engagement for the New York Mets, his young son took full advantage of a father whose office was a Major League ballpark. Being around big-league ballplayers, the younger Mitchell learned how pro athletes approach their jobs -- and the effort that goes into it.
"You see those guys act like professionals, and all their preparation and hard work they put in," Mitchell said. "Scott Kazmir was one of my all-time favorite Mets before he got traded. He used to run every morning, and I’d make my dad get up and come in early so I could run with him. And Jose Reyes was the same way. Just, the amount of work and effort they put in definitely influenced the amount of work I put into my craft. It was a lot of fun, obviously, but looking back you realize how much of a blessing it was to have that opportunity.”
Mitchell was a good baseball player, but broke his wrist early in his sophomore season and went to the sidelines. When he returned, he made a big decision.
“I came back around August or so and I just craved playing basketball,” Mitchell said. “I realized my mindset was on basketball, and I decided to focus on one and not do both. It hurt a little. It was sad, because I grew up playing baseball. But it appears to be paying off. Sometimes I watch TV and wish I was out there pitching. But you don’t want to live with regrets.”
He still thinks about it, though.
“I haven’t thrown a baseball in a while, which I heard is really good for a pitcher,” he said. “So I do throw occasionally just to keep it warm. I think I’ve picked up some speed. Sophomore year, my fastball topped out at 85-86 mph. Curveball was not the greatest — a little rusty. Changeup is filthy. A great changeup. And a two-seam fastball. And a cutter that never moves. A cutter grip, but it never moves.”
PLAYING FOR PITINO
Mitchell never looked back once committing to Louisville. He was thrilled to be a Cardinal, thrilled to be playing for Pitino. But he acknowledges that it took some getting used to.
At first, he was a bit star-struck.
“There’s something about playing for Coach P that is amazing,” Mitchell said. “Some days we’ll be in practice and he’ll walk by and I’ll be like, ‘That’s Rick Pitino. That’s my coach.’ It’s kind of cool to have him be a Hall of Famer, such a world-class guy . . . I love playing for him, and I love playing in the city of Louisville. We don’t have a major sports team, so I go to Walmart, or to McDonald’s, or wherever, and people want to take pictures. But at the same time, he expects you to work your butt off.”
He said there were times that Pitino’s pushing caused him some issues with confidence last season. His shooting fell off, and never really recovered. He kept clippings that talked about his shooting struggles, and used them for motivation over the summer.
Mitchell did a good bit of individual work in the offseason, but some of the most important time he spent was working out with former Cardinals Russ Smith and Chris Smith in New York.
“Spent a lot of time with Russ over summer,” Mitchell said. “I talked to him, and not just on the court, which was great. He would come to my room and we would just talk about what Coach P. wants. Last year coach would get on me and yell and it would play with my confidence a little but, but Russ said, ‘Look, you have to listen to what he’s saying, as opposed to how he’s saying it.’ And once I started doing that, you know, I started shooting the ball much better. You know, 25 percent is the number I said in my head all summer. That’s how poorly I shot from the three-point line, and I’m not that bad of a shooter.”
He has proved that this season. In ACC play, he’s shooting 41.1 percent (39-95) from three-point range, averaging 18.1 points per game with 4.1 rebounds per game. He’s been deceptively good on defense, having improved his quickness in the offseason by changing his diet and losing weight. His 2.1 steals per game lead the ACC and rank 17th in the nation. Offensively, he’s been particularly good with the ball off the pick-and-roll, scoring on nearly 47 percent of his chances, including 73 percent from the left side of the court. Over his last 14 games, he’s averaging 19.3 points per contest.
NORTH CAROLINA, AND THE FUTURE
Ken Pomeroy had him among the nation’s top 10 players statistically for much of January, and now ranks him No. 3 overall in the ACC. He’s also one of 30 finalists for the Naismith Award, which goes to college basketball’s player of the year.
Now, he’ll step onto an even bigger stage at North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center on Wednesday night in a prime-time ESPN matchup. It’s an arena where he once dreamed of playing.
“It’ll be a special game for me, because I grew up a huge North Carolina fan,” Mitchell said. “Growing up, they were my dream school, watching Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green and all those guys. They’re a great team. They’re a championship caliber team, and a lot of those guys came a second away from winning it all last year, so we’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
Increasingly, people have a lot of respect for Mitchell. He has popped up in the most recent mock drafts, projected anywhere from No. 21 to No. 29 in the NBA Draft. He hasn’t turned his thoughts to that yet. His NBA position, at 6-3, is likely playing the point, and he has done that some at Louisville.
If the Cardinals keep winning, and he keeps playing the way he has, expect him to have more options. But he’s not thinking about those, or talking about them.
“I’m just trying to be a leader and help this team win,” Mitchell said. “I love being a leader. I love being the one who takes ownership, whether its negative or positive. I don’t mind being the scapegoat if things go wrong. It comes with being a leader. Obviously, when you succeed, it’s awesome being the leader. But the biggest thing about that is opportunity to help my team get better. . . . This game, it’s a big opportunity for our team. We just have to focus on defense, absorb the scouting report, and try not to put a lot of pressure on ourselves.”
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