Defense makes difference for possible Pistons pick Donovan Mitchell

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Donovan Mitchell

Auburn Hills — After Donovan Mitchell finished his workout with the Pistons on Sunday, he admitted the past couple months have been surreal. Since the end of his sophomore year at Louisville, he wasn’t sure whether he’d be going back to school or heading to the NBA draft.

Then came an epiphany that sealed the deal.

Around April or May, Mitchell had a workout in Los Angeles with All-Stars Paul George and Chris Paul. From then, he pretty much knew then he wasn’t going back to college.

“I didn’t see myself in this spot at all five months ago,” Mitchell said Sunday morning. “I was holding my own and they had a conversation with me about the positives and negatives — the positives definitely outweighed the negatives.”

Now, the Pistons will have to weigh the good and bad in considering Mitchell, a 6-foot-3 uber-athletic combo guard, with their first-round draft pick, No. 12 overall, in Thursday’s draft. Mitchell has steadily risen up many mock drafts — including one he saw that had him going as high as No. 3.

He has outstanding physical and athletic qualities. At 6-foot-3, he has a 6-10 wingspan, as well as the top three-quarter-court sprint (3.01 seconds) and standing vertical leap (36.5) at the combine last month.

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“I didn’t think I was that fast or would be the fastest at the combine. I knew I could jump a little but didn’t think I’d have the highest one in a while,” Mitchell said. “We did it at Louisville, but we always do it at 6 a.m., so I never got a gauge on what I could do as far as vertical testing.

“I’d be halfway asleep just trying to touch it and get 30 inches because I was dead tired. I’ve never done it where I’m ready and worked up, and the adrenaline you have going when you have NBA GMs put me over the top.”

Mitchell was first-team All-ACC and also made the conference’s all-defensive team. And that’s where he differentiates himself from some of the other prospects at his position — or any other. With the Pistons considering several choice with the 12th pick, including Luke Kennard, John Collins, Jarrett Allen and Justin Jackson, among others, Mitchell is an intriguing option.

With his long wingspan and athleticism, he’s often compared to Dwyane Wade. And after averaging 15.6 points and 4.9 rebounds with the Cardinals as a sophomore, with 36 percent on 3-pointers, he seems to be a good fit with the Pistons, who had their offensive woes last season.

The defense, though, could set him apart.

“A lot of guys can hit 25 or 30 threes in a row, but can you guard?” Mitchell said. “That’s the big test and that’s why I love competing, because I want to prove I can do both,” Mitchell said.

“There are certain things you can’t measure when it comes to defense and it comes to heart.  Avery Bradley has heart, guarding guys like LeBron and Kyrie. It’s skill and work ethic, but at the end of the day, it’s also heart and not letting the fear of the stature and hype get to you and treat it like it’s a regular person.”

Some of that understanding of the bigger picture in basketball came from his father, Donovan Sr., who is in the front office with the New York Mets. Donovan Jr. also played baseball growing up — and honors Michael Jordan by wearing No. 45, the same number Jordan donned when he dabbled in baseball.

Mitchell used to be a shortstop and pitcher, but an injury in high school helped push basketball higher on the priority list, but he still maintains the passion for his second-favorite sport, as an avid Mets fan.

While baseball is far in the rear-view mirror for Mitchell, his basketball future is bright indeed.

“It’s crazy to think about five months ago I didn’t see myself in this spot; I thought I’d be back in college, ready to play my junior season,” he said. “It’s all happened so fast and I haven’t had time to look back on it and probably won’t until Friday or Saturday (after the draft).

“I just thought second round and wanted to keep working. God willing, if things went well, I would raise my stock and fortunately it has. I’m just trying to keep it going higher and higher.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard