March Madness can be the greatest optical illusion out there. I'm a big proponent on winning, on seeing how guys perform in the biggest moments, as being a data point that matters when seeing if a player is the type of person to have in your organization. What it is, though, is just a data point. When taken in the context of a full season, the games of a couple weekends shouldn't be enough to completely shift the perception of a prospect. If it was, either we weren't paying attention before or we did a horrible job of evaluating initially.
I'm really worried when I see how quickly Davion Mitchell is moving up draft boards that the perception after his National Championship victory is overshadowing a fairly large body of prior work that has established who he is as a prospect. I've also been skeptical of Mitchell all season long, and I'll get into why here. But the biggest thing to fight right now is recency bias, a dangerous trap for all of us to be weary of.
Inherent in any discussion about Mitchell is the defensive toughness and sheer aggression he plays with. He's a fantastic lateral athlete, a relentless competitor and a hard worker. Watch him dominate games on defense and in straight lines, then see his shooting numbers, and it's hard not to view him as a great pro.
There are warning signs I just cannot separate myself from, though, which move Mitchell closer to being a second-round pick than being deserving of lottery or top-ten consideration. So... let's talk about those warning signs. Let's talk about the overall value of being a premier defender based on effort, and just how far that should carry a prospect. And let's talk about recency bias, it's dangers and why the post-tourney whiplash is hitting us hard this year.
Recency Bias & March Success
Does anybody remember Malachi Richardson?
Back in 2016, Richardson sparked an insane Syracuse run to the Final Four. A 6'6" freshman guard, Malachi averaged 15 points per game on the 'Cuse run, but didn't post notable efficiency or ball control numbers elsewhere. Richardson wasn't brand new on the scene for draft twitter or scouts, but the prominence of his team's run helped him climb up boards. The last impression he made, scoring 17 against North Carolina in the Final Four, was enough to get the teenager a first-round slot.
Jarrett Culver had a similar ascent in 2019, helping Texas Tech come from out of nowhere to build a prominent national power. The Red Raiders made the National Championship game, and Culver went 6th overall that June. Culver was a sophomore, only shot 30.8% from 3, a high turnover rate and was similarly trendy on NBA Draft Twitter, to the point where Texas Tech's late ascent only served to validate some already-high opinions on the medium.
Culver and Richardson aren't the same player, and Mitchell is far different from them. A four-year college guy, Mitchell did a lot to improve over the last few years and show continual growth. He posted longstanding, consistent numbers this past season, and his team wasn't a late bloomer but a top-three team in the nation wire-to-wire.
The strange skyrocket of his draft stock is leaving me puzzled, where I can't believe what I'm seeing based on the film. How Mitchell went from a fringy first-rounder who will be 23 before he plays in an NBA game to talked about as a top-10 guy is beyond me. Was he impressive in the NCAA Tournament? Sure... He averaged 13.5 points and 5.8 assists in over 34 minutes a game, shot beneath his average from 3 on the season (36.4%) and was his usual self on defense.
To vault Mitchell higher after the tournament, to me, is another symptom of folks really not watching him the rest of the time what he's proven he's capable of...
That Crazy On-Ball Defense
If there's one trait Mitchell possesses that others do not, it is being a motherfucker. He is absolutely relentless in how he plays and pressures, the type of intensity he brings to each defensive possession and how easily he gives up his body for the team while logging heavy minutes. Those are winning traits, which is why it's no accident he is a champion.
What Mitchell also brings to the table is tremendous lateral quickness and a start-stop burst that's unmatched. Combine the two and you get an elite perimeter defender at the point of attack.
How far does that, by itself, carry Mitchell? It's likely in the 30s on draft night, where a drafting franchise knows they get a relentless on-ball defender. Think Jevon Carter, the 6'1" point guard from West Virginia taken 32nd overall in 2018. At the very minimum, good culture guys who can get into the ball but are pretty suspect on offense will and do have a role in the NBA. Carter was the same age as Mitchell, too: 22 at the age of drafting, 23 for his first NBA game.
If that's the floor for Mitchell as a pugnacious on-ball defender, where should his ceiling be? That ceiling isn't really determined by his defensive impact but by the rest of his game and the role he plays elsewhere.
Nitpicking a 23-Year-Old Prospect
At 6'2", Mitchell doesn't really have the size profile to play anything more than the 1 or the 2. He's exclusively a point of attack defender who is great in space, not necessarily switching onto bigs or banging with wings in the pinch post. His value comes in beating guys to spots on the perimeter.
There are questions about what that offensive role translates to. His assist numbers are high coming from Baylor, as are his overall shooting splits. He's a decent finisher statistically, too.
The film calls a ton of the diversity of those metrics into question. In each regard, Mitchell is a product of a well-spaced offensive system, lesser defenders who play off him in fear of his speed and the same finishing move time and time again.
Starting with the spacing around him, Baylor's shooters really raise his assist numbers and increase the output of his pick-and-roll passing. Watch him in the PNR and you'll see an absurdly high turnover rate. Of the 200 Division I players to record at least 100 possessions in the pick-and-roll this year, Mitchell was 193rd in turnover rate (26.9% of the time). If his offensive role is to be a creator with the ball in his hands for himself and others, he'd give it away so much that it almost negates the defensive impact entirely.
Mitchell's numbers as a pull-up shooter are solid. He's worked himself over the last few years into a proficient shooter off the bounce. But Mitchell has weaponized speed with that first step. In an NBA where teams aren't as concerned about getting blitzed off the bounce or pressuring on the perimeter as the lane protected ways of college, it's probably that Davion sees defenders crowd him more now than ever. He had room at Baylor to rise off the dribble because so many guys were afraid of getting blitzed off the bounce. They rarely got into Mitchell, so he had time and comfort to score it.
When he would get the ball and need to get to the rim, I felt like I was watching Groundhog Day. Every drive was the same from Mitchell: go hard to his left and look for an inside-hand finish at the basket. The success was predicated not only on his speed, but on not going against elite rim protectors who could get there in time.
A couple teams had success in beating him to his left so he couldn't turn the corner at full speed. Others sent rim protectors to thwart his attempt. Because he plays at such high speed, there was little Mitchell did to counter those moves, either missing open teammates or leaving his feet with no alternative. He'd rush attempts, get them swatted or run out of real estate on the side of the backboard. When pushed back to his right or trying to speed dribble that way, he uses a really awkward-looking scoop shot that is almost unnatural.
As poor as those finishes can be in the NBA, what's more concerning is the lack of diversity to his game. He's kind of a one-trick pony, a poor trait to have at 23. Is he effective in what he does? Yes. But it can be taken away at the next level, and I have yet to see a competent counter or belief that he can adjust or add more to his game.
Combine all that and I don't think Mitchell even maxes out as a lotto prospect. He's super old, not an offensive hub and only recently has been a reliable catch-and-shoot guy. To me, he's the next Patrick Beverley or Jevon Carter, not this late-rising Donovan Mitchell who plays hard at all times.
Slow down the hype train, here, and watch some film. The defensive stuff is easy to fall in love with, as are the numbers at Baylor. There are some real functional questions about how he scores against NBA defenses, though, and they are big enough to push him down to the late first/ early second on my board.