By: Will Burchfield
Before the question could even be finished, Donovan Mitchell jumped at the chance to answer.
When the Pistons’ pick rolled around in last year’s draft, did he think —
“I did, I did,” Mitchell said, acknowledging he expected his name to be called. “Fortunately I’m here (with the Jazz), but I definitely did. At 11 and 12, I thought I was either going to Charlotte or Detroit.”
Instead, Mitchell went 13th overall to Denver, who promptly traded him to Utah. About seven months later, the 21-year-old combo guard is in a neck-and-neck race with Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year.
On Wednesday night at Little Caesars Arena, the Pistons will get their first live look at Mitchell since they brought him to Detroit for a pre-draft workout in June. As Mitchell recalls, he made a strong impression on Stan Van Gundy and his team of evaluators.
As one test, Van Gundy asked Mitchell to dissect film of himself in college.
“I remember I pretty much broke down the play exactly. He told me that was what impressed him, the fact that I was able to — a few months later — explain exactly what was supposed to happen, where guys were supposed to be,” Mitchell said.
But it was more than Mitchell’s mental acumen that stood out.
“I remember I shot really well here,” he said with a smile. “I don’t think I really missed much. I remember that.”
Asked to describe the vibe he got from the Pistons following his workout, Mitchell said, “That if I came here I’d have to be a hard worker, obviously, and minutes weren’t going to be easy. Just go out there and do what I can to get in the rotation. Defense was going to be the first thing that (Van Gundy) talked about. We talked about that a lot.”
Mitchell was similarly impressive at the combine. He recorded the highest standing vertical leap (36.5 inches) and the fastest three-quarter court sprint (3.01 seconds). His max vertical (40.5 inches) ranked fourth.
With all this evidence in hand, the Pistons ranked Mitchell No. 13 on their draft board, one spot behind Luke Kennard. The shooting guard from Duke had also turned heads in his pre-draft workout, and Detroit favored his body of work in college plus his ability to shoot from beyond the arc.
When judgement day rolled around, the team stuck to its rankings. It was Kennard — not Mitchell — to the Pistons.
Van Gundy raved about Kennard’s wide offensive skillset the night they drafted him. The next day, at Kennard’s introductory press conference, general manager Jeff Bower explained pre-draft workouts aren’t everything.
“They’re important and beneficial to some degree, but our viewing in the five-on-five settings with college teams is where we should see all those different things – or not see them – which is just as valuable,” he said.
In their respective final seasons in college, Kennard averaged 19.5 points per game and Mitchell averaged 15.6. Perhaps more importantly, Kennard shot nearly 44 percent from three-point range while Mitchell shot 35 percent.
The Pistons shot 33 percent from beyond the arc in 2016-17, the third worst mark in the NBA. It was one of the main areas in which Van Gundy and Bower wanted to improve in the offseason. Kennard helped them check that box.
In 39 games for the Pistons, Kennard is averaging 6.8 points in 17.9 minutes. (He’s also shooting 44.2 percent from three.) Mitchell, in 45 games for the Jazz, is averaging 19.2 points in 31.6 minutes. (He’s also blowing up SportsCenter with his dunks.) The latter is hand’s down the steal of the 2017 draft.
Did he envision any of this entering his rookie season?
“Nah, nah, not at all. I expected not even being in Utah,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to come here, but they had the 24th pick at the time, so I didn’t think I was even going to be here. From the beginning it was all just kind of shocking to me, and it’s just been a ride I’m trying to figure out as I go.”
On Tuesday, Van Gundy told reporters he’s still happy with the Pistons’ selection of Kennard.
“(Mitchell) is a really good player and he’s had a great rookie year. We’re happy for him and happy with the way Luke’s played,” Van Gundy said, via the Detroit News.
Kennard’s role has increased of late as the Pistons try to account for the absence of Reggie Jackson. In his past four games, he’s averaging 10.8 points in 23 minutes. With the right mindset, he can be a dangerous scorer.
“I’m just trying to get him to be more aggressive,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve gotten him to bust out, we’re running more plays for him. We’ve been happy with his development. He’s just got to continue to improve defensively.”
Still, it’s impossible not to look in Mitchell’s direction and wonder what-if? The Louisville product, who also happens to be a terrific defender, has scored over 20 points in a whopping 21 games. (Remember, he’s played in just 45.) Kennard has yet to exceed 20 this season.
No one expected this out of Mitchell, not even himself, but the Jazz were hit by some early injuries and the youngster has stepped up with vigor.
“The kid’s had a great year and he could very well be the Rookie of the Year. It’s going to come down to I would think him and Simmons,” said Van Gundy. “He’s gotten great opportunity. They had some injuries that created some early opportunity for him, and he took advantage of it.”
Earlier this month versus the Hornets, Mitchell had a chance to remind Charlotte of its mistake on draft night. He put up 35 points. He’ll get the same chance tonight versus the Pistons — even if he smiles and insists it’s not extra incentive.
“Nah, I’m not really concerned about all that. It’s in the past. I’m happy where I’m at,” Mitchell said. “I’m blessed to have this opportunity, and they got a great player in Luke, who’s a friend of mine. I just want to go out there and treat it like a regular game and just play my game.”