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Donovan Mitchell Is a Point Guard Prospect of These Strange NBA Times

Ten years ago, teams would’ve tried to put him in a box. Now, the explosive defender will likely be given a chance to become the best version of himself — a decidedly nontraditional player.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Position labels aren’t going anywhere. No matter how outdated they are relative to how we conceive of the league today, they still serve as guidelines that make it easy to understand who and what a player generally is.

Here’s the definition that pops up when you search "point guard" on Google: "The backcourt player who directs the team’s offense." That’s a fair description of the role, but it has a blind spot. For instance, where does 2017 NBA draft "point guard" prospect Donovan Mitchell fit in? Here’s my full scouting report on Mitchell from The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide, which can be viewed by visiting nbadraft.theringer.com or by clicking the image below.

The team that drafts Mitchell needs to project his development through the lens of his specific set of talents, rather than through the lens of a traditional point guard. Google’s definition of a point guard falls flat defining who Mitchell is, because he isn’t and will never be a pure passer. The only reason this is even a conversation is because of Mitchell’s height. If he were just a few inches taller, he might not even receive a guard label at all. He’d be viewed as a wing or a forward who happens to have some playmaking upside. At 6-foot-3, we may subconsciously apply the old standard when what Mitchell could actually become is an enhanced version of his current state: a ruthless, versatile defender who can serve as a shot-maker and pass a little bit.

The parameters for what makes a point guard need to be redefined for each individual prospect, especially in a draft class like this one. Each player is unique. The standard that applies to Lonzo Ball doesn’t fit Dennis Smith Jr., just as the Smith standard doesn’t fit Mitchell. Plug Mitchell into a team that asks him to serve as one of multiple playmakers and his "weakness" for creating and passing is suddenly minimized.

Mitchell’s best skill is his defense. He can hound opposing point guards like he does in the clip above and he’s also long enough (6-foot-10 wingspan) with a bulky frame to switch onto larger wings. Many defenses employ a switching style, particularly late in games, which makes it crucial that he’s able to contain bigger players. "The more important thing is [on defense] … being able to guard guys as quick as [Russell] Westbrook [and the] same size as Klay Thompson," Mitchell said after a predraft workout with the Jazz. "I think I can do both, and that’s where it starts."

Defense can serve as a baseline for Mitchell’s development, which should make him an appealing choice for any team drafting outside of the top eight. His aptitude on that end of the floor is enough for him to make at least some level of impact over many years in the league. Offensively, at the least, Mitchell can spot up and drain 3s, giving him 3-and-D upside:

If the year were 2007, and I asked you what Mitchell needs to do to make the leap from role player to starter to star, your responses would invariably mention his passing. He would need to improve his court vision since he commits too many careless errors, misses open teammates, and forces too many shots early in the clock. A point guard needs to be able to facilitate, right?

Mitchell’s scouting report isn’t all that different from the one for Marcus Banks, an undersized 2-guard drafted in 2003 who defended ferociously but lacked pure point guard skills. Banks flamed out after playing for five teams in eight years. Maybe things would’ve been different had Banks entered the NBA in 2017. Like Banks, Mitchell isn’t a point guard in the traditional sense, but times have changed, and so has the answer to my question. While it’s important that Mitchell improve his passing, sophisticating his scoring ability is what can take his game to new heights.

Mitchell’s dribble with his left hand is loose-goosey, and he tends to always try to go back to his right. Adding more diverse ballhandling moves on top of his basic template would allow him to more effectively get by NBA-caliber defenders like Harry Giles. Mitchell shows flashes, springing through the defense and then scoring athletically at the rim:

Mitchell looks great here, but finishing at the rim isn’t always so easy for him. He’s not as explosive leaping off of one foot as he is off of two, and he’s struggled scoring against length. Mitchell shot just 55.9 percent within five feet of the rim, per Chart Side. He knows it’s a weakness, and that knowledge is the first step to making improvements. Mitchell told me at the NBA combine that the "length and recovery of the defense" will be the toughest adjustment for him in the NBA; he’s working out with Oregon big man Jordan Bell, who was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in March, and Bell was blocking every shot during their early workouts. But that experience is helping him get adjusted. "Everybody in the NBA is just like that. Everybody in the NBA is [long and athletic]," Mitchell said. "Being able to play against … 7-footers with 7-foot-7 wingspans in the paint [means] working on floaters and getting space."

Mitchell’s shot-making potential, on top of his spot-up shooting and defensive ability, is ultimately why I have him ranked 11th on my board. I often ask myself why he’s not higher while watching moments like this:

Mitchell has clean footwork on step-backs and pull-ups, and features compact jumper mechanics with high elevation. If Mitchell adds more advanced dribbling moves, it could become even easier for him to score off the bounce, which will be the key to how Mitchell projects to play the point guard position. Mitchell might not have Lonzo Ball’s X-ray court vision, but if he improves his ability to break down a defense with his dribble, he can create opportunities for his teammates through penetration, rather than passing his teammates open like Lonzo. There are multiple ways to get to the same destination in different shapes and styles.

Mitchell checks a lot of boxes, yet he’s anything but a consensus lottery pick. If I were to place a bet on the annual draft steal from the 11 to 17 range, I’m putting it on Mitchell. If he learns how to direct his team’s offense, it’ll be icing on the point guard cake.