Today, in grassroots basketball's historically most publicized era, sleepers still happen. A guy shows up at a camp or tournament, turns heads and blows up. It doesn't happen as frequently as it did in the past, when a Tracy McGrady could emerge at the old ABCD Camp in the 1990s, but it does still happen.
What's far more rare, however, is a guy who's already well-exposed suddenly blowing up. And that's why the Donovan Mitchell story has proved unique.
Mitchell suited up for Brewster Academy last season and played at national events, drawing high-major interest in the process. So, nothing unusual about that. But he generally rated as a high-major minus type prospect, the sort of player coaches have to evaluate on multiple occasions before they feel comfortable offering a scholarship.
But after Mitchell dominated at sequential events this past July — the Reebok Breakout Classic, Under Armour Association Finals and the Fab 48 — college coaches hardly could offer quickly enough.
Mitchell rewarded his long-time suitors by maintaining a list of stalwart finalists heading toward decision day, and now he projects as one of the country's best freshmen for the 2015-16 season.
One look at Mitchell and you'd likely guess he's an athlete, but it may be unclear for which sport. He boasts a powerful frame, long arms and huge hands that suggests football as well as basketball, but he's a true natural on the hardwood and there's no suspense about whether that's an ideal fit.
He not only is strong, he plays strong. Mitchell competes with a physical presence similar to that of former Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart, albeit he's a couple inches shorter and the comparison breaks apart after that. Still, it's worth mentioning because Smart played with a highly aggressive, bullying style for a wing, and Mitchell certainly does as well.
Mitchell is a ferocious scorer who loves to burst toward the rim in a straight line, daring opponents to take a charge. One of my favorite plays this past summer was a fast break in which Mitchell rushed toward a defender who had an angle toward beating him to the spot, but then hip checked his opponent to knock him off balance and used the bounce-back from the hip check to plant, then explode for a huge slam. That was NBA caliber strength, athleticism and technique.
|Mitchell's game has become multi-faceted|
But for all his excellence on drives, shooting is the area Mitchell enhanced most to become such a hot commodity. He buried repeated long threes during summer games and proved he can knock them down even when contested, and he uses a stepback well to create space.
Albeit a scorer more than a playmaker, and definitely a wing and not a combo guard, Mitchell also is a fine passer who understands his value as a decoy.
On defense, he's one of the most conscientious and punishing ballhawks in the senior class. He loves to get physical with opposing ballhandlers and is a battering ram as he punctures on- and off-ball screens.
His winning style is easily evident as well, and there's no reason to think he'll need an extended period to adjust to the college game.
There's always a certain air of mystery that surrounds late bloomers, and it's not unfair to wonder if Mitchell enjoyed an uncharacteristic hot streak as a shooter. The new and improved Mitchell existed for all of one month, so will he maintain the pace through his senior season and into college?
Meanwhile, he has long arms but isn't particularly tall for the wing at 6-3. That may not matter a whit in college, but it's something to keep in mind when assessing his long-range potential.
All in all, Mitchell might become one of the country's most effective college freshmen in 2015-16. Yes, coaches and scouts have vetted him less than other blue-chip prospects, but in my view there's a greater risk that everyone will underrate him heading into college.
But if he keeps playing at his July level, look for that mistake to get corrected next spring.