The Western Conference is treacherous, especially for a rookie guard looking to break into the league.
Each night is a new challenge, which Kings first round pick Davion Mitchell is learning. In the span of five days, he’s gone up against some of the greatest scorers in the game and held his own each and every contest.
The Kings’ newest addition earned fourth quarter minutes against Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Portland Trail Blazers in the season opener. He even helped the Kings come away with a rare win at the Moda Center.
In game two, the Kings faded down the stretch against the Utah Jazz, but Mitchell made the highlight reel of every sports show for his defense on Donovan Mitchell.
“It really starts with Davion on the defensive end,” Donovan Mitchell said after the game. “I think it’s one of those things where, you know, first off, he is as advertised. He’s physical. He’s quick. He does a lot of solid things defensively that disrupted not only myself, but a lot of us. He set the tone defensively. He got the crowd involved. Everybody calls him ‘Off Night’ and they feed off of that.”
While Mitchell’s nickname is “Off Night,” he’s quickly learning that there is no such thing in the NBA.
In game three, the competition only got more difficult. Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter the game has ever known and his approach is extremely unique. He does an incredible amount of damage by constantly staying in motion, which is something that Mitchell has never encountered before.
The list is enough to make your head spin - Lillard, McCollum, Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Curry and Jordan Poole are all big time scorers, but who was the toughest cover? According to Mitchell, it’s Curry.
“He can really play the game of basketball off the ball,” Mitchell said Sunday following the Kings’ loss to the Warriors. “He’s always moving, setting great screens, cutting, making layups, getting his teammates open. So I think Steph Curry.”
In his first three games, Kings rookie Davion Mitchell has played against Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Stephen Curry and Jordan Clarkson (and others). Steph was the toughest. Next up, Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA)
Oct 25, 2021
This is what guards face in the West. Every night is baptism by fire. Every game is a new opportunity to learn, improve and also, potentially get embarrassed.
The Kings selected Mitchell with the ninth overall pick with the thought that he could help balance out the scales slightly with his defensive prowess. Three games in and he’s held his own against some of the best guards in the game.
“He has a knack for on ball presence and obviously, the way we play, you’ve got to do both, so I’m sure he felt a little bit of that,” Curry said. “But just the confidence of the guy coming in, this is his third in the league, like, he has a lot of room to grow, but you could definitely tell he has all the tools in the kit to be a defensive stopper. He’s just a pest out there in the best of ways.”
In addition to chasing Curry all over the floor, Mitchell posted a career-high 22 points against the Warriors. It’s not something that should be expected every game, but he flashed his confidence, long range shooting and his ability to take advantage of mismatches.
“I think all that hype about his defense, that man was an offensive assassin tonight, I’m sure he had that in the tank,” Curry said.
Out of the nine players seeing rotational minutes, Mitchell looks like the seventh or eighth option in Sacramento. That might not be the case if he can continue to stay in attack mode.
The Kings have scoring depth up and down the roster, but his teammates have confidence in him and continue to press him to be aggressive.
“He’s playing great on both sides of the ball,” Harrison Barnes said. “Defensively he’s getting more recognition, but offensively, he’s been great throughout camp and into the season.”
This was the trend we saw from Mitchell during the California Classic and Las Vegas Summer League. First he played defense. Then he decided to show off as a scorer. Finally, he showed the complete package by playing defense, scoring and creating for others.
It will be a process, but Mitchell is learning on the fly and he’s using every piece of information at his hands to try and get an advantage. He is known for his work ethic, but he’s also become a sponge in the film room.
“You’ve got to do a lot of film study, especially because these guys are really good,”
Mitchell said. “You’ve got to try to take away things that they like to do and slow them down a little bit, but it’s hard. The NBA’s a really good league. I play someone every single night. I’m looking forward to it.”
You can learn a lot from film. You can improve in practice and there is plenty that you can glean from conversations with teammates and coaches. But he’s getting the best on the job training you could possibly imagine, which will help speed up his overall development.
“He’s getting to play against all different types of guys and what’s great about Davion is he studies the game,” coach Luke Walton said. “He’s in there watching film on individuals. And film is great, but really playing against people is the best way to learn. All of these are great opportunities for him and he’s really helped us embrace the style of defense we want to play, so we’re thrilled with what he’s giving us so far.”
As much as De’Aaron Fox’s speed stood out during his rookie season or Tyrese Haliburton’s composure last season, Mitchell’s ability to not only blanket his opponent, but energize his teammates on the defensive end makes him a game-changer.
The Kings have raved about the competition level behind the scenes and Mitchell is a huge part of that. Haliburton calls it “iron sharpening iron,” but the fact that the Kings have a strong grouping of guards, all with different skill sets, and they all have to play against each other in practice is a good thing.
“I think he’s the best on-ball defender in the league,” Buddy Hield said. “The way he hawks the ball is different. His lateral movement. The way he closes out is different. It’s just a special gift he has, a special knack he has. He’s always on time. He’s aggressive and I think he sets the tone for this team.”
Buddy Hield on Davion Mitchell’s on-ball defense:
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA)
Oct 23, 2021
Being a great individual defender isn’t enough. Mitchell has to drag his teammates along for the ride if he hopes to impact a historically bad defense from last season. That might be a bigger challenge than chasing Curry through four screens.
The plan is to continue to feed Mitchell minutes as he carves out a niche in the Kings’ rotation. He’s making Walton’s job extremely easy by making a noticeable impact every time he steps on the court.
It’s almost as if the NBA schedule is set up to give Mitchell a sample of the best the league has to offer. While the Kings are just 1-2 in the first three games, the long term development of players is crucial and he’s getting a really good taste of what to expect night in and night out.
After running up against All-Stars, a former MVP and last season’s Sixth Man of the Year, he’ll see future Hall of Famer Chris Paul and his sharpshooting backcourt mate, All-Star Devin Booker on Wednesday. It will not get easier as the season drags on.
The early returns are impressive. Mitchell is gaining confidence and showing more of his game every time out. He’ll hang his hat on the defensive end, but there is a lot more to this rookie and the league is taking notice.
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