To understand why he’s known as “Off Night,” just ask any of the typically prolific scorers at his position who couldn't find an inch of room to maneuver after Davion Mitchell practically climbed inside their jerseys and into their heads.
Or forwards towering over his head who soon discovered the 6-foot-2 menace, arguably the league’s toughest pound-for-pound player, has the strength to bump them away from their sweet spots and quick reflexes to slap the ball away from them.
He arrived on the NBA scene with a reputation as a suffocating, hyperactive stopper — the incessant type who applies pressure from the moment the opposing ballhandler crosses halfcourt, drains seconds off the shot clock and refuses to relent until the possession ends — and lived up to his billing as a future All-Defensive Teamer.
“That’s always been who I am, 100 percent,” Mitchell said. “I’m a competitive dude. Being a competitor, you always want to guard the best player and see what his skills are like.”
He’s too modest to say it in so many words, but Mitchell may as well have issued a formal warning from the moment he snapped into a defensive stance. To the league’s commanders of the crossovers, the maestros of the midrange, the czars of the step-back: beware.
But with more experience, more minutes and more opportunity with De’Aaron Fox sidelined, Mitchell took over the offensive spotlight, too, averaging 18 points and 7.4 assists in 37.1 minutes across 19 total starts, nearly a quarter of the season.
“You have to kind of step your game up,” Mitchell said. “You have to be more aggressive because you’re basically the leading scorer and you’re the guy who gets the most assists out. You have to make the plays that [Fox] made and make the shots that he made.”
Mitchell was even better during a 10-game stretch to close his first season, accumulating five straight outings with at least 20 points and seven assists; only six players, all All-Stars, had longer such streaks this season. He dropped a Sacramento-era rookie-record 17 dimes on April 5, and then dished 15 helpers with only a single turnover in the season finale.
“I’m learning to lead a little bit more, getting comfortable, knowing my role and knowing the things I have to work on,” he said. “A lot of guys get the league more easily, but there are also a lot of guys who need a couple of games or even a whole season to learn how to get adjusted to the league; I think that was kind of me. I feel like I’ve always been a good player, I can make plays and make shots. But I just had to get used to the different speeds, the [size] and the spacing, and I think that I did.”
Mitchell, a compact player with a sweet handle and launchpad hops, ranked third in assists (4.2 per game) and eighth in points (11.5) among qualified rookies overall. As a starter, he led his entire Draft class in both categories, doing so with better efficiency than the majority of his first-year peers.
And yet, as he was tasked with shouldering a larger offensive workload, there was no dropoff in his energy level and frenetic pace defensively. If it seems like Mitchell was everywhere at once, it’s because he was; no player covered more distance, according to NBA.com’s tracking data, on both offense and defense over the final 10 games.
There’s a short list of players who make life miserable for opponents on both ends of the floor – the rare, do-it-all, two-way terrors – and Mitchell, because of how he’s built physically and wired mentally, is on track to join it.
“As I’m working in the gym, I try to prepare for these moments,” he said. “I love to play defense, but when you know that you have [to run] the offense, you train for those moments.”
On March 26, in the same game he nearly triple-doubled with 22 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, Mitchell, a master at swiping the ball off an opponent's change-of-direction dribble, stripped Orlando’s Cole Anthony in the backcourt and glided for a game-tying layup in the closing seconds.
Four nights later, Mitchell finished with 24 points and eight assists in Houston, and sealed a Kings win by putting Kevin Porter Jr. in a straightjacket, mirroring his every step and not permitting a sliver of daylight for the Rockets wing to get a shot off before the final buzzer.
As the year progressed, the Georgia native, armed with a filthy first step and hesitation dribble combo, learned to slow down his moves, take what the defense gave him and play to his strengths.
Over his last 10 appearances, 36 percent of his shots came at the rim, a share that placed him in the 86th percentile at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. When his defender retreated in fear of his drives, Mitchell changed speeds and rose into a pull-up, mid-range jumper that found the bottom of the net 49 percent of the time (81st percentile).
Mitchell also made the right reads more consistently and found a balance between hunting for his own shot and leveraging the attention he commands in the paint to create scoring opportunities for his teammates; in that season-ending stretch, his assist rate (39.7) climbed into the 98th percentile.
“As fast as I am, I can get by a lot of people and I can definitely create a shot for me every single time,” he said. “But you also don’t win like that. Your teammates don’t get any touches so it makes it a lot harder for them to keep going … If I can get them open and if they can get going, it helps us in the long run.”
Mitchell’s emergence into a more complete player on both ends doesn’t come as a surprise when considering his similar progression from a scrappy reserve to one of the best college players in the nation.
A four-star prospect out of high school, who ranked no higher than 33rd by any major recruiting network, he averaged 3.7 points and 1.9 assists in 34 games, all off the bench, as a freshman at Auburn. He transferred to Baylor, and after working tirelessly on his game during a redshirt year, became a steady role player as a sophomore (9.9 points and 3.8 assists) and an all-conference standout as a junior.
Although he averaged 14 points on 51-percent shooting (44.7 from three) and led the Big 12 in assists (5.5), Mitchell was still regarded less for his burgeoning offense than his suffocating on-ball defense heading into the Draft.
He didn’t have to wait long for his welcome-to-the NBA moment. By virtue of the schedule, the No. 9 overall pick was tasked with the type of cruel NBA initiation rarely asked of a rookie: lock up, stay in front of, slow down, do whatever it takes to extinguish three of the fiercest flamethrowers on the planet in Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Stephen Curry.
He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“It’s fun, because those guys are really good,” the Sacramento draftee said. “They make you work on the defensive end and I love defense. You kind of match up to their games a little bit. They’re all different players, they have three different games, but they’re all really good at what they do. They give you three different looks; things that you know you have to work on or things I’m going to keep seeing, so it kind of prepared me for my first year, even for next season.”
Because of his foot speed, reaction time and lateral mobility, Mitchell would’ve likely passed the test. Because of his preparation, he aced it.
“I watch film, definitely, of the guys I guard,” he said. “As far as a guy like Dame, you look at the different moves he goes to or what spots he likes. It’s also the flow of the game; like if you need a bucket, what shots or what moves he gets to.”
With Mitchell as the primary defender, the All-Star trio, off balance and out of sync on many possessions, combined to make only 6-of-18 from the field, committed two turnovers and drew a single shooting foul in 12 minutes, according to NBA.com. When Utah’s Donovan Mitchell (no relation) challenged the rookie on a drive to the basket, Davion stayed with him, held his ground and then snatched the ball out of his hands to ignite a fastbreak.
“He is as advertised,” Donovan Mitchell said after the game. “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.”
Sacramento’s No. 15 stalled and wrecked many an offensive game plan throughout the year, and accumulated enough defensive highlights as a rookie to fill up an hour-long mixtape.
Like a shadow on his foe, moving in almost perfect synchronization with him – sometimes, even a fraction of a step ahead – the Baylor product made it practically impossible to create separation when isolated on Mitchell Island. In those situations, he allowed only 0.73 points per possession (79th percentile, per Synergy Sports) and forced opponents to cough up the ball nearly a quarter of the time.
Mitchell, relentlessly wedging through screens and sliding into position, was just as effective in pick-and-roll coverage, holding ballhandlers to 0.78 PPP (76th percentile). Among players who defended at least 300 possessions, only Utah’s Mike Conley was more successful.
“I try to just make the right play; stop my man from scoring, from getting in the paint or making a play,” Mitchell said. “It’s not a particular thing, like, Oh, I’m going to get this amount of steals. I don’t work like that. I try to stay solid and just stay in front of the best guy who has the ball.”
The Kings rookie spent roughly three-quarters of his time defending guards, who made only 40.6 percent of their field goal attempts against him. Overall, opponents shot two percent worse when Mitchell was the primary defender, the eighth-best variance among 105 players at his position who contested at least 500 shots.
With Mitchell on the floor, opposing teams scored 4.9 fewer points per 100 possessions; according to CTG, that differential ranked in the 85th percentile.
"It doesn't surprise me,” said former Kings head coach Alvin Gentry, “but for him to be a rookie and to be able to do some of the things that he can do defensively has been a real, real plus to us.”
Mitchell never takes an off night defensively, but he knows his offense, despite his strong finish, is what needs to be “on” more consistently heading into next season.
Because his effective field goal percentage (47.9) and three-point accuracy (32) placed in the 32nd and 31st percentile, respectively, teams still dared him to beat them from long distance. Overall, Mitchell scored less than one point per shot attempt, per CTG, a mark that placed him bottom quarter for combo guards.
It won’t happen overnight, but the Kings guard, addicted to the gym and dedicated to improvement, intends to rewrite scouting reports that peg him as a streaky outside threat.
“[I’m working on] being a more consistent shooter,” Mitchell said. “I’ll take what [defenses] thought my weaknesses were … and make them things that they have to cover now. They can’t keep going under every ball screen just because they want you to shoot the ball. Now, they’ll have to go over every ball screen because you can shoot the ball.”
Becoming more reliable on catch-and-shoot looks and coming off screens will be paramount as he and Fox learn how to play together. A more diverse perimeter game, Mitchell says, will blend well with Fox's biggest strengths: getting downhill and collapsing the defense.
The lineup data was limited, but the potential was evident in a win against Minnesota on Feb. 9. Mitchell, in his first game with both Fox and newcomer Domantas Sabonis, not only held his matchups to 3-of-9 shooting, but finished with 18 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
“I think as we play more together, we’ll get more comfortable,” Mitchell said. “Of course, it’s going to take some time … I just think a lot of people just expect [us] to be like CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard [immediately], but you can’t be like that. Those guys had years together and they complemented each other because they played with each other so much.
“Over time, we’re going to know what shots we can get to, our favorite spots, when to find your teammates – things like that. It’s going to eventually work out.”