Davion Mitchell—a man who from Georgia, who left a college in Alabama, to end up a potential All-American on a team in the heart of Texas—pulls out an iPad to log into Zoom and discuss his season and development with me while I sit at a desk in Kansas City.
Mitchell sports a Band-Aid across his cheek. He tells me, “Yesterday I was playing with my dog, and I got bit by my dog. I was playing with him, and I guess he got too happy and bit me in my face. I got a little cut in my face.”
Perhaps Mitchell’s dog has provided a clue into how to defend him. Already one of the country’s best defenders—and perhaps “one of” is an unnecessary modifier—entering the season, Mitchell’s offensive development might be shocking after his first two collegiate season. But this season, nobody can stop Mitchell. Well, at least nobody precluded from biting him.
During Big 12 play, he leads the conference in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. In 13 fewer games, he’s made more threes than he did all of last season. And he’s shooting 49% from beyond the arc, which is over 15 percent higher than last year.
To those that have worked closely with Mitchell, this was inevitable. Matt Gray, one of Baylor’s graduate assistants, told me, “We went to a Dallas Mavericks game last year...by the time we got back to Waco, it was like 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. Davion wanted to get back into the gym and get shots up. He’s one of those guys where we have to tell him to go stretch and get in the ice tub. He’s going to keep getting them (shots) up.”
Every person I’ve talked to around the Baylor program raves about Mitchell’s work ethic. Obim Okeke, a graduate assistant and former teammate of Mitchell’s mentioned to me, “He doesn’t do anything crazy. All he does is play video games or to go the gym. That’s all he does. What more could you want from a guy? He never parties.”
After a solid sophomore campaign, Mitchell had a choice about the NBA Draft. He could go through the process and get feedback and see if a team might buy that he’d shoot better in the NBA than he had as a sophomore. But Michell says, “First, I just wanted to be able to finish the season out, and I felt like I wasn’t ready. I could have shown more. I had more to prove. I’m as good of an offensive player as a defensive player. I wanted to showcase the next year...I got some feedback on things to work on, and got some (work) in the quarantine and it paid off.”
During quarantine, Mitchell went crazy working. Jake McGee, a graduate assistant, let me know, “Over the summer when we were really having to scramble for gym time and find one anywhere we could, it was me, Rem (Bakamus, a graduate assistant), Davion, Jon (Tchamwa Tchatchoua), Jordan Turner and Adam Flagler were the people in Waco. We were having to scrounge the city for a gym the city could let us in and also be safe and not be in danger of contracting the virus. Rem would rebound and help Davion however he needed to be helped for a workout.”
After those workouts, McGee says, “Davion and Jon would play the most relentless one on one games I’d see in person. Davion would be on all-time offense and make Jon switch at him and go at Jon’s head for 15-20 minutes...They’d go to the mid-post and Davion would have to defend 6-9, 240 (pound) Jon in the mid-post; they did that all of June and July for every workout. I just think that, number one, I can’t imagine, having played myself, I never had a teammate who would do that and force me to get better like that. It’s just awesome to watch them force themselves to get better every day.”
Bakamus is a third year graduate student at Baylor and played some at Gonzaga (he told me that, “played some is generous”). Bakamus says, “His redshirt year, it was obviously big in his development to shoot the ball off the bounce and off the catch at a high level and thousands and thousands of reps and small tweaks (mattered).” He credits Mitchell for “putting in the work studying film.”
While working with the staff, Mitchell made a few changes to his 3-point shot. I brought up that last year the ball seemed to sometimes get too close to his head, and he says, “When I’m working out, I notice sometimes the ball hits my head, and that’s when I miss. Every time I don’t hit the ball with my head, I feel more comfortable. I don’t notice it in the game, but I notice it when I’m working out...” Here’s an example of Mitchell keeping the ball a little too close to his head last season:
In these two off the bounce threes this season, you can tell Mitchell keeps a bit more space between his head and the ball:
He also focused on a reproducible form where his hand and ball rotation stayed consistent. He says he watched a lot of film of Steph Curry this summer. While Mitchell uses a different form, he focused on Curry and “how he was holding the ball and what fingers he was holding when he shot it. I like how he holds the ball. I was holding the ball wrong. My fingertips weren’t on it. My palm was on it.” And that led to a small problem for him. Gray says, “His guide hand used to flare out a bit.”
A few weeks ago, Bakamus says, “I had a memory pop up on my camera roll and it happened to be Davion shooting. (He made) the smallest of tweaks that he wanted to see on video; footwork, being on balance and landing on two feet, and his follow-through with good backspin.” Even when he has limited space, Mitchell’s done an excellent job landing on two feet this season:
It’s not surprising that the practice played off for Mitchell. Some of his best moments come from the team’s meticulous work. He says, “Those lobs to Jon in the Illinois game were unique. We worked on it in practice everyday, and we run that same exact thing over and over, and (to) see it happen in a game was really crazy because it was so easy because we worked on it in practice so much, and we work on it so much all the time.”
If you listen to the audio on that second lob, you can hear Mitchell start shouting. When I covered Baylor-Kansas State in Manhattan, I heard Mitchell make a similar noise calling for the ball:
After a recent Big 12 game, I asked him about how he calls for the ball. Most people shout someone’s name or say “ball”. Or in the case of Matt Mayer, clap for the ball. When I asked Mitchell about the sound he makes to call for the ball, he seemed completely perplexed. Mitchell says, “I didn’t even notice until you asked the question.”
After I asked him this time, Mitchell says, “I definitely know what you’re talking about. I watched the film and you can hear me say, “wo,” “wo.” I didn’t notice that until I started listening with the film, and I normally don’t listen to the sound...Coach Drew tells us to yell names if wide open; I just try to make a noise so they hear I’m wide open.”
That perspective leads to a key point about basketball and life. We like to assume that every time we’re breaking something down that the other person is conscience of everything they’re doing. But in the moment we make decisions, we’re generally not breaking down every thing we do. Sometimes we’re immersed in what we’re doing and tuning out the noise.
But that means we’re doing something spectacular that comes from reacting to new situations. Mitchell had no idea how he called for the ball. He’s so into the game that he didn’t understand how he calls for the ball; something he’s done thousands of times. His call is one that everyone I talked to for this article knew about, but the man himself didn’t.
Fortunately, it works. Mitchell’s subconscious helps him; his monosyllabic holler is quicker than screaming a name. In a moment, anyone with the ball has their attention drawn by Mitchell’s call. Sure, he sounds like a contestant that will not be going to Hollywood on “American Idol.” But that sound gets Mitchell expeditious passes and he correctly notes, “Your teammates are reacting like, ‘What’s that noise’ and react and see you’re wide open.”
A lot of Mitchell’s shooting improvement is due to confidence. As Jared Butler told me, “We told him keep shooting.” Bakamus says that last year, “I know his numbers didn’t say that...we were in there a good amount of times and we were seeing him make 75, 80 threes out of 100.” Despite that success in practice during his redshirt year and last season, Okeke says, “last year if he didn’t make a shot, he wouldn’t shoot.”
That’s changed this season. Mitchell says, “It was just a confidence thing. I had to get more confident in my shot. I am shooting more, and I feel like it’s going in because I’m confident.” In his final 13 games last season, he never attempted more than five threes; strong evidence for Okeke’s view that Mitchell would stop shooting when he missed. Eleven times he shot fewer than five triples last season. But over the Bears’ last six games this year, he’s shot at least five triples on five occasions, including 22 attempts in Baylor’s last three contests.
Even with a rough start from three to begin conference play, Mitchell kept shooting. During the first three Big 12 games, he went 0-for-12 from deep. But this year is different. He says, “I wasn’t really too worried about it. Everyone’s going to have those slump days and slump games. I had to keep working on it and stay confident tin myself. It wasn’t really a big deal to me. I’m just going to keep shooting and doing the same things I was doing.”
After that 0-12 start in Big 12 play, Mitchell has hit at least 50% of his threes in 5-of-6 games.
He’s also become a much better passer this year. Against tier “A” opponents on KenPom—which are the best games—he’s assisting on 25% of possessions this season, compared to 18% last year.
With the Bears down at halftime against Oklahoma State, Mitchell did a nice job breaking down Oklahoma State’s zone and finding Butler—who was hot from three. Mitchell says bounce passing was, “one of the things we worked on the practices before. We knew they were going to go zone and were really long. We worked on ‘bounce passes are going to be wide open.’ Especially as you get into the zone because their hands are going to be so high.” Between bounce passes and a variety of other dimes, Mitchell finished with nine assists. The Bears left Stillwater with an easy victory:
Figuring out causality is difficult. When you examine two numbers and see both going up, is one acting on the other, or are they totally independent? Mitchell’s shooting better from three but also at the rim. Maybe he has more space to work near the rim because defenders respect his shot. Maybe he’s shooting better because opponents are afraid when he reaches the rim and playing off of him some. Or maybe he’s just improved as a multi-level scorer. Figuring out why Mitchell’s so much better scoring near the hoop is a fun debate. But there’s no argument that he’s a lot better finishing this season. Per hoop-math, Mitchell is making 72.5% of his shots near the basket. That’s over 12% higher than last year. It’s also easily the best mark ever for a Baylor guard.
Mitchell’s quick to credit his big men for that jump. He says, “Last year we weren’t really sealing as much. Flo and Jon do a great job; it’s an easy lane for me. Instead of two people coming to contest, it’s usually no one or one person...we get wide open layups and bigs play a big part of these percentages.”
I’d also credit Michell’s ability to go left. As a right handed guard, most guys would prefer to drive with their dominant hand. The Bears used to open games with a clear-out play where Mitchell would drive left. As teams scouted that, the Bears stopped opening every game with that set. But they still look for chances to get Mitchell going left. He says, “I just always enjoy going left. Me being able to go both ways makes it hard to send me one way...usually right handed people, they send them left. I love it because I finish with my left as well as my right, and I think it’s a good thing to be able to go both ways.”
In the last two Big 12 games before a COVID-19 pause, Mitchell’s exploded. He finished with 29 points on 7-of-9 shooting from three against Kansas State. That helped Mitchell earn Big 12 Player of the Week honors. He’s also made the Naismith Watchlist for the top 30 players in the country.
If anyone expected a drop-off, the Texas game proved that expectations aren’t reality. Displaying those skills that make him a good rim scorer, Mitchell made a reverse layup against Andrew Jones. I thought maybe it was just easier for Mitchell to lay it up without reversing, but I have a vertical leap that proves the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” has an accurate title. So Mitchell told me, “I think the angle I was at, I had to go reverse; he probably would have blocked it, or it would have been a harder shot to take; it was like the perfect angle for a reverse layup, and I knew I already had the step on him. And he was either going to foul me, or I was going to make that layup like I did.”
In the second half, Mitchell stopped immediately to hit a 2-point jumper. Not long after, he found himself in the air with the Longhorns turning their heads to focus on him like a performer on 6th Street can only hope their act elicits. Mitchell says, “If I shot it, it was going to be a really good contest. I should have stayed on my feet. I was looking to pull. When I went to the middle of the lane, people are looking at me...I hit Adam (Flagler) a lot on those slide threes, so he knew it was coming; he was all ready for the shot and is always shot ready.”
After this incredible start, Mitchell is earning plenty of accolades. He appears on just about every 2021 NBA Draft board, including as a first round pick on ESPN’s mock. If the season ended today, he’d easily earn First Team All-Big 12 honors. The only thing that will stop him from making a first or second team All-American list is if an outlet foregoes naming two Baylor players.
He should keep getting better too. He wants to get to the free throw line more and reduce his turnovers. Improving in those areas shouldn’t be a problem, given his work ethic and natural ability. He came to Baylor a phenomenal defender—earning the moniker “off night” from Baylor Associate Head Coach Jerome Tang because all the guys he guards seem to have an off night. But he’ll leave as one of the top five players in the last 20 years of Baylor basketball because of how he’s improved offensively.
It will be fun to see just how much Mitchell can keep improving, and where that takes him this season and eventually in the NBA.
One more story explains why I’m not betting against him reaching incredible heights. Bakamus told me, “I got him a Kobe Bryant book last year; it kind of backfired on me because now he wants to send me quotes about Kobe at random times of the day. And he’ll open up a page and want to get in the gym instantly, and he doesn’t want to take days off because Kobe didn’t take days off.”