After a freshman season that had seen him play a limited role behind veteran guards like Damion Lee, Trey Lewis and Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell made his name to known to every NBA scout in the world over the summer.
Mitchell received an invitation to the prestigious Adidas Nations, an event which brings the world's top high school and college basketball talent to Los Angeles for three days of fierce competition. For those three days, the Cardinal standout wowed the scouts and media members in attendance with not just his performances in the games, but with his work ethic after hours. Each night, Mitchell was the last player remaining in the gym, working by himself to improve an outside shot that existed as the biggest roadblock on his path to the NBA.
Sam Vecenie, who covers the NBA Draft for The Sporting News, went so far as to call Mitchell the "most impressive overall performer" at the camp, and predicted that the sophomore's upcoming season at Louisville would be his last. Vecenie wasn't alone in that stance, as prophecies of a "breakout" sophomore year for the man who is known in the UofL locker room as "Spider" began to flow in from across the country.
The the 2016-17 season began, and Mitchell's name began to pop up less frequently on Google News. The main reason was that the outside shot Mitchell had worked so hard on improving during the offseason was misfiring at a rate that was even higher than the one Cardinal fans had seen the year before.
"Donovan Mitchell has been good, but we need him to be great," Rick Pitino said on 93.9 The Ville in December. "Everyone's giving him the benefit of the doubt because of the way he played at the Adidas camp over the summer, but he hasn't given us one true great performance yet this year. Not one."
That changed in January.
When Quentin Snider went down with a strained hip flexor during Louisville's Jan. 14 win over Duke, Mitchell was thrust into a now or never situation. The "now" was that he upped his scoring load with Snider sidelined and helped Louisville avoid a catastrophic stretch that could tank its chances of being a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. The "never" was that he continued his season-long shooting slump and UofL would lose all of the positive momentum that it had picked up during the non-conference portion of its campaign.
Mitchell went with the former option.
Over Louisville's last eight games, four of which have been played without Snider, Mitchell is averaging staggering totals of 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds. 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals, and is shooting 46.2 percent from behind the three-point line on 7.2 attempts per game. The Cardinals have gone 6-2 over that stretch, and have wins over Indiana and Duke. With Mitchell leading the offensive charge, UofL's last three victories -- over Pittsburgh, Clemson and NC State -- have come by an outrageous combined total of 112 points.
After scoring 29 points in Louisville's 55-point blowout of Pittsburgh and 28 in its 25-point thrashing of NC State, Mitchell found himself named both the ACC and the NCAA's Player of the Week. According to his head coach, the accolades are a direct result of him playing the position where he's the most comfortable.
"The point guard is his natural position," Pitino said. "He's very good off pick and rolls, he sees the floor very well. You always look for a silver lining in any injury, and he's got a chance to work at that, which I think will pay a huge dividend down the road. Donovan's really on a roll right now."
Snider will return soon, and he will re-assume his role as the team's primary ballhandler. Even so, Mitchell has proven himself capable of running the show, giving Louisville multiple point guards in its starting lineup. It's a characteristic that Pitino loves to have on his teams, and one which can be found on 13 of the last 14 teams to win a national championship.
If Mitchell keeps it rolling, the Cardinals have as good a shot as anyone in the country to continue that trend on the first Monday of April.
A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice Tribune