There might not be any more basketball to be played in the 2016-17 season, but that doesn't mean Louisville fans don't have some anxious weeks in front of them.
Returning at least six of the top eight scorers from a Cardinal team that won 25 games and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, UofL seems poised to begin its 2017-18 campaign ranked somewhere in the top 10. One of those two players not returning to campus is senior Mangok Mathiang, who is (after seemingly spending the better part of three decades suiting up for Rick Pitino) out of eligibility. The other is Donovan Mitchell, whose immediate future is less certain.
Mitchell was the quintessential breakout sophomore star this year. He upped all his averages after spending most of his freshman season as a role player, and after an especially strong performance during conference play, wound up being named First Team All-ACC. That increase in production, plus Mitchell's off-the chart athleticism, has understandably caught the eye of more than a few NBA scouts and executives.
It wasn't a shock to hear Mitchell declare himself eligible for the NBA Draft last week, especially since the declaration doesn't mean nearly as much as it did five or 10 years ago. Players now have the ability to declare as many times as they want, workout for teams or participate at the draft combine if they're invited, and still return to college. It's why fellow Cardinals Deng Adel and Jaylen Johnson also declared themselves eligible, and it's why all three of these guys could theoretically be going through the same process 12 months from now.
Out of the three players, Mitchell is the only one who may have legitimately played his last game for Louisville. While Pitino thinks his star guard is more likely than not to return, he's also aware that it's not a certainty.
"Donovan's problem is that this is a very strong draft, and it's especially strong at the point guard position, which is where he'll play the next level," Pitino said. "If Donovan gets picked late in the first round when he could have come back and played himself into a position where he could be picked ninth or 12th next year, then he will have cost himself millions of dollars. Now if he goes through this process and he's being projected somewhere between 13th and 20th, then it's something that we'll have to sit down and have a conversation about."
Mitchell's improvement from one year to the next is eerily reminiscent of another recent Louisville guard with a little bounce, Terry Rozier. Pegged by most experts as a fringe first round pick when he declared himself eligible for the draft, Rozier wowed the people who matter in the NBA with his performances at the combine and in private workouts, and wound up being selected 16th overall by the Boston Celtics.
With the two players being so comparable in demeanor and skill-set, it's easy to see Mitchell mimicking Rozier's draft success if he did choose to come out after his sophomore season. Having said that, there's also the possibility that an unforeseen sequence of events could leave Mitchell in the nightmarish situation of not hearing his name called until some time in the second round.
NBA Draft experts seem torn on Mitchell. In the latest mock drafts put out by the major sports networks, Mitchell is predicted to go as high as pick 13 and as low as pick 28. It's a large divide that may be more about the draft than it is the player.
"People keep referring to this as an extremely strong draft, and that's true at the top," said Sam Vecenie of The Sporting News. "The thing is when you get past the first 10 picks or so, it's really wide open. You've got a lot of comparably skilled guys and also a lot of wildcard players in that range. That's why it's so hard to predict where a guy like Donovan Mitchell is going to go right now."
With or without Mitchell, Louisville is going to be very good next season. Their chances of being great, however, may hinge on the next few weeks.
A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune