Trivia time: Since the calendar flipped to 2017, who has been the best player in the ACC?
No, it’s not the sharp-shooting Luke Kennard; nor is it one of the league’s hotshot freshmen, like Dennis Smith Jr. This distinction belongs to Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell, who has scorched the earth since conference play started.
Below is a look at Mitchell’s numbers over the last eight games. In four of those contests, Louisville has been sans starting point Quentin Snider, who injured his hip against Duke.
19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds. 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 46.2 3P% (7.2 attempts per game)
The Cardinals have gone 6-2 over that stretch, including wins over Indiana, Duke and, most recently, NC State. Mitchell was unconscious against the Wolfpack on Sunday, which followed another sizzling performance against Pittsburgh, when he scored a career-high 29 points. In his last two games, Mitchell has scored 57 points on a combined 30 field-goal attempts, including 12 three-pointers. Against the Wolfpack, Mitchell ripped off 11 points (on four attempts) in the first three minutes and 25 seconds of the game.
Mitchell has been described in this space before as “the ACC’s Russell Westbrook” because he’s capable of doing stuff like this:
Few players in the country can match this blend of explosion and newfound efficiency; Rick Pitinto has asked him to do more as a sophomore, and Mitchell, who is playing more minutes and using more possessions, has delivered.
Louisville has a dearth of perimeter shooting; however, a tighter-spaced court hasn’t halted Mitchell’s pick-and-roll efficiency. According to Synergy Sports, Mitchell shoots 43 percent and scores 0.96 points per possessions as a ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, which ranks No. 10 in the ACC. That’s better than both Dennis Smith Jr. (0.83) and Joel Berry (0.82). He’s one of only 11 players in the conference to score better than 0.95 points per possession out of pick-and-rolls. Adding to his efficiency, Mitchell turns the ball over less than nine percent of the time — an incredibly good number — on such possessions, per Synergy.
The improvement from beyond the arc has been aided by Mitchell’s improved spot-up game. This season, the sophomore has connected on 40.7 percent of his catch-and-shoots while scoring 1.22 points per possession, according to Synergy. On “unguarded” catch-and-shoots, Mitchell heats up: 55.2 percent, 1.66 points per possession — No. 7 in the ACC.
As a freshman, Mitchell shot just 27.3 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities. He has always been able to beat you at the rim — turning opposing big men into posters; now he’s able to do so from 20 feet and nine inches.
Mitchell also thrives on defense. According to KenPom.com, Louisville ranks No. 2 nationally — behind only South Carolina — in defensive efficiency at 85.1 points per 100 possessions. The Cardinals are the first team this season to hold Smith to single-digit scoring (eight points). The sophomore is the point man for the team’s breakneck ball pressure attack, and he ranks 43rd in the NCAA in steal rate — 3.9 percent, per KenPom. Steal rate is an estimate of the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a steal by the player while he was on the floor. As a team, Louisville has a steal rate of 7.1 percent, which ranks No. 29 in the nation.