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N.B.A. Prospect Knows What It’s Like to Be a Pro (but in Baseball)


The elder Mitchell was a 14th-round draft pick by the Houston Astros in 1992 and spent seven minor league seasons with the club, getting as high as Class AAA in 1998. He retired the next spring, and the Mets offered him a position with their Gulf Coast minor league team.

From there, he gradually moved up the Mets’ minor league ladder, taking various jobs until he landed in his current role in 2010.

His experiences sometimes included his son. On family vacations, they might both ride the team bus. The son spent time in the minor league clubhouse in Columbia, S.C., and took batting practice in Norfolk, Va., where the Mets used to have their Class AAA team.

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Donovan Mitchell Jr. went up for a dunk in 2014 at the Reebok Classic Breakout Camp’s all-star game in Philadelphia.

Credit
Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Associated Press

And when the father began working for the Mets, his son often wasn’t far behind. In 2012, on the night Johan Santana threw the first and only no-hitter in Mets history, Donovan Mitchell Jr. was near the action, leaning over the left-field wall as outfielder Mike Baxter made a bruising catch to preserve Santana’s feat.

He wasn’t pushed into baseball. His father fell in love with the sport in his youth, but Donovan Mitchell Jr. took a different path, especially after breaking his wrist in a collision with another player on a pop-up while playing baseball.

The injury left him unable to play basketball on the A.A.U. circuit that summer, but on the advice of a Providence assistant coach who had been recruiting him, he transferred to the powerhouse Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he stood out for the very fact that he didn’t.

“When he arrived here, he didn’t have a number next to his name or a national ranking,” Jason Smith, the school’s coach, said. “He was hungry.”

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The N.B.A. prospect played A.A.U. basketball for the City.

Brewster had become a breeding ground for top recruits and produced several N.B.A. players. And here was Mitchell, with no fanfare at all, in comparison to a fellow student like Chris McCullough, who went on to play basketball at Syracuse and was the 29th pick in the 2015 N.B.A. draft.

But in McCullough’s first week there, Smith said, Mitchell proved a point, beating a team led by McCullough. That moment has stuck in Smith’s mind, enough so that he shares it any time a scout from an N.B.A. team calls to ask about Mitchell.

It was at Brewster that Mitchell helped the team win two consecutive national prep championships and was also senior class prefect — winning election for the school’s equivalent of class president — and, according to the former head of school Michael Cooper, lobbying to relax uniform rules for seniors.

Arjay Perovic, Mitchell’s coach with the City, an A.A.U. team based in New York, has his own anecdotes at the ready.

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Mitchell shooting in Louisville’s victory over Duke in January.

Credit
Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images

He does not fixate on the national championship the City won while Mitchell was with the program or on Mitchell’s habit of eating a bag of Skittles before each game. Instead, when N.B.A. teams have inquired about Mitchell — including representatives from the Charlotte Hornets, the Philadelphia 76ers, the New Orleans Pelicans, the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls — the coach tells them of the time Mitchell lobbied to keep himself out of the starting lineup because a teammate was playing well in his place.

Mitchell had missed a practice so he could perform with the school band in the lead-up to a tournament — he has had a drum kit since he was 10 — and Perovic put him on the bench because of a team rule. When his punishment ended and he was set to start again, he pulled the coach aside and asked to remain a reserve.

Mitchell blossomed with the City before his senior year of high school, displaying the head-turning athleticism that has earned him notice from the N.B.A. His length — he has a 6-10 wingspan and wears size 17 shoes — has always been a calling card. He earned his nickname, Spida D, for how he played atop Perovic’s 1-3-1 defense, entrapping unknowing ballhandlers. And he is a notable athlete, even among his peers, with the top standing vertical leap at last month’s N.B.A. draft combine.

“There are areas of Donovan’s game that must continue to improve in terms of shooting accuracy and decision-making, but he has the chance to be an elite defender and N.B.A. athlete,” Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst, said.

Mitchell grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, something that trickled down from his father. Now, it is possible that Jordan’s Hornets can take Mitchell with the 11th pick over all. Or perhaps the Knicks will take him before that. Or he may not be selected until later in the draft.

But no matter what, he will follow in the footsteps of his father and become a professional athlete. Just not in the same sport.

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