GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — Long after the day at Adidas Nations was over and the many NBA scouts had left the building, Donovan Mitchell remained.
The rising sophomore at Louisville had participated in a full day of events, but the July evening ended with his team losing to another team of college all-stars. Mitchell was proud that he performed well on defense, but his offense left something to be desired. So there he was, at 10:30 p.m., an hour after every other college player had left the gym, taking jump shot after jump shot.
In his first season at Louisville, Mitchell wowed with his athleticism. His vertical exploits and his ability to break down a defense off the dribble were nice additions to a Cardinals team that could stagnate. He averaged 7.4 points a game in a limited role behind Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, with many of those being of the highlight-reel variety.
Louisville enters Mitchell’s second season at No. 12 in Sporting News’ preseason rankings despite losing Lewis, Lee and NBA draftee Chinanu Onuaku and despite an ugly sex scandal looming over the university that could (though it probably will not) cost this team a postseason berth. The expectations are highest for a trio of special sophomores — Mitchell, Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding — who double as three of the ACC’s most intriguing under-the-radar 2017 NBA Draft prospects, if they can fulfill their potential.
Before that, though, Mitchell knows he needs to fix a shot that left him at 25 percent last season behind the arc, frustrated that his teammates could not count on him in those situations.
“Jump-shooting is all mental,” Mitchell told Sporting News. “As a freshman, you look to find a role and find what you can do. So when you get open jump shots and you don’t hit them, it’s frustrating. It’s your first year, you’re trying to show coach and everybody what you can do. And to not hit shots is just a piece of your game that you don’t have. So that hurts. It gets to your head a little bit. So one thing I’ve learned this past summer was just don’t let it get to your head.”
Donovan Mitchell. (Getty Images)
So Mitchell tirelessly worked on his jumper. He noticed that holding his follow-through is a key for him as opposed to shooting and then rushing back on defense. He’s also working hard on becoming a better ball-handler and occasionally takes over at the point in practices to improve that.
With just a small improvement on his jumper and an increase in role following the departures of Lee and Lewis, Mitchell could double his scoring, leading Louisville toward the top of the ACC and taking the next leap toward his NBA goals. His game is similar to Raptors rotation player Norman Powell, who was a role player early in his UCLA career before taking over as a star.
But as noted above, Mitchell is just one of three potential breakout sophomores for the Cardinals this upcoming year.
Deng Adel. (Getty Images)
At that same event in Southern California, Adel was one of the best players in attendance the entire weekend. The 6-foot-7, versatile forward showed off tremendous ball skill with his ability to attack off the dribble and affect the game in multiple ways.
Adel’s skills are not fully developed yet — he’s still a straight-line driver, and his jump shot is a work in progress — but he’s a fluid athlete who plays hard consistently. He’s the kind of rare player on the college level who can attack a pick-and-roll as a ball-handler or a screener rolling to the rim. That versatility and his ability to play multiple positions put him directly on the NBA’s radar. This summer, Adel said he was working more on attacking as a ball-handler so that he can take on a bigger load of the offense in 2016-17.
“I can play three positions: the two, three and the four,” Adel said. “From last year toward the end, Coach put me in the four spot, so I learned how to set screens and get open for my own jump shot. I learned a lot playing off the ball last year. We had guys like [Lee and Lewis] who had the ball in their hands. So now this year, it’s about learning to play with the ball in my hands without turning it over.”
Raymond Spalding. (Getty Images)
Spalding will not have those responsibilities, as a 6-10, bouncy power forward. While his body was thin and underdeveloped, he made a name for himself through dunking, running the floor and blocking shots. However, there’s more here than meets the eye, which he occasionally showed last season. Spalding possesses the potential for solid touch all the way out to the 3-point line, and he also impressed with some moments of interior passing to frontcourt mates like Onuaku. If his frame keeps filling out and he develops consistency, Spalding could fill a Montrezl Harrell-like role for the Cardinals in 2017.
Despite this trio averaging barely 15 points a game last season, it is among the highest-upside groups of sophomores in the country. Throw Mitchell, Adel and Spalding in with explosive freshman V.J. King; steady upperclassmen Mangok Mathiang and Quentin Snider; and a wild card in Pennsylvania transfer Tony Hicks, and there’s reason to think the talent at Louisville could coalesce this season into something special — assuming they get a postseason chance.
“None of us have that worry,“ Mitchell said about the investigation. “Even if there was something, we don’t even pay attention. We control what happens within these lines and that’s it. We’re giving it our all. Regardless of tournament, no tournament, we’re going to give 100 percent effort and see what happens.”
Mitchell also told me, in that vein, this group of young players is hungry to play in its first NCAA Tournament after being banned last season. With hunger and motivation tends to come improvement. Mitchell showed that by staying in the gym late at night at an event many kids use as a warm weather vacation.
Louisville is a team to watch this season both in college hoops and for NBA Draft fans. There are storylines galore, and high-upside players who seem to be taking their career seriously. Adidas Nations showed the potential for that, but now it’s up to them to come through on their promise.
Updated at 1:31 p.m. ET