EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

22 for 22: Should Suns target potential hidden gem like G Ajay Mitchell?

Jun 21, 2024, 11:02 AM

Ajay Mitchell #13 of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos drives the lane during the first half against the...

Ajay Mitchell #13 of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos drives the lane during the first half against the Baylor Bears in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Ball Arena on March 17, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

There is no way for teams to learn from their NBA Draft mistakes and keep it that way. The corrections will come, only for the same errors to resurface years later.

That comes to mind with guard Ajay Mitchell out of UC Santa Barbara, a highly skilled scorer from a mid-major where the question turns into if this guy is slipping through the cracks like others in the past.

Mitchell averaged 20 points, four rebounds and four assists per game for the Gauchos while shooting 50.4% from the field, 39.3% at 3-point range and 85.8% for free throws. Taking those averages and a true shooting percentage of 60% as qualifiers, it has been done less than 50 times in men’s college basketball, per Stathead.

There are nearly a dozen tremendous NBA players on the list: Mark Aguirre, Chris Mullin, Sean Elliott, Steve Smith, Brandon Roy, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Ja Morant. There are a handful of serviceable-to-great NBA players on the list: Scott Skiles, Damon Stoudamire, George Hill, Payton Pritchard and Trayce Jackson-Davis. Then, there are the busts in the draft: Steve Rogers, Troy Bell, Kyle Hill, Ricky Minard, Luke Jackson, Reggie Williams and Nate Wolters.

That is conveniently half of the 42 names, meaning the rest weren’t drafted or are recent players like Mitchell or Alabama’s Mark Sears. What grouping Mitchell lands in, a prospect ranked in the 40s, is where the evaluation begins.

A key difference to note right away is those top NBA players were all prospects graded in the lottery. Pritchard and Jackson-Davis are the two recent examples out of the decent turnouts, with Pritchard going 26th in 2020 and the big Jackson-Davis slipping to the end of the second round last year. Point being, scouts didn’t whiff on any of those guys, and Mitchell is graded around the 40s.

With that said, some of the appeal here is there is hidden star potential. Mitchell plays like Jalen Brunson and moves a bit like him too, which makes the comp easy enough. It helps that Brunson was a super skilled guard himself that fell to the second round. The physical profile is a match, while noting Mitchell is taller.

This is a fun sizzle reel of the whole deal. Mitchell is more springy with his movements than Brunson, who is more compact with what he does. The wish was Mitchell’s shake and burst to get to the basket was more consistent, because at times, it’s there. He’s got everything covered once the path to the basket is created.

Mitchell took nearly half his shots at the rim and had an efficiency of 62%, with a minuscule 6.8% of those shots getting assisted, the best self-creation numbers you’ll see in this class, per Hoop-Math. The touch is where the Brunson comp really gets going, as the short midrange area of floaters and using footwork is a comfort zone for Mitchell. He drew fouls at a good rate too, taking nearly six free throws per game over the last two seasons.

And the passing off that rim pressure has some upside.

The jumper will determine how the NBA goes for Mitchell. He upped his 3-point percentage this year from 26.7% to 39.3%, albeit on low volume again, 84 attempts after 75 the previous season. He’s a career 81.8% free-throw shooter, which is promising. Hoop-Math had the two-point jumpers around 43% the last two years, so that’s solid.

That, the defense fluttering somewhere between maybe fine and maybe not and his scoring resume getting compiled mostly against the Big West is what keeps Mitchell out of the rankings in the first round.

Like Bub Carrington, it’s a tough sell for the selection of a scoring guard. But Carrington’s potential is more obvious to see while Mitchell requires some convincing. The reasoning would be locating value in the late first round and taking someone who could potentially be one of the best players in this class.

If Mitchell can still get to the rim in the NBA and shoots it well from deep while not being a defensive liability, he will be one of ’em. Those are three if’s, though, and for a more seasoned prospect like the guy who turns 22 years old on draft night, it’s too big of an ask for Phoenix, especially with a scoring guard.

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22 for 22: Should Suns target potential hidden gem like G Ajay Mitchell?