This is the thing about draft picks in the NBA: More often than not, they lose value once they’re used. And if you’re a team like the Knicks with 11 first-rounders in the next seven years, you can’t use them all.
Which will eventually lead us to Donovan Mitchell.
For years, the Knicks hoarded draft picks and touted their benefits in written statements. Former team president Steve Mills declared that he would not “skip steps” and deplete his assets to acquire a superstar, appealing to Knicks fans who were traumatized by trades for Carmelo Anthony and Eddy Curry, among others. Mills’ stance looked good after potential targets Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving were largely snuffed out, but it looked silly when Kevin Knox blitzed and Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard reached the NBA Finals.
The commercial market has always been unpredictable. Same as draft. The difference today, as opposed to just three years ago when Mills was building around the salary cap, is that free agency is no longer a realistic path to a superstar. The league’s Kevin Durants are now signing early and choosing their fate while under contract. The biggest free agent to change teams in the last three summers was either DeMar DeRozan or Gordon Hayward.
Which brings us to Mitchell, who is better than both of them.
There are few NBA players as offensively spectacular as the 25-foot sparkplug, who is reported by ESPN to be available on the commercial market, even if he’s not being aggressively bought. According to several betting websites, the Knicks are the heavy betting favorites to land Mitchell. That doesn’t usually translate to insider knowledge, but often indicates public sentiment.
It also makes sense.
The Jazz, an organization in the throes of a knockdown after blocking their win window now, showed that the priority is draft picks. He racked up five unprotected first rounds for two players.
The Knicks don’t have the most valuable picks to hang around (many are heavily guarded), but they can make up for it in quantity. And during Leon Rose’s tenure, there hasn’t been a better attainable shooting guard than Mitchell. It is the best excuse to pass up Dejounte Murray and Jaden Ivey.
Is Mitchell the perfect fit? Not really. There are real concerns about a backcourt with him and Jalen Brunson, with two undersized shooting guards who dominate the ball and have struggled defensively.
For what it’s worth, they’ve already established a friendly relationship, as Mitchell’s former AAU coach Arjay Perovic explained, because Mitchell’s best friend in the league, Eric Paschall, was Brunson’s teammate at Villanova.
“I know they have a unique relationship because of that,” Perovic said.
There are other important questions to answer. For example, will the Jazz require RJ Barrett in the trade? What is the ceiling with Mitchell as the best player? There are thresholds in negotiations and proper considerations that cannot be passed. But the answer to all reasonable scenarios is this: Mitchell is worth betting on.
At some point, Rose has to take a leap. You can’t perpetually protect future draft picks and float in a zone hoping to make the playoffs. Last time we checked, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum are unavailable. Even if Mitchell doesn’t lift the Knicks into title contention, they can start by winning a round of the playoffs, something Mitchell has accomplished more times in his short career than the Knicks have in 22 years, and go from there.
Then there’s Mitchell’s draft with the Knicks, which can’t be ignored because the desire for a superstar dominates and often drives negotiations to the finish line. The dots connect. Rose is his former agent. She loves the area beyond being her home. He is close to associate head coach Johnny Bryant.
Plus, we love those New York City homecoming stories, especially basketball. Bernard King. Mark Jackson. Rod Strickland. Stephen Marbury. Joaquin Noah. Kemba Walker. We even claimed Carmelo Anthony, who left here for Baltimore when he was 8 years old.
Some worked. Others REALLY didn’t.
Mitchell’s arrival at Madison Square Garden would add a suburban touch. Although he has roots in Connecticut, he played AAU for a Manhattan-based show, The City, and sank his first ball on a Harlem court because the asphalt was slightly sloped. Even though the Knicks were mired in misery for most of his life, Mitchell expected Phil Jackson to use that eighth pick on him in 2017.
“He was very excited about the possibility of him playing here, and we talked about it,” Perovic said. “And he was excited too. But at first it didn’t work.”
There were unsubstantiated rumors, started by a story by ESPN analyst Jay Williams, that Jackson fell asleep during Mitchell’s pre-draft workout at the Knicks’ training facility. It was only believable because we witnessed Zen Master fall asleep during the NBA Combine that same year.
Regardless, we can confidently say that Jackson figuratively fell asleep at the wheel. He chose Frank Ntilikina, who was sitting at a table next to Mitchell’s during the draft like other CAA clients. Recently, Mitchell’s father, Donovan Sr., a Mets executive, told me that he has a signed Ntilikina jersey hanging in his house. We guess it’s more of a motivational reminder than cherished memories for Donovan Sr.
Now Ntilikina is gone and the Knicks should do what they can to make up for that mistake.