August 15, 2022

Stefan Bondy: Donovan Mitchell is worth the gamble for the Knicks

Donovan Mitchell is reportedly available and the Knicks should go get him and bring him home. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Here’s the thing about draft picks in the NBA: most of the time, 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 possibly use them all.

Which will eventually get us to Donovan Mitchell.

For years, the Knicks stockpiled draft picks and touted their benefits in written statements. The previous team president, Steve Mills, declared that he wouldn’t “skip steps” and deplete his assets to acquire a superstar, which appealed to Knicks fans who were traumatized by the trades for Carmelo Anthony and Eddy Curry, among others. Mills’ stance looked good after potential targets Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving largely flamed out, but appeared foolish when Kevin Knox bombed and Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard surged to the NBA Finals.

The trade market has always been hit-and-miss. Just like the draft. The difference today, unlike just three years ago when Mills was building around cap space, is that free agencies are no longer a realistic path to a superstar. The Kevin Durants of the league are now signing early and picking their destination while under contract. The biggest free agent to switch teams in the last three summers was either DeMar DeRozan or Gordon Hayward.

Which brings us to Mitchell, who is better than both.

There are few NBA players as spectacular offensively as the 25-foot sparkplug, who was reported by ESPN as available in the trade market, even if he’s not being aggressively shopped. According to multiple gambling websites, the Knicks are the overwhelming betting favorites to land Mitchell. That usually doesn’t translate to inside knowledge but often indicates public sentiment.

It also makes sense.

The Jazz, an organization immersed in a teardown after deadbolting its win-now window, demonstrated the priority is draft picks. It accumulated five unprotected first rounders for two players.

The Knicks don’t have the most valuable picks to dangle (many are heavily protected), but they can make it up in quantity. And over Leon Rose’s tenure, there hasn’t been a better attainable guard than Mitchell. He’s the best excuse for passing up on 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 ball-dominant undersized guards who’ve 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 bud in the league, Eric Paschall, was teammates with Brunson at Villanova.

“I know they have a unique relationship because of that,” Perovic said.

There are other important questions to answer. Like, will the Jazz require RJ Barrett in the trade? What’s the ceiling with Mitchell as the best player? There are thresholds in negotiations and fit considerations that can’t be passed. But the answer to every reasonable scenario is this: Mitchell is worth the gamble.

At some point, Rose has to take a leap. You can’t perpetually protect future draft picks and hover in a zone of hoping to make the playoffs. Last we checked, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum aren’t available. Even if Mitchell doesn’t elevate the Knicks into title contention, they can start by winning a round of 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 draw to the Knicks, which can’t be ignored because a superstar’s desire holds sway and often pushes negotiations to the finish line. The dots connect. Rose is his former agent. He loves the area beyond it being home. He’s close with associate head coach Johnny Bryant.

Besides, we love those homecoming stories in New York City, especially in basketball. Bernard King. Mark Jackson. Rod Strickland. Stephon Marbury. Joakim Noah. Kemba Walker. We even claimed Carmelo Anthony, who left here for Baltimore when he was 8.

Some worked out. Others REALLY didn’t.

Mitchell’s arrival at Madison Square Garden would add a suburban twist. Though rooted in Connecticut, he played AAU for a Manhattan-based program, The City, and dunked his first ball at a Harlem court because the blacktop was slightly slanted. Despite the Knicks being stuck in misery for most of his life, Mitchell hoped Phil Jackson would use that eighth pick on him in 2017.

“I was super stoked about him potentially playing here, and we did speak about it,” Perovic said. “And he was excited, too. But it didn’t work out initially.”

There were unfounded rumors, jumpstarted by a story from ESPN analyst Jay Williams, about Jackson falling asleep during Mitchell’s pre-draft workout at the Knicks training facility. It was only believable because we witnessed the Zen Master doze off during the NBA combine that same year.

Regardless, we can confidently say Jackson figuratively fell asleep at the wheel. He picked Frank Ntilikina, who was seated at a table neighboring Mitchell’s during the draft as fellow CAA clients. Recently, Mitchell’s father, Donovan Sr., an executive with the Mets, told me he keeps a signed Ntilikina jersey hanging in his home. We’re guessing it’s more of a motivating reminder than treasured memorabilia for Donovan Sr.

Now Ntilikina is gone and the Knicks should do what they can to make up for that mistake.