Davion Mitchell’s last game as an Auburn Tiger, in March of 2018, was a forgettable one. The nineteen-year-old freshman came off the bench in the second round of the NCAA tournament, making just one of five shots and scratching across two points in a loss to Clemson. 

Three years later, his last game as a college athlete came in the national championship, as he led the Baylor Bears to the first men’s basketball title in school history. That night, he tallied fifteen points, six rebounds, and five assists, flashing the attributes that will have the onetime no-name selected early in Thursday night’s NBA draft: fast-twitch athleticism, galvanizing leadership, best-in-class defensive instincts and tenacity. Television coverage of the draft will roll clips of Mitchell barreling to the basket for layups and ripping the ball from the flashier and favored Gonzaga Bulldogs back in April, clapping his magnetic palms together in exhortation. It will feature heavy use of the word “motor.”

The most sought-after prospects—the G League superstar Jalen Green, the presumptive top pick and North Texas native Cade Cunningham—tend to be teenagers, who pair their logged successes with the promise of further development. Mitchell, who will be 23 years old by the time his NBA career starts, is a different sort. He transferred to Baylor after underwhelming in his lone season at Auburn, and his emergence as an All-American and the national defensive player of the year owed less to the blooming of latent talent than to dedication that verged on obsession. According to draft-season groupthink, there’s an implied downside to Mitchell’s trajectory, a worry that he’s already wrung out his potential, but his now former teammates and coaches prefer another reading—that of effort as inexhaustible resource. Asked what distinguishes Mitchell from other players, Baylor head coach Scott Drew jumps past attributes and accolades to process. “Everybody’s going to improve the same if they do the same work,” Drew says. “It’s just he works harder and longer than most people.”

In nearly two decades under Drew, Baylor basketball has developed what coaches refer to as an identity—a self-perpetuating team ethos that sits somewhere between tactical preference and competitive dogma. Drew’s players tend to start out as raw recruits or little-known transfers and, eventually, grow into a kind of hardwood phalanx, dedicated to attacking the rim on one end and walling it off on the other. Despite Mitchell’s lackluster numbers at Auburn, Drew spotted the makings of a true believer in the Bears’ process. “He was an elite defender, great athleticism—strength, burst,” Drew says. “He was always a willing passer, somebody that loved to get his teammates shots, loved to put them in a position to be successful.”

His first year in Waco, Mitchell was barred from playing by NCAA transfer regulations but nevertheless ingratiated himself to the culture. He’d spend his pent-up energy in practices, pressuring his counterparts the full length of the floor and haranguing them into turnovers before they’d even crossed half-court. During his first college stop, Mitchell had sensed his NBA dreams slipping away; to a son of Hinesville, Georgia—per capita income: $14,300—this was unacceptable. “He was trying to take care of his family and himself,” says Baylor swingman Matthew Mayer. “Some of us feel like if we don’t make money playing basketball, then we’re in trouble.”

Playing for Drew requires not just max effort on the floor but a commitment to self-improvement in off-hours. Mitchell took to both naturally. “He does three things,” Jared Nuness, the Bears’ player development coach, says of Mitchell. “He hangs out with his girlfriend, he plays video games, and if he’s not doing either of those, you’re going to find him in the gym. He hates to have weaknesses in his game. If you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to spend the next however-long-it-takes to prove you wrong.”

Back in 2018, Mitchell was so far off the draft radar that NBA scouts barely cared enough to point out his deficiencies. But Drew and his staff did. A born defensive stopper, Mitchell nevertheless had room to ramp up his film study, to draft mental blueprints of his opponents’ plans. At Auburn, Mitchell’s poor shooting had combined with his team-first disposition to relegate him to a complementary role; the Bears’ coaches rebuilt his stroke and then his mindset. Mitchell and other Baylor guards—including fellow projected first-round pick Jared Butler—became the “4 a.m. crew,” devotees of the predawn workout. When it was suggested that Mitchell might be going too hard, he pushed back. “I’m not playing this year,” he said. “I can do this.”

Mitchell’s game blossomed, and when he made his Baylor debut for the 2019–20 season, his numbers climbed. At Auburn, he had made only 29 percent of his three-pointers, a borderline unplayable figure for a lead guard. In his two years at Baylor, that number rose to 32 and then 45 percent—the latter mark the best in the Big 12. His improved shot had a trickle-down effect, forcing defenders to guard him more closely and making it easier for Mitchell to muscle his way into the lane or send the ball pinging to other sectors of the revved-up Baylor offense. Last year, Mitchell averaged fourteen points, five and a half assists, and two steals; hardly a possession went by that he didn’t influence. “Everything that he does in a game, he puts constant reps into it,” says Adam Flagler, a rising junior guard. “Every step-back [jump shot], every floater, every pass.”

Despite improving his shot and starting for a 26–4 Baylor team that would have been a favorite to win the pandemic–canceled 2020 NCAA tournament, Mitchell still topped out as a second-round pick in NBA mock drafts at the start of his final college season, and the lack of recognition reinforced his work ethic. During the Bears’ 2021 title run, Mitchell’s practice-floor defense had his teammates—no slouches themselves—in awe. Flagler remembers a scrimmage when Mitchell left his man to wall off Flagler’s drive, and Flagler threw what should have been an easy pass to the vacated area. Mitchell reversed course, somehow caught up to the pass as it traveled crosscourt, and snared it. “It was crazy,” Flagler says, in a tone usually reserved for UFO sightings.

Entering April’s NCAA final, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs had drawn most of the national attention; the nineteen-year-old phenom had just sealed a Final Four win with a buzzer-beater from nearly half court and was well positioned to boost his own draft stock with an encore on the sport’s biggest stage. Instead, Mitchell directed the action, scoring seven of Baylor’s first eleven points—unthinkable, for the guard who’d barely made it into the box score a few years prior—as the Bears jumped out to an early double-digit lead. He laced jumpers, raced the length of the floor for fast-break buckets, and, when the Bulldogs sent help defenders in his direction, flicked passes to open shooters. On the other end, Mitchell set the hard front of Baylor’s own defense, going knee to knee with Gonzaga’s guards and hurling wrenches into what had been college basketball’s freest-flowing offense. Hard work made for an easy victory, the sixteen-point margin surprising only those unfamiliar with Mitchell’s M.O. “That game was similar to most games we played last year,” Drew recalls. “Davion impacted the ball so much at the top, and that allowed everybody else to get more disruptive. He was the pace car.”

Davion Mitchell at the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament
Davion Mitchell goes to the basket against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament final. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

The day the Bears returned to Waco after winning the championship, Drew glanced out of his office window overlooking the practice floor. Mitchell had worked up a full sweat. The trophy hadn’t changed the routine; Mitchell flew across the court at game speed, drilling the maneuvers he’d come to rely on. “He’s addicted to basketball,” Drew says, “addicted to getting better.”

When Mitchell goes off the draft board later this week, analysts won’t emphasize his room to improve as much as the view of him as a near-finished product, a known quantity who can bring a dash of Baylor ruggedness to an NBA squad that lacks it. But those who’ve watched him develop see something different. “I think he could be like Kawhi Leonard,” Mayer says. “People kind of sleep on him and label him as a defensive prospect and role player, but he’ll shock some people. He’s got a high floor, but I think he has a high ceiling also.”

Mayer knows better than most how foolish it can be to doubt Mitchell. His foremost memory of his teammate is not of a tense late-game situation but of a practice session. Mayer drove past Mitchell, scored at the rim, and hazarded a little smack talk; Mitchell insisted on guarding Mayer for the rest of the day. “He was picking my pocket, he blocked my shot, I think he drew two charges on me,” Mayer says. He went scoreless until the scrimmage had ended.

It was, for Mayer, a glimpse into what opposing teams had to deal with when they ran up against Mitchell. “It was one of those practices that had me rethinking my whole game,” Mayer says. He fell into a funk, and turned to the only player he could think of for advice, the one who seemed capable of solving any problem, of willing weaknesses into strengths. “I had to go up to Davion and be like, ‘How do I score on you?’”