Changing Gears: Ajay Mitchell
UC Santa Barbara guard Ajay Mitchell continues to impress. Why can't Mitchell become the next "diamond in the rough" in the 2024 NBA Draft?
Finding a diamond in the rough is always an exciting process. As basketball fans, we are always drawn to the idea of an “underdog.” Someone who defies the odds and flourishes on the biggest stage is a concept that belongs in Hollywood pictures.
The same goes for the sport of basketball. As evaluators, we understand that every draft class is going to feature a wide range of “showstoppers.” We’ve seen the high school rankings coming into the year. We understand that the new one-and-done prospects are going to get all of the spotlight when it comes to the next wave of NBA talent.
While it’s easy to get in our feelings about the freshman oozing with upside, recent history has shown us that upperclassmen are starting to cement themselves in draft circles.
There have been plenty of prospects who have thrived at the NBA level who have come from schools that aren’t considered “blue bloods.” Players such as Damian Lillard (Weber State), C.J. McCollum (Lehigh), and Stephen Curry (Davidson) are some of the superstars who have left their mark while at smaller colleges. But recently, that idea has gotten a resurgence with the impressive play of Oklahoma City Thunder guard Jalen Williams (Santa Clara).
We all love to watch the big-name schools and their gauntlet of talented individuals. But finding a player in the lower ranks who has the potential to be noise at the biggest level…that’s where things get fun.
Insert UC Santa Barbara junior floor general Ajay Mitchell. Listed at 6’5”, Mitchell has the size that teams are looking for in the modern NBA. He’s a crafty left-handed guard with a sensational feel for the game. Mitchell won’t wow you with his speed or freakish athleticism. It’s what he does on the floor and how he controls the game that speaks volumes.
Originally born in Ans, Belgium, Mitchell was a three-star recruit while playing professionally overseas before committing to play at UCSB. It didn’t take long for Mitchell to have success in the collegiate ranks. He was named Big West Freshman of the Year in 2022 and was named Second-team All-Big West.
When evaluating a prospect who has spent multiple years in college, I always find it to be crucial to see development in various aspects of the game. That’s just what Mitchell has done during each of his three seasons in Santa Barbara. Despite being currently a junior, Mitchell will be turning 22 years old just days before the 2024 NBA draft.
11.6 PTS | 2.2 REB | 3.7 AST | 0.8 STL | 1.8 TOV
53.1 FG% | 32.7 3P% | 75.0 FT% | 60.8 TS%
7.8 FGA | 1.8 3PA | 3.6 FTA | 32.1 MIN
16.3 PTS | 2.7 REB | 5.1 AST | 1.3 STL | 2.2 TOV
50.6 FG% | 26.7 3P% | 81.3 FT% | 59.4 TS%
11.1 FGA | 2.1 3PA | 5.5 FTA | 33.8 MIN
2023-24: (As of 1/29)
19.8 PTS | 3.7 REB | 4.1 AST | 0.9 STL | 2.2 TOV
51.6 FG% | 40.5 3P% | 83.0 FT% | 61.7 TS%
12.9 FGA | 2.5 3PA | 6.6 FTA | 30.8 MIN
Just looking at the numbers across the board and there’s a lot to get excited about. Mitchell continues to push the needle forward when it comes to his development on the court. So many times with players who return for additional years, they are going to be called upon to take on a larger role with their team. Because of that, it’s expected to see a bit of a “hit” when it comes to efficiency.
Mitchell took a big step forward in his sophomore year when it came to his scoring output and ability to distribute the ball. Seeing any sort of improvement this year would have been promising. Instead, we are witnessing another sizeable leap forward for Ajay, as he’s flirting around 20 points per game while putting up some eye-opening splits across the board.
When you watch Ajay Mitchell on tape, you continue to nod your head in approval. It’s not the sexiest of plays. You’re not going to find yourself in awe of his flashiness. He just continues to chip away and make the right decisions. He understands that he’s not going to overpower his opponents with his speed. Instead, Ajay possesses a fantastic feel for the game and an understanding of how his hesitations and patience can give opposing defenses nightmares.
He will pick you apart the moment you give him a window to exploit. That’s why he needs to start getting your attention ahead of the 2024 draft.
Let’s set the tone here when it comes to Ajay Mitchell. As mentioned before, we’ve got ourselves a guard with good size at 6’5” who continues to improve his versatility on the court. Mitchell is crafty with the ball in his hands. He’s dangerous off the bounce, as he understands how to be patient and wait for defenses to offer an opportunity to attack.
He spends most of his time operating out of the P&R, as Synergy lists him as the pick-and-roll ball handler 43.1% of the time. In that area, which is an important one when it comes to projecting guards at the NBA level, Mitchell ranks in the 90th percentile. That success goes because of the uncertainty that Mitchell can offer when it comes to defending him.
Ajay has the offensive versatility to give you headaches. He’s a lethal weapon in the midrange game, but he has the maturity as a ball handler to allow lanes to develop, working to get to his spots. Even when you think you have Ajay stopped, he understands that the slightest of hesitations can get the defense to bite, opening up another window to exploit.
ATTACK AND REACT
As I stated previously, Ajay Mitchell isn’t going to be a floor general who wows you with his breakaway speed. Instead, he’s going to change gears like a Porsche out for a Sunday stroll. Mitchell ranks in the 77th percentile via Synergy when it comes to transition offense. In that same category, he’s shooting 65.6% from the field and has a TS% of 71.8%.
Great example here of just the type of reactionary skills that Mitchell has in his arsenal. Mitchell gets possession of this defensive rebound and immediately looks to push the tempo. Right away, it looks as if Ajay is smothered by the line of defense that UC Davis is throwing at him. It’s an impressive drive as Ajay sets up multiple defenders with his change of gears before getting an impressive and-one opportunity.
CHANGE OF GEARS
Here’s just another great example of Ajay being patient and allowing a driving opportunity to develop. There are plenty of examples on film in which Ajay looks to be completely smothered by the point-of-attack defender. That’s until he slams on the breaks and gathers himself before re-adjusting and ramping up another attack.
FIND YOUR WINDOW
Love this sequence here from the UCSB junior guard. A number of times in transition or in P&R opportunities, Ajay remains calm with the ball in his hands. He continues to wait for the defense to shine him some light of the perfect timing to attack. All it takes is a simple cross, and Ajay can hit another gear before adjusting to the final line of defense.
Ajay doesn’t look to have much here at first. That’s until a simple crossover gets him downhill and we see a creative finish on the opposite side of the rim to protect himself from the last line of defense.
THE SET UP
It doesn’t need to be fancy with Ajay Mitchell. That’s the beauty of his game. Sometimes, simplicity is everything on the basketball court—especially when it comes to guards preparing to take the leap to the NBA.
A good look at Ajay in transition here. He recognizes that he can create an ideal opportunity on offense if he can get the initial defender to bite. Ajay works to get the defender’s momentum going one way before a simple, but beautiful, step through for an easy two.
When it comes to Mitchell, there have been plenty of basketball fans who like to draw comparisons to New York Knicks STUD guard Jalen Brunson. There are some obvious similarities when it comes to the physical profile and the fact that both are left-handed floor generals. But what I love about Mitchell is his ability to recognize his spots on the floor.
Ajay isn’t afraid to make the midrange part of his weaponry. He can hit you with a couple of sequences that create driving lanes early on before picking you apart in the midrange. It’s not that Ajay isn’t willing to get downhill whenever he wants. But he also understands that making the defense get up on him can open up the floor throughout the flow of the game. Great sequence here showing the footwork and ball handling that Ajay has in his arsenal.
PLAYMAKING PART I
There’s no denying that Ajay Mitchell can put up buckets in a hurry when it comes to the scoring column. But that’s just the beginning of what makes him special as a floor general. Mitchell is a talented playmaker with a sensational feel for the game on the court. He not only has great vision, but he possesses the ability to throw teammates open.
What I love about Ajay is his versatility as a playmaker. He’s extremely dangerous in the pick-and-roll game, as mentioned previously. But it’s Ajay’s ability to react and adjust on the fly that makes him deadly with the ball in his hands.
PLAYMAKING PART II
We’re going to give a little taste of everything when it comes to the playmaking part of Ajay Mitchell’s game. That’s because he’s simply that type of threat on the court with the ball in his hands. Ajay can make the right reads out of the P&R, delivering beautiful passes to the roll man on a regular basis.
He’s also a player who can grab and go, surveying the floor with his head up and getting teammates easy buckets in transition. With his ability to be a threat off the bounce, Ajay also understands that the gravity he brings on the court can open up great skip opportunities for his teammates.
PLAYMAKING PART III
The patience of Ajay Mitchell on the court is something that continues to get me excited. I’ve continued to hammer home his ability to adapt on the fly, and these sequences are a perfect example. Ajay knows that just because the first look isn’t there, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the play is over. He continues to chip away and keeps coming after you.
Whenever a floor general doesn’t have elite speed, they can make up for in a number of different ways. If a guard understands the importance of angles, it can make them a dangerous player. That’s just what Mitchell does on the basketball court. Ajay understands that an extra dribble can be the difference between a small window and a wide-open dunk. Great example of that in the first clip. Ajay works to get the defense to react on the initial drive before coming back to receive another on-ball screen. Some young guards might look to throw the roll pass right away, but the extra dribble gets the defense out of whack, resulting in an easy lob for the big man.
We see the same concept in the following clip, as Ajay works relentlessly to get the defense to play his game. The final clip showcases Ajay’s ability to read and react, as he adjusts to throw a beautiful backdoor cut for an easy two.
I know what you’re thinking right now. This kid looks awesome, what’s the catch? Well, as with most prospects, it’s always the outside shot. BUT…I’m extremely thrilled about the development of the shot for Ajay Mitchell.
Last year, Ajay was a player who was simply lacking a consistent outside shot to unlock his game. His form looked solid, but it was a bit lengthy with the loading up process. This year, things have sped up, and it looks tremendous compared to previous samples.
When you take a closer look at the numbers, you find yourself more than excited. During the 2022-23 season, Ajay took a total of 77 three-point attempts, covering on just 20 of those (26.0%). This year? Ajay has taken a total of 42 three-point attempts and has converted on 18 of those (42.9%). The fact that in half a season, Ajay has almost matched his outside shooting numbers from last year is promising.
But if you take a look deeper, it gets even better.
During the 2022-23 season, Ajay Mitchell ranked in the 27th percentile in jump shots. He also ranked in the 19th percentile in catch-and-shoot opportunities. This year? Ajay ranks in the 71st percentile in Jump Shots and in the 87% percentile in Catch and Shoot opportunities.
The work has been put in and Ajay’s seeing tremendous growth in just one year. Something that will continue to be monitored moving forward.
I know what you’re thinking, well surely this must mean that Ajay struggles on the defensive side of the ball? Not so fast my friends! There are some promising developments with Ajay’s ability on the defensive side of the ball. Sure, any young guard is going to be challenged at the NBA level, especially when they are a rookie. We don’t see many NBA rookie guards come in and immediately become dominant defenders. It just doesn’t happen, especially as players are adjusting to the speed of the game.
Ajay stays active on the defensive side of the floor. He’s alert on the ball and away from the ball, rotating to make some impressive reads in help situations. The numbers back up the tape when it comes to Ajay’s defense. He ranks in the 68th percentile in halfcourt defense, and opponents are shooting 33.9% against him in the halfcourt. While there are always going to be areas of improvement, Ajay’s defense isn’t going to get him played off the court.
We’re always looking for that “sleeper” or player who can somehow outplay their draft position. With the type of season that junior guard Ajay Mitchell is having for Santa Barbara, it might be time to start paying closer attention to a potential diamond in the rough.