MINNEAPOLIS — As far as former NBA star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway is concerned, Dillon Mitchell very easily could be preparing for an NBA career rather than competing to become the Vikings’ third receiver.
“No doubt,” said Hardaway, now the basketball coach at the University of Memphis. “If he would’ve focused 100 percent on basketball, he could’ve been a five-star recruit and had an opportunity to play in the league. He was that good.”
If anybody would know, it’s Hardaway, who discovered Mitchell, then a middle schooler in Memphis, Tenn., while scouting for an AAU team he was starting.
“He was probably 12 years old the first time I saw him,” Hardaway recalled. “He kind of had an unorthodox game — just a lot of moving one way and stopping on a dime and changing direction. He knew how to create space and get his own shot. I noticed that right away.
“He was just so crafty out there. I really enjoyed watching him play and definitely wanted him on my team.”
Asked about that game, Mitchell guessed he scored 25 points and remembered being approached by Hardaway afterward.
“I spoke to him and we kind of built a relationship from there,” Mitchell said. “He became a mentor for me as a kid, and that’s why I call him Uncle Penny to this day. He really became like a family member to me.”
Eventually, Mitchell emerged as a star playing for Team Penny on the AAU circuit. He could get to the rim at will using his twitchy quickness, and if defenders played off, he had a silky smooth jump shot to make them pay.
He had only one issue.
“He was constantly passing up easy baskets to get other guys shots,” Hardaway said. “I just wanted him to be OK with being a little selfish. He wanted to pass every time and, finally, I was like, ‘You can’t do that. You’re taking away from the team by doing stuff like that. You have to be aggressive.’
“He was so talented. I felt like he was going to be a superstar as long as he stayed with the game.”
But there was something about football that captured Mitchell’s heart. It wasn’t until Hardaway got to watch Mitchell play football that he fully understood. That moment of clarity came during Mitchell’s sophomore year at White Station High School in Memphis.
“He was like Reggie Bush incarnated,” Hardaway said. “He was so good. He would make people miss like it was nothing.”
According to Mitchell, some of the moves that go into making people miss on the football field derive from breaking ankles on the basketball court.
“It definitely helped me to play both sports,” Mitchell said. “It made everything feel more natural out there. Like, some of those cuts in the open field are like a crossover, and some of those jump balls in the end zone are like going up for a rebound. You can definitely see how it translates with little things like that.”
Using that to his advantage, Mitchell topped out as a four-star recruit in football, ultimately signing with Oregon. And while his dominance didn’t translate right away — he was more or less an afterthought early in his career — Mitchell broke out last fall with 75 catches for 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns.
That was enough to convince Mitchell to declare for the NFL Draft. It was a long wait, with the Vikings finally picking him in the seventh round. After turning some heads in organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, he should have a chance to compete for a starting spot when training camp begins July 22.
“I was surprised he didn’t go higher,” Hardaway said. “All those teams that passed on him are definitely going to regret it. It’s definitely going to drive him. He thrives on that kind of thing. He’s somebody that plays better when he’s mad, and I think he is — even if he won’t admit it.”
It’s clear Uncle Penny knows his former subject well because when asked about plummeting in the NFL Draft, Mitchell said he harbors no hard feelings.
“I’m just grateful,” he said. “I’m just trying to prove that I belong here. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. I’m just trying to come every day and be the best I can be.”
When prodded, Mitchell revealed some of the lessons learned from Uncle Penny.
“I can hear his words in the back of my mind when I’m out here,” Mitchell said. “… He would always remind me never to be satisfied with being average. He definitely instilled that into me from a young age, (to) just go out and dominate every day. That’s what I’m trying to do.”