Donovan Mitchell arrived at Louisville, in his words, an unknown freshman who could jump really high and play defense.
By the end of his sophomore season, he was one of the best players in the country — a dynamic talent who would get selected 13th by the Nuggets in the 2017 NBA Draft, traded to the Jazz and now is considered one of the league’s elite guards for the Cavaliers.
It wouldn’t have happened without Rick Pitino remaking Mitchell’s jump shot and instilling in him a determination to be great.
“I would put him towards the top [in terms of my development], for sure,” Mitchell told The Post. “I always had a work ethic, always was willing to work hard. It takes a certain person to unlock it and find that there’s more, and show you there’s more. He’s a guy that showed me that.”
Mitchell is far from unique. The former Louisville star is one of many Pitino success stories, players who found a different gear while playing for the Hall of Fame coach. Unheralded recruits who went on to have long professional careers. Walk-ons who became contributors in Final Four runs. One-dimensional players who developed into all-around stars. For every Jamal Mashburn, the blue-chip talent from The Bronx who starred for Pitino at Kentucky from 1990-93, there is a Russ Smith, a gifted scorer who most coaches felt was too small and not disciplined enough to excel at the high-major level.
It’s an endless list of overachievers.
“We need a couple of tablets to include all the names,” said Herb Sendek, a former Pitino assistant and the current head coach at Santa Clara. “It would be easier to maybe go the other way.”
It’s only a part of Pitino’s prowess as a coach, right along with his ability to motivate, recruit and win at every stop he’s made. As his first season at St. John’s nears, The Post spoke to a dozen former players and assistant coaches about what separates him from the pack throughout a career that has seen him compile an 834-239 record, win two national championships, reach seven Final Fours and produce 29 players who were either drafted or played in the NBA.
“He’s the best coach,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, a Pitino disciple. “He can beat you with his team, and then he can play you tomorrow, and take your players and beat you again.
“He would’ve been right there with [Mike Krzyzewski], if not maybe ahead, in modern times if he didn’t go to the pros [after Kentucky].”
Any breakdown of Pitino’s success starts in an empty gym. No fans, no writers, no cameras. Just him, his assistant coaches and a few players. These skill-development sessions have become the stuff of legend. They have “always been the key for me,” he told The Post during his previous stop at Iona University.
They are broken into three groups: guards, wings and post players. They are 40 minutes long, four days a week in the morning, run separately from team practices. Forwards shoot 3-pointers and handle the ball. Guards run every possible pick-and-roll. Almost all of the drills are predicated on the motion offense Pitino runs, resulting in the shots it will produce. One of the more noteworthy ones is a 55-shot drill he got from his time coaching the Celtics. Players take 55 different shots, all on the move. Chris Brickley, a trainer to NBA stars who played for Pitino at Louisville, has used a lot of what he learned from him in his own workouts.
Smith remembers teammates vomiting or nearly passing out in them. Peyton Siva, a star guard at Louisville with Pitino, could barely stand after going through his first one as a freshman. These sessions are intense, done at game speed, and led by Pitino. You won’t find him sitting off to the side. He’s out there sweating with his players.
“It’s like the game is on the line,” said Smith, a consensus All-American with Pitino at Louisville his senior year in 2014. “He’s going to lose his mind [if you mess up].”
Said Siva: “It feels like you’re getting ready for the pros. You get a lot out of them, and he’s doing them himself. I think that’s big.”
Some call it motivation. Others describe it as instilling belief in them or creating work habits that result in daily improvement. Under Pitino’s tutelage, players get to a certain level they don’t believe they can reach. Part of that are those skill-development sessions. But it’s also a nod to his ability to get his players to dig deeper than they ever have, to convince them that fatigue is a mindset, Smith said.
Mitchell was driven by his doubters. When a big game was coming up against a higher-rated player, Pitino would tweak his star by talking up that opponent. When he was coaching the Knicks, Pitino instilled so much confidence in point guard Mark Jackson, he had him convinced he was better than Magic Johnson.
At St. John’s media day, Pitino said star center Joel Soriano wasn’t a lock to start, but also possessed the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster if he got into the best shape of his life. Soriano is at less than 10 percent body fat, by far the lowest of his college career.
“It’s the push and the pull right there,” associate head coach Steve Masiello said. “It’s really him saying to Joel, ‘Joel, you’re not going to start until you give me every ounce you have.’ ”
Siva dealt with injuries and inconsistency his junior year, feeling the pressure of underperformance. Pitino saw it. One day, he pulled him aside. Nothing that happened in the past matters, he told him. What you do from here on is what people will remember. Pitino was sticking with him. He didn’t have to wonder about that. Siva wound up leading Louisville to the Big East Tournament title and the 2012 Final Four.
“That was what really pushed me in the right direction,” he recalled.
During Providence’s 1987 Final Four run, Pitino would on occasion rip his star, Billy Donovan, during fiery halftime rants. Before the second half began, however, he made a habit of telling him: “You’re the best point guard in the United States of America. That’s why I’m on you. Now go out and play like it.”
There was no way to quantify that Donovan was the best point guard in the country. Just as there is no way to quantify that St. John’s will be the best-conditioned team in the nation this year, but Donovan is certain the Johnnies will believe that. Pitino will hammer it home to them. The Chicago Bulls coach considers that Pitino’s greatest strength.
“What he does is he changes the self-esteem of his players,” Donovan said. “He is creating a level of belief, is really what it is.”
Pitino is intense. He is demanding. He expects the best out of everyone. What sometimes gets lost is the relationships he develops with his players.
Last season, Fox Sports analyst Vin Parise was at an Iona practice. Pitino had to run out afterward because he was taking the team managers out to dinner, something Parise heard of few high-major coaches doing on their own. Another time, he treated the seniors for a meal, because he wanted to directly hear from them how Iona could get more out of its younger players.
He had a group text chat with his players at Iona that has carried over to St. John’s. He will send them motivational messages, critiques from practices, or whatever is on his mind. They will sometimes arrive early in the morning or late at night. He may single a player out for lack of effort or just want to talk basketball with them.
“I love it, because you get to know what your head coach is thinking and feeling,” point guard Daniss Jenkins said.
Senior shooting guard Jordan Dingle has been surprised by how outgoing Pitino has been, the time he has taken to get to know his new players on a personal level. He knew about Pitino the winner and talent developer. Not Pitino the person. Asked to describe his coach with one word, Dingle replied: “Personable.”
On Oct. 25 of last year, Masiello was fired as the Manhattan College head coach, a few weeks short of his 12th season there. He was crushed. Masiello had no idea where to go from there. Pitino, who coached him at Kentucky, did. An hour after his dismissal, the two were eating lunch in New Rochelle. Pitino was going to hire him at Iona.
“How many guys, 20 years later, are doing that for their former college players?” Masiello wondered.
Arguably the most memorable March run of Pitino’s career came with his 1987 Providence College team. It also included heartbreak. The day after the Friars lost in the Big East Tournament semifinals, Pitino lost his infant son, Daniel, to congenital heart failure at the age of 6 months. That week, nobody had really spoken or seen the coach. Providence had a strong regular season and was a sixth-seed in the tournament. But now tragedy has struck. On the flight, Donovan was in the aisle, seated next to fellow star guard Delray Brooks. Pitino sat next to them.
“ ‘Listen, you guys have had an unbelievable year and you guys deserve the NCAA Tournament,’ ” Donovan recalled Pitino saying. “ ‘If you want to help me, just keep winning. You guys go out and play, and I’ll be fine.’ It totally lifted everything I was feeling.”
Providence advanced to the Final Four a few weeks later.
The question — “Are you surprised that Pitino is still coaching at the age of 71?” — drew mostly laughs. Masiello and Donovan believe he can go to the age of 80. Smith joked that it wouldn’t surprise him to see Pitino coach into his 90s. He’s no ordinary septuagenarian. Pitino works out seven days a week, frequently starting his day on the treadmill. He isn’t slowing down.
“He seems as motivated as I’ve ever seen him,” said Pitino’s son, Richard, the coach at New Mexico.
It would only be natural if Pitino was motivated by losing his job at Louisville six years ago, amid the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. It included allegations against the school of a $100,000 payment to the family of recruit Brian Bowen, which Pitino has said he had no knowledge of. Last year, the NCAA’s independent panel, the IARP, absolved him of any wrongdoing. Those close to Pitino insist that isn’t what pushes him — at least not to their knowledge. With that in mind, Masiello relayed a Pitino saying: “Don’t be bitter, get better.”
He is driven to keep coaching and teaching because it’s his life’s work. This is, after all, a man who went to Greece to coach in his mid-60s then jumped at the opportunity to return to college basketball at the mid-major level with Iona. It is very much a full-circle moment for him in taking over at St. John’s, coaching again in his home city — Pitino grew up in Bay Shore on Long Island and served as both an assistant and head coach with the Knicks in the 1980s — looking to return pride to a program that lost its relevance.
“He definitely is excited and appreciative,” Cronin said. “I don’t think he thought this would happen in his wildest dreams.”
One thing is certain: Pitino doesn’t operate like someone who has lost his fastball, bringing in 12 new players this past spring. He has three players already committed for next year. St. John’s coaching staff regularly puts in 12-hour days. Last March, as Iona was preparing for postseason play, they were working a few more hours per day than that.
“It’s not hours as much as it’s truly a lifestyle,” Masiello said. He added of Pitino: “He’s on the court for four hours in the morning doing individuals, then he’s back for practice. After practice, we go get a bite, then it’s, ‘Let’s go watch film.’ He doesn’t stop. … He is obsessed with this program and winning.”
Pitino has immediately raised the Johnnies’ profile, landing premier transfers and highly regarded New Jersey recruits like Simeon Wilcher and Jaiden Glover. St. John’s just missed out on breaking into the Associated Press preseason Top 25 for the first time since 1999, tied with UCLA for 28th. Most experts believe he has a tournament team. St. John’s practice was featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” and Pitino was the star of Big East media day, a crowd following his every move.
The big question is how far can Pitino take this program that last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2000, that hasn’t reached the main draw of the tournament since 2015 and has struggled to attract top talent for the better part of the past 25 years. Then again, Pitino has never shied away from a challenge. He won immediately at Providence, at Kentucky, at Louisville and with the Knicks. The aforementioned teams had all fallen on hard times. The only one he couldn’t turn around was the Celtics.
“It just may be the thing that is his calling, so to speak, taking organizations and turning them around,” said Jeff Sheppard, part of Pitino’s 1996 national championship team at Kentucky.
“I would pose this question to you: How many high-major programs has he coached? Three,” Cronin said. “They’ve all been to the Final Four, and two of them have won the championship.”
Cronin isn’t guaranteeing that Pitino will get St. John’s to the Final Four.
“I wouldn’t bet against him,” the UCLA coach said.
This story originally appeared on NYPost