When Penny Hardaway’s NBA career came to an end in 2008, he moved back to his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly after his return, Hardaway lent a hand to a friend who was battling cancer and started work as a coach for a middle school team. That’s where he came across a player he thought would become one of Memphis’s next great ballers: point guard, Dillon Mitchell.
Hardaway’s goal was to help his group of kids improve their grades and learn to handle adversity. But he couldn’t help but notice Mitchell’s talent. He asked Dillon’s father if he could join an AAU team that Hardaway was starting. His father said yes and Team Penny instantly had a player with Division-I potential.
“What a phenomenal basketball player he was,” Hardaway said over the phone on Wednesday.
The former Orlando Magic guard — who was also the Memphis high school player of the year in 1989 and 1990 — described his four-star recruit as an aggressive, athletic, pass-first point guard.
“I used to have to make him try to score,” Hardaway said. “He would over-pass the ball sometimes. I’d go, ‘Dillon, look, for us to win the game we need you aggressively scoring, we don’t need you passing the ball all the time. It was one of those situations where he was trying to be too unselfish at times and that’s not always what we needed.”
It wasn’t until Mitchell’s sophomore year that the four-time NBA All-Star had a chance to see his pupil on the football field.
“Amazed,” Hardaway said. “I thought I was seeing a reincarnation of Reggie Bush the way he was running kick returns and punt returns back for touchdowns.”
Mitchell was named Tennessee’s Gatorade football player of the year as a senior. He caught 81 passes for 1,484 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also rushed for 951 yards and 20 more touchdowns on 64 carries.
The current head coach of the Memphis Tigers basketball team would have loved to have seen Mitchell continue his basketball career in college and advocated Mitchell playing both sports at Oregon but it was clear to Mitchell’s mentor that football was the sport of choice.
“He was probably in my mind a four-star basketball player, five-star football player and I think if he had focused strictly on basketball could have been a five-star basketball player,” Hardaway said. “Pretty impressive. But he talked only about football. You’d have him over at AAU events and he was still staying in tune with football.”
“Football he was in tune from when he first walked on the field. He got himself going mentally, when he got on the field he was in the moment. Basketball it took a long time, it took somebody pissing him off to make him play really, really hard, someone to challenge him but football it clicked in right away.”
At Oregon, Mitchell had a breakout junior season in 2018, catching 75 passes for 1,184 yards and four touchdowns.
While Pro Football Focus listed him as the 154th best prospect on their big board and CBS Sports had him at 169th overall, Mitchell was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round as the 239th player in the draft.
Hardaway, who had been keeping up with Mitchell’s football career, was surprised to see the kid from Memphis slide down the board.
“I was very happy for him, I felt like he dropped way too low with his talent,” Hardaway said. “That doesn’t mean every receiver that went before him better than him, it just means they did some things correctly to be noticed early. He couldn’t have gone to a larger school, so when I saw that seventh round, I thought ‘that is not where he should have been drafted.'”
On draft day, Mitchell wasn’t so much focused on his draft status, just that he had been picked.
“That moment was indescribable,” Mitchell said. “My heart was pounding. I didn’t know if it was going to be the call or not. I was just super excited, super emotional and crying like a baby.”
Hardaway said Mitchell was always a better basketball player when “somebody pissed him off.” He will enter training camp with 31 teams having provided extra motivation.
“I look at it this way: I say that Minnesota got a steal,” Hardaway said. “He’s going to prove a lot of people wrong, he’s more motivated than ever and he’s going to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Mitchell will have an opportunity to do so right away. With the No. 3 receiver spot up for grabs in camp, the Oregon star will be in the mix when the Vikings enter camp in July. With a 4.46 40-yard dash and 36 and 1/2 broad jump, he’ll also be one of the most the most athletic of the receivers who are battling for the spot.
“I feel like I have a great shot at being the third wide receiver for the team and help out as much as possible,” Mitchell said.
Hardaway didn’t drop in the draft himself — he was the NBA’s third overall pick back in 1993 — but he’s seen plenty of basketball players rise from the lower rounds to NBA stardom.
“His talent is second to none, he has the ability to be a superstar in the NFL,” Hardaway said of Mitchell. “As he just continues to maintain his focus, the biggest thing is not getting sidetracked, not doing the things that young people really want to do. Stay away from all of those things, work his butt off, watch lots of film. It didn’t matter where he got drafted, he will have an opportunity to prove himself, for sure.”
While entering his second year with Memphis University, Hardaway will be focused on taking his team to the next level after a 22-14 season last year. But he’ll be watching Mitchell. And Hardaway says Vikings fans should be watching him too.
“The one thing I can say to the Minnesota fans: He’s a guy they need to keep their eye on,” he said.