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Rick Pitino talks Westchester native Donovan Mitchell NBA trade rumors, Iona basketball

Rick Pitino is a couple decades removed from his time as the Knicks' coach, but the New York native still holds a soft spot for the blue and orange.

He grew up a fan of the Knickbockers and previously held season tickets at Madison Square Garden for many years. Depending on how things go with Elmsford native Donovan Mitchell, who Pitino coached at Louisville, he may have a solid reason to return to the stands regularly.

The three-time NBA all-star is at the center of heavy trade rumors, with the latest involving a potential deal to send him home to New York as a member of the Knicks.

"Donovan's dad works for the Mets, his mom works at Greenwich Country Day, and Donovan loves the Knicks," Pitino said of his former player. "Donovan loves being around his mom, his sister and his dad. Donovan works out for Chris Brickley, who also played for me, in New York City. Donovan would treasure being a Knick. He would love to be a New York Knick, but things would have to work out. I'm hoping, keeping my fingers crossed, that he becomes a Knick. It would be very special for me to see him in a Knick uniform."

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Mitchell played high school basketball out of state, first for the Canterbury School in Connecticut, then Brewster Academy in New Hampshire for his junior and senior year. Afterwards, he played for two seasons at Louisville under Pitino. Following his breakout sophomore college season, which culminated in first-team All-ACC honors, Mitchell declared for the NBA Draft and was chosen by the Utah Jazz with the 13th overall pick.

The Knicks picked Frank Ntilikina eighth that year and the fans have watched from afar as Mitchell blossomed into a star.

"Donovan is a great offensive basketball player, and he's always looking for ways to get better," Pitino said. "He's got a Kobe Bryant-type work ethic and that's the highest compliment I can pay. (Jalen) Brunson and Mitchell, that's a hell of a backcourt. They're both winners, they're both terrific people. I hope it happens. Certainly, it'd be great for the Knicks and everybody who follows the Knicks."

Iona's Nelly Junior Joseph attempts to drive inside during the Gaels' 91-77 win over Yale at the Barclays Center on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021.
Iona's Nelly Junior Joseph attempts to drive inside during the Gaels' 91-77 win over Yale at the Barclays Center on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021.

Iona finalizes 2022-23 non-conference schedule

While Pitino has high hopes for Mitchell coming to New York, he also has high hopes for his new-look Iona Gaels.

The Gaels are coming off of a 25-8 season. They won the MAAC regular season title, but fell short of their sixth-straight MAAC tournament championship after getting upset by Rider in the quarterfinals.

"Somebody from administration said the other day that we sort of underachieved at the end of last season," Pitino said. "I laughed, because we won 25 games with a tough schedule. It could've been 26 games, with Saint Louis at the buzzer. We actually could have won 29 or 30 games last year, but the foul line hurt us in numerous games. When you play in a one-bid league, that's why I scheduled this way, so if we beat some of these non-conference opponents, we still have a great shot (to make the NCAA tournament) if we don't win the MAAC Tournament."

Iona will have two preseason scrimmages against Columbia and Temple, rather than have just one exhibition game, like it did last year.

The Gaels open the season at home against Penn on Nov. 6. After that, they will face Hofstra on the road on Nov. 11, the final meeting in the teams' three-year series.

Iona has one other non-conference home game, Saint Louis (Dec. 6), and another road game, New Mexico (Dec. 18).

The latter will be a coaching matchup between father and son, as Pitino squares off against his son, Richard.

"I never believed in spanking children growing up. My wife as adamant against it," Pitino said. "We didn't believe in that, but as an adult, I'd like to give him a good spanking at New Mexico."

The rest of Iona's schedule is filled with neutral-site games and events. The Gaels will face Vermont (Nov. 18) at Mohegan Sun, followed by Santa Clara (Nov. 26) in Las Vegas. Iona returns to the Barclays Center to play St. Bonaventure in the Hall of Fame Showcase on Dec. 11.

The Gaels will also play Princeton (Dec. 13) at Kean University as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer challenge. Iona wraps up its non-conference slate in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii on Dec. 23-25.

Iona's Walter Clayton Jr. shoots during the quarterfinal game of the MAAC Tournament between Iona and Rider played at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Wednesday, March 9, 2022.
Iona's Walter Clayton Jr. shoots during the quarterfinal game of the MAAC Tournament between Iona and Rider played at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Wednesday, March 9, 2022.

New faces, bigger roles for returning players

The Gaels brought in seven new players, five freshmen and two transfers, who will play a crucial role in helping Iona replace the production of Elijah Joiner, MAAC player of the year Tyson Jolly, and MAAC sixth man of the year, Dylan van Eyck.

According to Pitino, the Gaels hope to announce the addition of one more player later in the week.

The Gaels coach praised freshmen Silas Sunday and Cruz Davis. Sunday, a 7-foot center from Ireland, will beef up the Gaels' frontcourt. He reportedly shed 59 pounds over the last two and a half months after coming to Iona at 350 pounds.

As for Davis, the former Oregon State commit has impressed throughout the summer, but Pitino notes "he's got to get better defensively, and he's got to get stronger, like typical of most freshmen."

Sadiku Ayo, a 6-foot-7 forward who was teammates with Sunday at Our Saviour Lutheran, showed promise before getting derailed by a meniscus injury. Ayo is currently recovering from a successful surgery and Pitino expects him to be back in January.

Pitino is also optimistic for Missouri transfer Anton Brookshire, who will bolster the backcourt. Another transfer, Daniss Jenkins, is poised for a big role right away.

"He's really a big-time basketball player," Pitino said of Jenkins, who was a junior college All-American at Odessa College. "He could have played for me at Louisville or Kentucky. He's an average shooter right now, which is his only area that he's not great at. If we can get him with our player development to be a good shooter, watch out."

The Gaels return Nelly Junior Joseph, the former MAAC Rookie of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection last season. Osborn Shema projects to be a key frontcourt piece alongside Junior Joseph if he can bulk up. Berrick JeanLouis, a defensive specialist, has been working to add a mid-range shot to his game.

Pitino is expecting a big season for Walter Clayton Jr. and Quinn Slazinski.

"I think Walter Clayton Jr. can give us everything Tyson (Jolly) gave us on offense, but I'm not sure he can give us what Tyson gave us on defense," Pitino said. "Walter is not the defensive player that Tyson is. We'll be fine at the point in replacing Elijah Joiner. We've got multiple players there. Dylan van Eyck is a tough replacement, He's certainly a multi-faceted player that did a lot for us, but I think Quinn Slazinski will have a great year.

"Quinn's much better than he showed last year, and I'm really confident that, with the adjustment of having a year under his belt, he'll have an outstanding senior year."

Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5 and on Instagram at @byeugenerapay. 

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Rick Pitino talks Donovan Mitchell, Knicks trade rumors, Iona College