Donovan Mitchell swears, to this day, that he didn’t think would be a first-round pick.
“I didn’t think I was going to be drafted, to be honest,” he said last week. “I’m so serious. I mean, wholeheartedly, too. I don’t know. I didn’t realize it, probably, until about a week and a half, two weeks before the Draft. Once I got invited to the Green Room, that’s when I was like, okay, I’m first, I’m getting drafted in the first round. Because they try their best not to let guys sit in there forever.
“So I’m like, first round. Now, will I be drafted to the Knicks at eight, or all the way down to, who was it? OKC or Utah. ‘Cause OKC had 22 and Utah had 24. So now that was a factor. From before then, I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest.”
If he was surprised in June, when he was taken 13th overall by the Denver Nuggets -- and then minutes later traded to Utah -- it’s the rest of the league that’s been shocked since.
Mitchell had a lot of supporters before the Draft, including Utah, which traded up from 24 to 13 in the first round by sending former first-rounder Trey Lyles and the No. 24 pick in 2017, Tyler Lydon, to Denver. But even after looking like the best player in the Las Vegas Summer League, no one, including Utah, thought Mitchell would streak across the sky this quickly.
To date, Mitchell leads all rookies (and the Jazz) in scoring (18.8 per game), having worked himself into the starting lineup before Thanksgiving. He broke the franchise’s single-game rookie scoring record (41 points) well before Christmas, and helped lead his squad to a win over LeBron James and the Cavs on Dec. 30, leaving James to compare Mitchell to a young Dwyane Wade. Highlight-reel dunks have been a regular occurrence at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“I’ve played with a lot of good rookies, but this kid is special. ... He watches film all the time, he asks questions, and he’s willing to learn."
“I’ve played with a lot of good rookies, but this kid is special,” guard Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “Just because he’s willing to learn. He’s asking a lot of questions. He’s humble. And he keeps improving. He’s improved so fast. He watches film all the time, he asks questions, and he’s willing to learn. Most of them are good questions. But he knows the game and you can tell, because he knows the game very well and he wants to get better.”
His arrival, coming just as Gordon Hayward was leaving town to go to Boston via free agency, was a much-needed pick-me-up for a franchise that had been gut punched. You don’t lose your franchise player for nothing without it hurting -- and, make no mistake, it hurt. The Jazz did everything it could to keep Hayward happy, methodically building a strong team around him, making development a priority.
Utah beat the LA Clippers in the first round of the 2017 playoffs with Hayward; without him, and with numerous injuries to its core group, including separate, long-term injuries to Utah’s irreplaceable center, Rudy Gobert, the Jazz is stumbling along, off the pace for a playoff spot and in 10th place in the Western Conference.
“I think we knew going into the year -- the word we’ve used is ‘pivot’ -- what that looks like, how that takes place,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We’re kind of open to, we’re all a little curious about how that would evolve. It hasn’t evolved, in some ways, with Rudy being out. In other ways, it’s evolved, it’s just been different. We’re still kind of gathering information about our team. But I think in Donovan’s case, what he’s been able to do, he’s been a catalyst for a lot of things. He’s been a catalyst for his teammates. We’ve seen certain guys find roles that I think they’re going to be successful in. In some cases, we’re not able to do that, because of Rudy. It’s really kind of two things that are happening at once.”
... The best thing about Donovan is, similar to the rest of our group, there’s a hunger on his part to improve and get better. That enthusiasm and that kind of youthful exuberance is a good thing for our team."
Mitchell was initially projected to go in the late teens or early 20s in the first round, after declaring following his sophomore season at Louisville. His pedigree was at once enticing and troubling -- “Rick (Pitino, the former Cardinals’ coach) makes his players better than they are,” one team executive said before the Draft. But Mitchell started rising team boards following a series of excellent pre-Draft workouts.
The Jazz believed Mitchell would be a good fit in their system, but also knew it would have to move up to get him, and Utah could only get so high in the first round. But once Mitchell got past Charlotte at 10 (the Hornets took Malik Monk) and Detroit at 11 (the Pistons took Luke Kennard), Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey made the move.
“When we were able to draft him, I know how enthusiastic Dennis was going into that,” Snyder said. “He’s been a catalyst for a lot of growth, and I think the results speak for themselves. But I think it’s also, the best thing about Donovan is, similar to the rest of our group, there’s a hunger on his part to improve and get better. That enthusiasm and that kind of youthful exuberance is a good thing for our team.”
Snyder has been convinced, to the point where he’s now running plays for Mitchell at the ends of games. Sometimes it works, as it did against Cleveland; sometimes it doesn’t, as when Mitchell missed against Miami, and Josh Richardson hit the game-winner for the Heat instead.
“That was part of the moment,” Mitchell said. “I’ve always been one to kind of, I’ve always wanted to be the guy. I watched, my favorite player growing up was LeBron. One thing I noticed with him was, it’s always on him at the end of the game. I’m not saying that’s the case now, but I’ve always had that mentality of not being afraid of the moment -- made shot, missed shot. I made one against Cleveland and I missed one in Miami that should have been a pass that I didn’t make. It comes with the territory. You’ve got to keep learning. But that was a pretty cool moment.”
But he messed up a few nights later in Miami.
“Rodney (Hood) had it going in the fourth quarter, and for me to miss him, it’s definitely one thing that I’m still kicking myself for,” Mitchell said. “After the game I went to him and said ‘look, it’s my fault. You were wide open. That’s on me.’ And that goes back to what I said about having it be on your shoulders, and just having that mentality. That’s how I’ve always been.”
The Jazz acquired Rubio from Minnesota to play the point and to try and convince Hayward to stay. But Mitchell’s versatility has allowed Snyder to put him on the ball for stretches already, making his ultimate NBA position a mystery. Utah has a lot of options in its backcourt, and it hasn’t given up on former Lottery pick Dante Exum, who’s likely to miss the entire season after suffering a shoulder injury in preseason.
But Mitchell makes Exum’s absence survivable -- and, maybe, his future in Salt Lake City uncertain.
“He’s bringing it every night, and he wants it more,” Rubio said. “We know how tough it is your rookie season; imagine if you’re one of the top guys on the team, and we expect you to bring it every night, because you showed you can do it. The (expectation) level is rising higher and higher every day, just because of the way he does things.”
Rubio had immense pressure on him when Minnesota famously took him fifth in the 2009 Draft, a teenager from Spain who’d already had all the world’s attention on him for years. He knows what it’s like to be a guard expected to raise a team to the next level.
“There are a lot of rookies that are still young, but they’re young off the court,” Rubio said of Mitchell. “He’s really, he’s a kid, but he knows what is going on.”
The Jazz could ultimately run some two-guard fronts with Mitchell and Rubio, maybe Mitchell and Exum, though one of those two would have to become a bigger perimeter threat.
Mitchell, a former star high school baseball player -- his father, Donovan, Sr., was a former minor leaguer who’s now an executive with the New York Mets -- has taken to Snyder as quickly as he bonded with Pitino, with whom he stays in touch despite Pitino’s ouster from Louisville in November.
“Coach (Snyder) and I, the good thing is, we have a relationship where, he’ll call a play, call a play for me, and I’m like ‘no, coach, Joe (Johnson) just hit two. Let’s get Joe a third one,’ ” Mitchell said. “And he’s like, he’s not offended when I speak up. We have a relationship where we can talk back and forth. There’s no disrespect. It’s just, I give my opinion, and he listens. Sometimes, he says no. It’s because he’s been in the game a lot longer than I have, obviously. But it’s just the fact that he allows me to give my input in, and allows me to learn that way, that’s awesome.”
The injuries -- Hood and Derrick Favors and Johnson have all missed time this season, along with Gobert, who’s only played 18 games -- have made continuity impossible. (It’s only getting worse; guard Thabo Sefolosha is likely out for the season with a knee injury suffered Friday against Charlotte.)
That Utah had to not only replace Hayward, but opted not to bring back Boris Diaw and George Hill, bringing in veteran free agents Jonas Jerebko, Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh -- who came from Europe, where he was MVP of EuroLeague last spring -- has made everyone’s adjustments harder. Jerebko has had to play center of late.
“We’ve got a lot of new players,” Jerebko said. “Ricky, obviously, the leader of the team is new, too. So it’s not like we’re going to, right away, start clicking. Obviously, it’s going to take some time. But we’ve got some great guys on this team who are willing to learn, share the ball, unselfish players. We’re going to figure it out. “
I’m watching, and I’m like, wow, I got a stop -- in the game, I won’t think it -- but I’m like, ‘wow, I just got a stop on ‘Bron. I got a stop on Westbrook.’ Those are the things that kind of take me back for a second."
Mitchell has played with Rubio, Hood and Joe Ingles on the ball at times, depending on lineups and situations. Like all rookies, he’s learning what the right reads and cuts are, making sure the right guy gets the right shot at the right time. Sometimes, that guy is him. Defense, and getting through screens, provide a nightly challenge.
“It was pretty easy in college, because you always either run through a guy or you find a way to get around him,” Mitchell said. “But right now, there’s no running through DeMarcus Cousins. There’s no running through those guys. So you’ve just got to be able to find a way, and understand you’re going to get hit. You’ve got to be able to pursue and follow. Playing for Coach Pitino, Coach Pitino said you should never be hit by any screen. So that’s my mentality, and I get pretty down on myself when I get hit by screens. But I’m starting to undersand that that’s inevitable; it’s going to happen. Making guys work for their shots. If a guy has 40, make him work for the 40. ‘Cause guys are good enough to have 40, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But make sure they work their hardest to get to it.”
Keeping a similar routine is important for Mitchell. At Louisville, he took the same number of shots before a game, sang the same song as he walked into every arena. (“That’s just how superstitious I am. I can’t say [what the song is]; that would mess everything up,” he says.) In Utah, he has Caesar salad from Cheesecake Factory for lunch and dinner.
Mitchell and Utah’s other young players were in Vegas when Hayward announced he was leaving. The next few weeks were tough ones for one of the NBA’s proudest franchises. But Mitchell gives Utah hope. Every team needs hope, but a small market franchise is especially needy. And if Mitchell becomes a flashy, exciting star guard, Utah’s ability to get and retain other talented players in the future to play with him and Gobert increases dramatically.
But Mitchell says he’s just doing what needs to be done. The talk of him becoming Utah’s next superstar player is not on his radar.
“When Dante got hurt, I had to play more minutes at point guard,” Mitchell said. “Then Rodney got hurt, so I’m playing all these minutes. I’ve got to learn these players, from one, two and three, and as the point guard you’ve got to know all five spots. So I’m in there watching film tremendously. But it never crossed my mind to replace (Hayward). That’s not who I am. That’s not where I came from. I want to be the best teammate I can be, the fastest learner, the hardest worker, and just go out there in any way that I can help in each game. If I’m having an off night, make sure the guys who are having an on night get the ball. Rebounding, playing defense. If I’m having an on night, continue to score and making the right plays, whatever it may be.”
Utah has a lot of decisions to make in the coming months about the direction of the franchise. Favors will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end; Exum and Hood will be restricted. Sefolosha, Udoh and Jerebko are all on non-guaranteed deals for 2018-19.
But one piece is solidly in place for a long, long time -- one who looks like he’ll be must-see TV most every night, and a threat to make the highlights every game.
“I think the craziest thing is not so much watching myself, it’s watching who’s guarding me, or who I’m guarding,” Mitchell said. “That’s the biggest thing. I watch film religiously, on the flight or wherever it may be. I’m watching, and I’m like, wow, I got a stop -- in the game, I won’t think it -- but I’m like, ‘wow, I just got a stop on ‘Bron. I got a stop on Westbrook.’ Those are the things that kind of take me back for a second. Not so much that I’m making those plays, but it’s like, last year, I was watching this guy against the Warriors in the Finals, and screaming and yelling at the TV. Now it’s like in the late moments, making a layup like that (against James’ Cavaliers), it’s like, it’s crazy how it all happened.”
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