LAS VEGAS -- Donovan Mitchell had just blown up for 37 points -- the most so far by anyone in this year’s NBA Las Vegas Summer League -- and a sneaky eight steals, so he faced a bit of a gauntlet after the Utah Jazz entry’s 84-81 overtime loss to Memphis at the Thomas & Mack Center on Tuesday afternoon.
Cameras, reporters, well-wishers and (always) coaches made it slow going for the rookie, a bunch of living, breathing speed bumps between him and the Jazz’s bus back to the hotel.
“I’m trying to get back to watch the game tonight,” Mitchell admitted at one point, referring to the 2017 MLB All-Star Game, staged in Miami but airing nationally at an inconvenient 5 p.m. in the Pacific time zone.
“I’m a big baseball fan. Couldn’t watch the Home Run Derby last night, but I watched the reruns.”
Mitchell’s roots in baseball are undeniable -- his father Donovan Mitchell Sr. spent seven seasons in the minor leagues in the Houston Astros organization without reaching the big leagues, spent 11 years as a coach in the Mets’ system and now serves as New York’s director of player relations.
So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the younger Mitchell went yard against Memphis.
He’d been a pitcher and a shortstop, spots traditionally filled by a youth team’s best athlete, and juggled the two sports well until his sophomore year in high school. Then came the game in which he, playing shortstop, collided with his catcher stalking a pop-up.
The catcher suffered a broken jaw. Mitchell broke his wrist. The injury wiped out his AAU basketball plans that summer, a disappointment that revealed basketball as his preferred sport. He transferred from his high school in Connecticut to Brewster Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire, where he developed into a legitimate Division I prospect.
Mitchell played two seasons at Louisville before catching scouts’ and coaches’ eyes at the annual draft combine in Chicago in May. He also worked out in Los Angeles with NBA stars Chris Paul and Paul George in Los Angeles this spring, and felt that he kept up fine.
By June, Mitchell’s plans had changed. He traveled to work out for NBA teams, heard that his draft stock was rising and finally went at No. 13 to the Denver Nuggets, who promptly traded him that night in a pre-arranged deal for Utah power forward Trey Lyles and forward Tyler Lydon, the No. 24 pick from Syracuse.
The workout with Paul and George was what really shifted Mitchell’s thinking. As he told reporters shortly before the draft: “When you have All-Stars telling you that you could be really good in this league, I think that’s going to raise your level [of confidence].”
Mitchell -- who benefited from extra reps playing three games and averaging 15.3 points in last week’s Utah summer league -- put his LVSL All-Starness on full display Tuesday. Operating the Jazz’s attack most of the time, he looked adept navigating pro-style pick-and-roll sets. By halftime, he had 16 points and five of his steals.
Mitchell got four points and the other three picks in the third quarter, then scored 17 of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime. He also probed and pressured Memphis’ defense, earning his way to the foul line 16 times, hitting 14.
The only thing Mitchell didn’t do was hit his jumper off the dribble in the final seconds of OT to win it.
“He’s able to show more here than he was able at Louisville,” said Zach Guthrie, coach of the Jazz’s summer squad. “With maybe NBA-style spacing and the pick-and-roll game, rather than the tighter confines and hand-checking in college. We thought, if the floor opened up for him, his skills and his athleticism would really shine, and he’s really showing a lot of things here.”
At various points, former NBA All-Star Baron Davis was standing or sitting on one of the baselines, shouting encouragement to Mitchell. “Go get the ball!” Davis hollered in one possession, offering the take-charge advice some young point guards need to hear. “Nobody else is shooting!”
“Yeah, he was talking to me a bunch,” Mitchell said. “He told me to use my left hand, and I used it for one of the layups, and he was like, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ I finally listened to him. It’s great when you have someone who’s been in the pros and been through it, to guide you along in certain ways. It definitely helps.”
Davis actually has been around the Jazz to work with Dante Exum, whom the Jazz selected fifth overall in 2014. But Mitchell has a fan in Davis, who spent most of his 13 NBA seasons with the Hornets, the Warriors and the Clippers.
“From the time I’ve met him, to every time I’ve watched him play, he’s just better. That’s rare,” Davis said. “He’s tough. He loves the game. And he’s willing to learn. Every time a coach gives him tools, it’s like he’s applying. I just think he’s gonna be a great player.”
Mitchell stands just 6-foot-3 in shoes, but has a 6-foot-10 wingspan that rewards his anticipation and, yes, gambling into the passing lanes. He’s sturdy, too, built from the waist up with the broad shoulders and muscled arms of a power forward more than a point guard.
The skeptics that are out there on his future still wonder if he’s more of a shooting guard, but Davis -- who is about the same size as Mitchell -- scoffed at that.
“It don’t matter. When you get to the NBA, if you can play basketball, that’s all that matters,” Davis said. “When you look at point guards now, what is a traditional point guard? Compared to a Steph Curry or a Kyrie [Irving] or a John Wall or Damian Lillard? Every point guard has their different style. I think someone like him, because of his size, has an opportunity. He’s got wingspan, he can shoot and he’s solid.”
Guthrie raved about Mitchell’s maturity -- “The kid is like a state senator. If you meet him, you want to vote for him” -- and even more so, his work habits. Notably the homework he tackles.
“To me the thing he’s grown the most in is sort of processing the game, the mental attributes,” the 29-year-old Jazz assistant coach said. “When to slow it down. ‘What’s the clock, I’ve got a two-for-one here. What are we doing on defense? What’s the scheme?’ Focusing on every single defensive possession. The offensive skills are there -- what’s going to get him on the floor is defense.”
Said Mitchell: “I watch film on every game we’ve played. I watch film on every person I’m guarding. Whether it’s the night before, right before, I just take the time mentally to think about what can he do, what can’t he do.
“I sat there and watched Wayne [Selden, Grizzlies guard] have 28 against Washington [Saturday], and I said to myself, ‘That’s not happening today. Somebody else is going to have to step up.’ I mean, just having that mentality.”
Mitchell’s big stats generated some serious buzz Tuesday, which can’t be bad for the folks back in Salt Lake City. They can shift a little attention to a guy who chose basketball over baseball, rather than dwelling on the one who chose Boston.
For Mitchell, Utah is his big leagues right now and he’s excited to be part of The Show.
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