Along Came a Spida

On Tuesday, the Cavaliers – straddling the season’s unofficial halfway point – head for the mountains in what should be the first of Donovan Mitchell’s two visits to Salt Lake City this season.  

The Wine & Gold will also be halfway through their current five-game roadie when Mitchell and the Cavs roll into Vivint Arena on Tuesday night, making his return to Utah as the East’s Player of the Week, the second time he’s earned that honor this year. 

It’s also the fifth time in his career that the rugged All-Star guard has earned those weekly honors, the first three occasions – like his first three All-Star nods – as a member of the Jazz. 

But that was then, and this is now. And while both the Cavaliers and Jazz are both likely happy with their end of the blockbuster deal completed just days before Training Camp this season, Mitchell returns to the place he once called home as arguably the league’s top 2-guard through the first half of the campaign. 

“I don’t’ know what to expect coming into the game,” admitted Mitchell, possibly the Association’s most humble superstar. “We didn’t do shootaround (on Tuesday), so I haven’t been able to sit in the arena and kind of just see everything. So, I’m going to let my emotions go and be free and enjoy the moment, whatever happens – booed, cheered, whatever – we’ve done a lot of good things. 

“I’m extremely fortunate that I was given a chance to play in the NBA by (the Jazz). We obviously didn’t accomplish the ultimate goal, but I’m looking to do that (in Cleveland) and get another road win tonight.”

It didn’t take the 26-year-old Mitchell long to become the unspoken leader of a young core of Cavaliers that already included All-Stars Jarrett Allen (24) and Darius Garland (22) along with prized sophomore Evan Mobley (21). He’s already gelled with his former Jazz teammate Raul Neto, but has yet to share the floor with another old friend from his days in Utah, Ricky Rubio. 

Originally selected by Denver with the 13th overall pick before sent to the Jazz in exchange for Trey Lyles on Draft night, Mitchell never averaged fewer than 20 points in any of his first five years and came to Cleveland with a career mark of 23.9ppg. His numbers were even better in the postseason – averaging 28.3ppg in 39 postseason contests with Utah, scoring at a 36.3ppg clip in 2020 and 32.3ppg in 2021.

But after that stellar half-decade in Salt Lake City, the Jazz decided to go in a different direction this offseason – and not long after shipping Rudy Gobert to Minnesota, they completed the blockbuster that sent Mitchell to Cleveland in exchange for Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji and three first rounders. 

All that has led us to what promises to be an emotional homecoming on Tuesday night. 

“This isn’t something that happens every day,” smiled the former Louisville star. “So just understanding that there’s going to be a tribute video, there’s going to be emotions. But you have to go ahead and lock in on the task at hand – and then when the game is over you can reflect and be appreciative. But right now, we have a job to do as a group, and that’s where my head is at.” 

Mitchell has already faced his former teammates once this season, leading Cleveland with 23 points in a 20-point lopsided victory – going 8-of-12 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from long-range. 

“It was kind of weird the first time I saw those guys, seeing them on the scouting report,” said Mitchell. “The weirdest guy to see on the scouting report was Royce O’Neale, he’s the only guy there who I haven’t played against in my career. I’ve played against Mike (Conley), I’ve played against (Jordan Clarkson). But now, being here (in SLC), I know where everything is – so there’s just that comfort that you’ve been here so many times. It’s just something where you’ve been gone for a while and you’re back.”

From the first moment of the 2022-23 season, Mitchell has somehow been better than advertised. And he comes back to Utah even better than when he left. 

So far this year, the former Slam Dunk champ – who topped the 30-point mark in each of his first three games this year – has topped the 20-point plateau in 29 of his 36 outings as a Cavalier. He’s one of only three players this season (along with Steph Curry and Buddy Hield) to drill at least 130 triples while shooting better than 40 percent from long-distance.

This season, he’s averaging career-highs in points (28.8ppg), along with his shooting percentage from the floor (.488), from beyond the arc (.405) and from the stripe (.874). His scoring average ranks him 8th in the NBA in scoring, 5th in the Eastern Conference. 

And oh, there’s that 71-point performance in an overtime thriller against the Bulls at Rocket Mortgage in the first game of the calendar year – setting the Cavaliers franchise record, going 22-for-34 from the floor, including 7-of-15 from deep. In the epic performance, he also became the first player in NBA history to top the 70-point threshold and still hand out double-figure assists – finishing with 11 dimes in his magnum opus.

But numbers and mixed emotions aside, what matters most to Mitchell on Tuesday night is leaving town with a win. 

“It was weird – pulling up to the bus, flying into the airport, pulling up to the hotel in a bus – all this stuff that I’ve never done before,” said Mitchell. “Just that in itself is weird, but (I’m going to) just enjoy it. I’m coming in here, not knowing what to expect as far as the atmosphere of the game. But, as much as I can, treat it like another road game, keeping everything consistent. Last night, I went to shoot at the University of Utah to keep my schedule the same and not make it bigger than it is because that’s when you lose sight of what’s really going on.”

The All-Star guard hasn’t lost sight of much in his first season in Cleveland. Odds are slim that he won’t be completely locked in when the ball goes up on Tuesday night in Utah.