There aren’t many people or products that fit this description. But this year, Donovan Mitchell – who already came to Cleveland as a bona fide superstar – has somehow been even better, on the court and off, than anyone could have imagined. And on Thursday night, fans from across the league recognized his stellar first season with the Wine & Gold, sending him back to Salt Lake City as an Eastern Conference All-Star.
Mitchell – who’s averaging career-highs in scoring and shooting percentages across the board, officially finished second in the voting among Eastern Conference guards with 2,725,558 total votes. It’s the fourth time in Mitchell’s career that he’s been named to the midseason classic, his first as a starter, and the fourth Cavalier in team history to earn that honor – joining Shawn Kemp, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
The guard’s All-Star numbers speak for themselves.
Mitchell is the NBA’s 9th-leading scorer at 28.3ppg and is one of just two players in the league – along with Steph Curry – averaging at least 25.0 points while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 39 percent from beyond the arc. He also ranks fifth in the league in three-pointers made, with 155 triples heading into the weekend.
Through the first 50 games of his Cavaliers career, Mitchell has already posted five games of 40-points plus. He’s gone for 30-plus on 18 occasions, and the Wine and Gold have gone 14-4 in those contests.
He’s been praised for his performance and leadership by everyone who’s worked with him this year in Cleveland. But maybe no one appreciates both aspects more than his head coach.
“(The All-Star nod) is obviously a compliment to him,” said J.B. Bickerstaff upon hearing the news. “The work that he’s put in, the things that he’s done this year for our team. And it hasn’t been an individual search for him. That’s the most important thing for all our guys to see, along with the league and basketball as a whole. There are no empty numbers in Donovan’s game. Donovan’s biggest nights have come when we as a team have needed him most – and I think that’s what should be praised. This is not a guy going out trying to get hollow numbers; this is a guy who’s helping his team compete. And every number, every point, every assist has been needed.”
Mitchell came to the Cavaliers without any of the pretension or baggage that some of the league’s top stars might have. Immediately after the trade, the New York native immediately joined his teammates in Nashville for a pre-Training Camp run.
He got off to a scorching start to the season – topping the 30-point mark in each of his first three games this year, becoming just the third player in league history – joining Wilt Chamberlain and Glenn Robinson – to score 30-plus in their first three games with a new squad.
The man they call “Spida” cooled off, for exactly one game, before teaming up with Caris LeVert to become just the second duo in team history – joining LeBron and Kyrie in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals – to each net at least 41 points in a game, doing so in a thrilling overtime win in Boston.
After leading Cleveland to an 8-1 start, the beat went on for Mitchell – who dropped 43 points in a win over the Lakers, 41 more in a win over the Pacers and 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-5 from deep, in a home victory over his former team in a win at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in late December.
The 26-year-old went into a brief funk as the calendar year 2022 drew to a close – failing to top the 20-point mark in three of four outings. So, he started 2023 with a vengeance.
After netting just 15 points in his previous matchup against Chicago on New Year’s Eve, Mitchell posted a performance for the ages – erupting for a franchise-record 71 points in an overtime victory over those same Bulls on January 2 in Cleveland.
On that historic night, Mitchell had the highest scoring performance since Kobe Bryant went for 81 against Toronto back in 2006, going off for 24 points in the third quarter, 18 in the fourth and 13 more in the deciding overtime session. In doing so, Mitchell became just the seventh player in league history to top the 70-point plateau – but the only one, typical of his unselfish style, to do so while handing out at least 10 assists.
Following his magnum opus at the FieldHouse, Mitchell said: “I did it in an effort where we came back and won and it’s how we won. For me, that’s what’s nuts, to be honest. I’m extremely blessed, and I’m humbled that I’m in that company. This was a big milestone, but at the end of the day, those guys won at the highest level – and that’s my ultimate goal – but to be there in the record books with them is truly incredible.”
Mitchell’s next big game came two nights later – and this one, albeit in a frustrating loss, was truly meaningful.
In his emotional return to Utah earlier this month, where he’d spent the first five years of his career, Mitchell admitted to some butterflies beforehand.
“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.”
It was not just another road game, and while the Jazz – behind a big effort from former Cavalier Jordan Clarkson – stymied what would prove to be the first of two visits to Salt Lake City this season. On the night, Mitchell led all scorers with 46 points.
Not long after, in an MLK Day home win over New Orleans, Mitchell strained his left groin and has been forced to miss three of Cleveland’s last four games. The one game in which he was able to go was earlier on the Cavs current road trip – in a tough loss at Madison Square Garden, with his game-tying layup attempt falling short in the closing seconds.
Mitchell knew he was fouled – and the league’s Two-Minute Report bore that out – but instead of putting all the blame on officiating, he manned-up and provided a postgame mea culpa.
“I can cry about the foul calls all I want, (but) I just need to be more poised for our group,” he said. “One turnover on a layup - even though I feel like I should have gotten fouled - pull it out and run a play and get something. And then the same one where I airballed the layup. That's on me. And then I let the team down at the end of the game. We played a really good game up to that point, all of us, and I didn't do my job. That's on me.”
This was one of the most revealing moments about Mitchell.
He re-injured himself on that last play, cramping up in both legs and tweaking his injured groin. He didn’t have to address the media after the game, and he certainly didn’t need to shoulder the blame. Most players would not have. And certainly no superstar not named Donovan Mitchell would have.
But after a season in which we’ve gotten to know Mitchell, we now see that that’s exactly the type of person that he is. As exceptional as he is on the court, he’s equally – if not more – impressive off it.
Fans and teammates and media have seen his kindness and empathy. He handles adversity with maturity and grace. He’s more than generous with his time. He’s carried the burden when the team has failed and spread the credit when it comes out victorious.
Donovan Mitchell is as good a person as he is a player, and if you’ve watched a minute of Cavaliers basketball this season – you’ve seen that he is one DAMN good player. He’s what young, up-and-coming stars should aspire to. He’s what’s good about the NBA.
So, in about three weeks, Mitchell will head back for the mountains. He’ll represent our team and our city as an All-Star starter. There couldn’t be a better man for the job.