In a homecoming of sorts, Donovan Mitchell's mind won't exactly be on the celebrations and hoards of family packing Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.
Instead, Utah's three-time all-star will be much more focused on the immediate task at hand, keeping the Jazz in the No. 4 spot — and expanding that advantage — when Utah begins its six-game road trip with a marquee showdown against the Knicks. Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. MST.
While Mitchell's return to the Garden is sure to elevate talks of the shooting guard eventually returning home and suiting up for his hometown team, Mitchell has been quick to extinguish the rumors in a multitude of ways.
First, he elected to sign a max-contract with the Jazz in Nov. 2020, essentially keeping him in the snowy mountains of Utah until the 2026-27 season. As if the contract itself wasn't enough to prove his commitment to bring the franchise its first title, Mitchell has constantly reaffirmed his desire to stay in Salt Lake City through words.
Whenever broached about the subject, he lets it be known that Utah is his home and it's where he wants to be.
"We have some of the best fans in the league, and you can feel that when we're out on the court," he said a few weeks ago. "For me, my goal has always been about winning, and I think we have a great chance to do that here. We know what we have to do, and we are working towards that, it's just about getting better."
Make no mistake though, returning home to play at the mecca that is Madison Square Garden will undoubtedly feel different when the ball is thrown into the air on Sunday night — but not for the reason Knicks fans may want.
With nostalgia at the forefront of emotions, Mitchell makes his return home with someone very close to him by his side. Friends closer than brothers, Eric Paschall will be wearing the same jersey as Mitchell when they run out of the visiting locker room and onto the court.
They've been best friends since they were children, growing up in Westchester County, New York. Not only did they dominate in the same neighborhood, but they also took their talents to the AAU circuit, where they found equal success, much to the chagrin of others in the "bigger" parts of New York.
"Nobody really expected us to be where we are at, especially playing on the same team," Paschall said. "We were just two kids from Westchester, and now we are two guys in the league. … We just had to prove ourselves."
Although they each took vastly different routes to the league and have different roles with the Jazz, nothing can take away from the moment they return home — together.
"We were coming up together, getting better together, and always dreamed we'd be in the NBA. … But to now be together in the NBA, it doesn't get any better," he said.
While Mitchell and Paschall are used to playing together, both from their early days and recently with the Jazz, Sunday night in New York will definitely have a different feel to it. It is, after all, the first time their families will be able to watch them share a court together back in the state where their dreams first began to take shape.
"It's still weird," Mitchell said at the start of the season. "Seeing him every day, it just feels weird, but in a good way. It really happened. … I'm happy that it did."
Locked in a fierce battle for playoff positioning and playing severely shorthanded, both Mitchell and Paschall understand how vital a game Sunday night is for Utah's championship aspirations. But even in the heat of battle, they're sure to appreciate the full circle moment they've achieved when the whistle blows and the clock begins counting down.
"I'm excited. … That's all I can really say," Paschall said with a smile.