Now that Donovan Mitchell has pretty much put a wrap on enjoying Utah’s summer landscapes and touring fans’ holiday cookouts and hanging with students at college football games, having visited Rice-Eccles Stadium and Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium — don’t worry BYU fans, he said he’ll “most definitely” get to LaVell’s Place in due time — he’s completely dialed in on the matter at hand.
Helping the Jazz win.
In a dark gym on the side of an isolated court at the Jazz’s practice facility on Monday, Mitchell hesitated for all of about a nanosecond when he was asked about his reasons for optimism concerning the 2018-19 season. He didn’t come right out and say it, but he implied that the players’ expectations for themselves, most specifically his own, will not be limited by anything anyone on the outside says, not even the most positive of projections.
“We know each other,” he said. “We made the moves to keep everybody here. That [speaks] to what we feel. If Ricky [Rubio] doesn’t get hurt, Dante [Exum] doesn’t get hurt, things may have turned out differently in the semifinals last year. …”
He paused, then continued.
“… We can’t live on what we should’ve, what we could’ve done. No, let’s just go out and do it. Everybody has that same hunger and passion. We’ve all been underrated our entire careers. The same people that have us fourth or second in the West now are the same people who had us 10th or 11th last year. For us to listen to that now, that’s not in our character. We’re going to go out there and play. We’re going to go out there and do what we do.”
What the Jazz are able to do comes down to a fistful of advancements they must have made and must yet make to catch and pass the better teams in the West, let alone get within shouting distance of the best team on the planet.
Mitchell mentioned some of them.
The first is, they must take advantage of the aforementioned familiarity they have with one another. Some of the opponents they’ll battle at the top of the Western Conference have made changes, changes the Jazz dealt with in an extreme way last season. Rubio, their starting point guard, was new and unproven in Quin Snyder’s system. Mitchell, their embryonic star, was new and unproven. Jae Crowder arrived in February, having slumped in Cleveland. Royce O’Neale was new and unproven. Thabo Sefolosha was new. Epke Udoh was new.
This time around, rookie Grayson Allen is new.
Nearly everyone else is the same.
Or are they?
Mitchell talked about players on the team getting better, individually and collectively, particularly he underscored his own improvements from his rookie season, specifically aiming to see the floor better and increase his efficiency.
“Those are the two main things,” he said. “Being able to slow myself down, kind of not run around like a chicken with its head cut off. Going out there and just staying calm, staying relaxed. I’m not going to be able to take people by surprise. That’s not going to happen. I’m on their board and I’ve got to be ready for it.”
He said when he reviewed film of games last season, he couldn’t believe some of the crazy shots he took, and was amazed his coaches and veteran teammates gave him space to do that. Now that he’s looped around the track once, he figures his ability to better recognize situations on the court and take smart shots will be increased, more refined.
“One thing I haven’t really put out there is the work I’ve been doing,” he said. “I’ve been working hard, just getting ready. I’m excited for what we’ve got coming up.”
He said no one should mistake or mix up his passion for enjoying life, for soaking in the good things around him, for going to football games, for or with any kind of apathy or presumption about his approach to basketball.
“I don’t do things for the attention or the money,” he said. “God willing, that will come. I pray to God every night, that if I do this long enough, my children’s children’s children will be well taken care of. I was like this in college. I went to volleyball games, tennis matches, soccer matches, baseball games, football games. It didn’t matter. Not so much to say, ‘oh, I’m there,’ but just to be a kid, to watch these games.
“Now, it’s turned into, ‘Donovan Mitchell’s coming to the game,’ but for me, it’s just living all these moments. I always wanted to be on the sideline of a football game, just to sit there and watch. I always wanted to be court-side at a basketball game, just to watch. It’s something I’m living out, to have fun with, as well as having fans, little kids running up to me for an autograph, because as a kid, I wanted that autograph. To be able to give that to kids is awesome.”
Mitchell is fully aware that, as he said it, “all this could be taken away in the blink of an eye.” He’s intent on remaining the same person he’s always been, the person his mother raised him to be, not allowing the early success he’s gained to change or satisfy him or, even worse, to get him all fatheaded.
“There’s no reason to go out and act like you belong or to be different,” he said. “I want to be different in a different way. I want to be someone who’s relatable. … If I can make your day happy, I’m going to try. I’m going to keep the same energy and be the same person.”
He complimented Snyder on his handling of all of the players, himself included, saying the coach “knows how to motivate, knows how to get you going. We’ve had many talks about becoming a better passer, becoming a better shooter, shooting the ball more, shooting the ball less, finding guys, whatever it might be. Playing for a coach like that who believes in you, who gives you the ball as a rookie, is unheard of. … He has that trust in me to go out there and make plays. He’s a great coach, he gets after it, he’s precise about every little thing.”
Mitchell, then, is spreading his wings for a big year. He’s bullish on the Jazz’s season. He’s convinced the team is on the verge of something meaningful. And the real sign of all that positivity, all that great expectation and good comfort, came when he saved the best for last, when he was asked about Joe Ingles, and promptly insulted him.
Said Mitchell, laughing: “He’s the worst.”
Yup. It’s going to be a fine year for Donovan Mitchell’s Jazz.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.