Charlotte, N.C. • Donovan Mitchell started a second job on All-Star Saturday night. Weirdly enough, it came about because he was exhausted from his full-time gig: being the Utah Jazz’s best offensive player.
After winning the All-Star Saturday Slam Dunk Contest last year, rather than defend his title in 2019, Mitchell joined TNT’s commentary team along with Kevin Harlan, Kenny Smith, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. Mitchell knew he would have to work with a coach to prepare new dunks; work he didn’t want to put on himself this year.
“I just know the way I felt last year, we came back and played Portland, and I felt dead tired after a quote-unquote break,” Mitchell said.
It’s not that Mitchell’s quitting the contest forever, he says. But this time around hasn’t been easy, thanks to expectations raised and a largely lost summer thanks to a nagging foot injury. Opponents also know what to expect from Mitchell now that they have a year of tape.
“It’s different when you’re the surprise than when everybody’s gunning for you. As a team, we’ve started to pick that up as well,” Mitchell said. “Guys are quicker, guys are going to force you to your weak hand, and you’re not going to get as many options to exploit as you did in your first year.”
That’s worn on Mitchell a little bit, as he holds the sixth-highest usage percentage in the NBA. Teammates know the strain he faces, but appreciate the work he puts in.
“The one game in Philly, I had zero assists, and I remember I just got hit over the head,” Mitchell said. “That whole night, I had Joe Ingles telling me ‘You better shoot the ball 35 more times,' and the next night in Boston I had 28. Having teammates like that makes my life 10 times easier.”
So to set himself up well for the future, Mitchell put together a shorter schedule in this All-Star weekend. He’s scheduled to fly out Sunday, even before the All-Star Game itself. He flew in Thursday, the day before he had to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge practice and game. He took part in an Adidas photo shoot for his new shoes to be released this summer. He went to a dinner with Dwyane Wade. And he commentated the NBA’s showcase event of All-Star Saturday.
“I’ve always wanted to do that, I’ve wanted to be like Shaq, Chuck, Kenny, Ernie, all of those guys, and to just experience that,” Mitchell said. “Now is a great time, I kind of have some knowledge after being in it last year, and I think it will be pretty cool to go out there and learn from those guys who do it on a daily basis and also played in the league.”
Mitchell, who is considering pursuing a career in broadcasting after his playing career is over, was a prominent part of ESPN’s NBA draft coverage last summer. But Saturday’s experience was the first time he was tasked with commentating on-court action live, a chance he hopes to take a lot from.
And while he was at times overshadowed by the louder members of the crew, Mitchell added real dunk-contest experience to the broadcast, something his temporary coworkers didn’t have. When Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. jumped over rapper J. Cole, he noted that, in that position, “You’re scared about your feet.”
Mitchell’s presence in the contest itself was missed, though, as Hamidou Diallo won an ugly contest that featured multiple misses and the kind of dunks that might be impressive during normal NBA action, but not the best that the NBA’s athletes had to offer. Diallo’s dunk over Shaquille O’Neal, which he finished with his elbow in the basket, was the highlight of the night.
“He really made a name for himself,” Mitchell said. “The Shaq dunk was incredible, man.”
The Skills Challenge — where players have to weave through cones, complete a pass through a circular target, and hit a 3-point shot — featured its most exciting finish ever, as Boston’s Jayson Tatum hit a shot from beyond half court to come back and win against Atlanta’s Trae Young. Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s Joe Harris outdueled hometown favorite Steph Curry, putting up 25, then 26 points among two rounds in the 3-Point Contest in one of its best-ever performances.
Last year, Mitchell provided a final flourish to All-Star Saturday. This year, he wants to make that same mark to the end of the Jazz’s regular season with the added benefit of more rest.
“I think mentally I need to be ready for the second half of the year, that’s really where my focus is at," Mitchell said. “I have a lot to work on and improve on. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m doing good things. As a team, I think we’re in a good place as well.”