Donovan Mitchell has a goal in his third year — become an elite defender

Australia's Andrew Bogut, left and United States Donovan Mitchell, right compete for the ball during their exhibition basketball game in Melbourne, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Sydney, Australia • June 22, 2017 wasn’t all that long ago. Just two years, plus some change.

But because of everything that’s happened in Donovan Mitchell’s career — a sensational rookie campaign, leading a team to a playoff series win, and even now, being named a captain of Team USA as they head to a FIBA World Cup — it’s still difficult to remember how quickly his rapid ascent has been. But that’s the date Donovan Mitchell was drafted into the NBA, first by the Denver Nuggets, then he was immediately sent to the Utah Jazz.

Back on that date, those who are employed in the field of projecting college players to the NBA thought that offense wasn’t going to be Mitchell’s initial calling card. Sure, the sophomore from Louisville was athletic, but he was regarded as a “two foot leaper”, so maybe that wouldn’t translate to useful production. Sure, he scored some points, but he was a “very streaky shooter” who “struggles at the rim.” And then there was his height, which some thought made him a point guard without the requisite vision. And heck, some of those criticisms are still valid in his game today, though we now critique them at the level among the NBA’s elite, not the “Will he contribute or not?” prism of a mid-first-round pick.

Instead, defense would be his skill that would carry him early. Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress wrote at that time “Perhaps the most appealing part of Mitchell’s profile, particularly early on in his career, lies on the defensive end. ... Mitchell has outstanding physical tools to get the job done, with his elite length, chiseled frame and quick feet, but also the mentality, as he’s a highly competitive guy who is willing to pick up full court, get on the floor for loose balls, and generally make life difficult for opposing players.”

The player he was compared to most before the draft was Avery Bradley, the 28-year-old defense-only player who most famously played for the Celtics before signing a deal with the Lakers this offseason. Mitchell, perhaps because he’s been tasked with a heavy load on the offensive end, hasn’t been Bradley. He’s been a good-but-not-great defender with the Jazz, and the coaching staff typically starts him out guarding someone other than the opposition’s best player. But this season, Mitchell wants to change that.

“For me, the biggest thing is just to get back to my roots. The biggest thing is to elevate my defense, to get back to what got me drafted,” Mitchell told The Salt Lake Tribune after defeating Canada in the USA’s final pre-World Cup exhibition game. “I think that’s one thing I’ve prided myself on, and I think (USA head coach Gregg Popovich) has really put that in my head as well.”

In exhibition matches so far, it’s been inconsistent. In the first game, a win, against Australia, Mitchell got after it defensively for all 24 seconds of an opponents’ possession. In that game, he guarded Patty Mills, and really shut him down in the second half, navigating screens like a snake and being extremely aggressive about denying the Aussies’ most dangerous scorer the ball.

But in the loss vs. Australia that followed, Mitchell was exploitable defensively, whether it was due to fatigue, frustration, or the simple complacency of playing the same team twice in a 42-hour window. Against Canada, Mitchell was again better. Regularly, he checked with Popovich on a defensive scheme or how to handle a rotation in a certain type of defense. The most frustrated he became wasn’t due to a missed basket, but a missed defensive opportunity in the third quarter.

When he was asked what kind of defender he wants to become, Mitchell first pointed to Bradley, but he also said he was taking some lessons from Celtics guard, and USA Basketball teammate, Marcus Smart. Both of those players try to set the tone defensively with constant physicality, and Mitchell says that’s “something I want to really take on” in the Jazz’s upcoming season.

Mitchell as tone-setter also extends to his role as a leader, both on the Jazz and Team USA. Far surpassing his own expectations, he was named as a co-captain of this World Cup squad, and while the role surprised him, he’s tried to take it head on, applying the lessons to his leadership of the Jazz, even as a third-year player.

“Whether it’s vocally, off the floor in the hotel room with the guys, or on the floor, I’m just trying to find ways to become a leader,” Mitchell said. “Being a captain of the team, it allows me to try to improve my leadership skills. It’s a big year coming up, and I think those will be really evident in this upcoming year.”

And the Jazz’s big additions this year, in the form of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, will only help Mitchell’s life on the offensive end, opening him up to 100% effort on defense, too. “I’m excited. The biggest thing is spacing on the floor, guys who can create and knock shots down. Bogey, who shoots damn near 40%, Mike can get into the paint, hits about 36% from 3, that opens up a lot,” Mitchell said. “And being able to play off each other, that’s something that will be really huge for me.”

The two-way star is absolutely in vogue in the NBA, too. While it is certainly difficult to be a defensive force while applying big-time offensive pressure, the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and others have shown that it’s possible. If Mitchell wants to be in that tier of a player, he knows one way is to contribute like them on both ends of the floor. It’s a stretch goal, to be sure, but it seems within the realm of Mitchell’s possibility.

And two years, two months, and six days ago, who would have projected that?