Donovan Mitchell has never played next to anyone like Mike Conley. And Mike Conley’s never played next to anyone like Donovan Mitchell.
Perhaps the second statement is more meaningful than the first, after all, Conley’s played 12 years of NBA basketball before this season. But among the perimeter scorers he’s played with, who is anything like Mitchell? Tyreke Evans? Tony Allen? Lance Stephenson? Courtney Lee? Rudy Gay? OJ Mayo? Juan Carlos Navarro? Mitchell’s proved to be more capable than any of those guys in only two seasons of NBA play.
Likewise, Mitchell’s spent his whole NBA life playing next to Ricky Rubio — unless the point guard was hurt, and then he played next to Royce O’Neale. Conley is a much more able scorer than Rubio ever was, and probably makes more careful decisions with the basketball, too.
There was always likely to be an adaptation process for both men to play next to each other. But because both were excited at the prospect of pairing up, they got right to work on their chemistry.
That came first in Los Angeles in June. On the same trip that they traveled to the NBA’s annual award show — including Conley’s Teammate of the Year and Sportsmanship Award honors — Mitchell and Conley first went to a gym together to start working out. It wasn’t complicated, as they worked on shooting, playmaking and simple reads, but it did give each man a chance to start to learn about his new backcourt partner.
For Conley, Mitchell’s presence will necessitate playing off the ball more than ever before. Many of the league’s point guards would find this tough: Chris Paul, for example, never really found synergistic flow with James Harden, which meant the Rockets were at their best with the two men staggering their minutes as much as possible. Russell Westbrook had similar issues playing next to Kevin Durant. Playing without the ball in your hands means the ability to knock down catch-and-shoot shots. Cutting, and even screening, become paramount.
But Conley is confident in his ability to do all of that, thanks to his experience with his AAU teams growing up. His Speice Indy Heat team in 2004, for example, featured Eric Gordon, Daequan Cook, Josh McRoberts and Greg Oden alongside him in the starting five, one of the most talented AAU teams ever assembled. It was more than that, though: They played together like a team.
“I truly believe we had one of the best AAU teams of the modern era. If I had to compare our teenage basketball team to a current NBA team, we were kind of like the San Antonio Spurs,” Conley told Sports Illustrated for Kids. “Very consistent and unselfish. No egos. We played hard, won a lot, and had so much fun.”
Fifteen years later, there are lines to be drawn from that team to this one.
“I almost prefer it, having multiple ballhandlers. Just because I’m the point guard, I don’t have to bring it up every time or initiate the offense every time. I’m a basketball player. I know how to play off the ball, cut, set screens, and that’s why I’m here.”
Mitchell, too, will have the ball in his hands less than before. He’s fine with that, knowing the load that the Jazz asked him to carry was a lot for a player of his experience level — Mitchell’s usage percentage last year was 31.6%, good for seventh in the league. That tied him with LeBron James. The number of shots he takes will go down this season, as Mitchell passes it more and occasionally gets a chance to rest.
The load change on Mitchell’s shoulders offensively figures to pay dividends for his individual defense. While the Jazz struggled defensively in preseason as a team, Mitchell was a lone bright spot, staying aggressive on his man, navigating screens better than ever before and generally impressing head coach Quin Snyder.
“Donovan’s been really defending,” Snyder said. “I see more than anything, a commitment on that end. ... I’ve seen that energy.”
And on the offensive end, some of those skills Mitchell will use he’s actually learning from Conley. In particular, Mitchell says he’s been tutored on the art of “patience in pick and roll, how to keep my dribble alive," and “Just because I can jump and make a pass doesn’t mean I should do it all the time.”
Conley’s presence has allowed Mitchell to play at a higher level, and vice versa. Together, it’s the kind of ball that Conley’s always imagined. After a particularly solid team offensive performance in preseason, Conley beamed while he spoke.
“That was the way I’ve always dreamed of playing basketball, being part of teams that do that not only one or two plays in a game, but every possession down,” he said. “That’s as pure as the game can get for me.”
For Utah’s acclaimed backcourt, it’s not sacrifice. It’s symbiosis.