Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell was star of summer; now the real deal begins

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz talks with teammates as they take on the Boston Celtics during the NBA Summer league basketball game at the Huntsman Center, July 6, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

When Donovan Mitchell woke up Monday morning to attend Jazz media day, he took his phone, scrolled through his contacts and stopped at teammate Tony Bradley. He sent the proverbrial “I’m ready” text. Together, they rolled to Zions Bank Basketball Center.

Mitchell, Utah’s prized rookie, doesn’t yet have his drivers license, a sobering reality for any Jazz fan. Because, while the hopes for Mitchell are sky-high, it’s a reminder that he’s still just a kid just three weeks past his 21st birthday.

Everyone sees the smile, the charismatic personality, the deft way he handles interviews. But, now that summer league is over and the real thing is here, just how much should the Jazz expect from its lottery pick? As Utah hurtles towards its preseason debut next week, it is a significant question.

“The biggest thing for me is not even listening to the expectations, because it’s easy to get caught up in that,” Mitchell said. “Social media is an incredible tool, and I know that I’m very active on twitter. But I try hard not to pay attention to what people think. I know what I can do, so I try and go out there and do it. If that works, great. If not, there’s something I know that I can improve.”

Donovan Mitchell update<br>• Played two seasons at Louisville, earning all-conference honors as a sophomore.<br>• Was drafted by the Denver Nuggets. The Jazz then traded Trey Lyles and the No. 24 pick for his rights.<br>• Drew a lot of attention with his play during the summer, and was one of the best players in both the Jazz and Las Vegas summer leagues.<br>• Is expected to be in Utah’s rotation at multiple perimeter spots<br>• Wears number 45 to pay homage to Michael Jordan’s baseball career.

It can be argued Mitchell comes in with as much expectation as any first year player in recent Jazz history. Deron Williams was highly touted, but spent his rookie season playing behind veteran point guard Keith McLeod. Williams played almost 29 minutes per game that year. He averaged almost 11 points per contest. But that team went 41-41, struggled significantly at points and didn’t make the playoffs.

Dante Exum was the fifth pick of the 2014 draft. He ended up a starter in the second half of the season, but that was out of necessity because Quin Snyder lost trust in Trey Burke. Exum played well — especially defensively — but that Jazz team, still developing, also didn’t qualify for the postseason.

This is different. It’s difficult for a rookie to make an impact on a team of veterans, but that’s what is being asked of Mitchell. Yes, Utah is without Gordon Hayward, it’s all-star forward from a year ago. But almost all within the organization are expecting to make the postseason again, or at least contend for a playff spot. And Mitchell is expected to play a role in that.

Mitchell enters training camp as a backup shooting guard. But the Jazz think he’s ready defensively and can guard multiple positions on the perimeter. Privately, teammates have said he’s played very well in pick-up games during September. He has a two-way ability, even as a rookie, that the Jazz are going to need.

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell poses for photos after the Jazz introduced their 2017 NBA Draft picks during a news conference Wednesday, June 28, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“He’s someone who can score and defend, and we’re excited to have him,” Rodney Hood said a few weeks ago. “He can really shoot the ball, and he can get to the basket off the dribble. He’s competitive, athletic and strong. That makes him ready to make an impact defensively.”

Mitchell’s impact off the floor has already been significant. As a draft prospect he sought the Jazz out, worked out for them when his stock suggested he was out of Utah’s range. He was visibly excited on draft night when he discovered the Jazz traded up for him.

He’s engaging on Twitter and Instagram, and regularly holds conversations with Jazz fans. He has done videos and autograph sessions. He’s visible around Salt Lake City, and is quickly becoming a media favorite. If his actual game reaches that same level, Mitchell has a chance to be a face of the franchise.

He knows the road to that won’t always be smooth. The adjustment from college to the NBA, especially defensively, is real. At Louisville under former coach Rick Pitino, who was fired Wednesday morning, the Cardinals played a lot of zone defense. That meant Mitchell got to hang out in the lane, and look for opportunities.

“That’s how I got a lot of my steals,” said Mitchell, who was not made available Wednesday. “I can’t do that in the NBA. Guys are too good, and you only have three seconds in the lane, so you have to get in and out.”

Mitchell is also going to have to make up for some physical shortcomings. His frame is small for a shooting guard. At 6-foot-3, he’ll guard people three and four inches taller on many nights. There is precedent for success in that realm. Detroit Pistons shooting guard Avery Bradley is 6-foot-2 and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Mitchell has a lot of Bradley’s defensive attributes — long arms, quick and strong hands, great anticipation.

He’s also farther along offensively than Bradley at the same stage.

Playing for Snyder, the defense is what’s going to get Mitchell on the floor. But with his smooth jumper, and ability to explode in the basket, Mitchell will be looked upon to score as well.

“I just have to go out there and play my game,” Mitchell said. “It’s tougher than college. There’s 82 of them, so there’s adjustment there. A lot of people don’t expect much from a rookie. But that’s all the motivation I need.”

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