Miami • As teammates shuffled to the showers around him Sunday evening, Donovan Mitchell sat and scrolled through his phone. Abruptly, he tossed it behind him, sending it clattering to the bottom of his locker.
He didn’t need to keep dwelling — not like that.
Mitchell had just missed a potential game-winner minutes before in a 103-102 loss to the Miami Heat. With dinner ahead that evening and a few extra days on the south Florida coast, he had time to soothe a fresh wound. But in his first season with the Utah Jazz (16-24), getting over a loss hasn’t always been so easy.
“I don’t think personally you can get used to it — losing,” he had said earlier in the day. “I don’t think it’s a winning mentality. … It’s tough because you gotta forget about it, but you’ve also got to use it as motivation to get better.”
Mitchell has ambushed the NBA with his rookie-of-the-year candidacy, but sometimes his decorated history escapes attention. Mitchell came from Brewster Academy, a prestigious prep school that won two national championships when he attended. He spent two years at Louisville, and in both seasons the Cardinals won at least 23 games and finished ranked in the AP’s top 20.
JAZZ AT WIZARDS
When • Wednesday, 5 p.m. MST
TV • ATTSN
Getting suited to an 82-game schedule is a grind for any rookie, but with more games comes more losses. And in Mitchell’s first NBA season, the 21-year-old has now lost more games, 24, in the past three months than in his previous four years of school.
It’s familiar territory for the Jazz, who have recently drafted prospects from powerful programs such as Michigan, Duke and Kentucky. But dealing with more losing is a sensitive issue — coach Quin Snyder prefers to view the larger picture.
“It’s more a question of dealing with the amount of games and the length of the games,” Snyder said. “Presumably when you’re a rookie, your legs are fresh, but mentally there’s a fatigue that accompanies playing 82 games, then including preseason or playoffs. That’s another level of mental preparation you have to go through — you don’t gear up for games twice a week, they just keep coming.”
They do. And for the Jazz, it’s been a punishing stretch: The team has lost 13 of its last 16 games.
That segment has also seen Mitchell take on more of a load than ever: Every month has seen his minutes rise, from 22.2 per game in October to 36.8 per game in January. So too have his scoring load, the attention defenses pay to him, and his roles on the court all increased.
He’s been embraced as a closer, which has moved him from being a feel-good subplot of games to and put him front and center in the results. By the same token that he was the player who had a game-clinching layup against LeBron James last month, he was also the one who missed the game-winning shot against the Heat.
It’s a higher calling, but Mitchell wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When you start worrying about it, that’s when you start to do less and you’re not able to get better,” he said. “If you have it in your head, you’re kinda holding yourself back.”
There’s no doubt that it takes a toll. Mitchell only lost back-to-back games once at Louisville — with the Jazz, he’s already experienced six streaks of at least three losses each. As some of the “wow” factor fades from his life in the NBA — he’s said he had some initial moments when he was star-struck — the results have become more of his focus. And lately, the Jazz just haven’t been winning all that much.
”It’s cool when you sit back and look at it, but it’s a long season,” he said of his rookie success. “We’ve got a lot of games left. We’re trying to make the playoffs. If I get caught up looking at it the way the media does, that’s what will start tearing me down and I’ll start getting distracted.”
But while the games are more frequent, progress comes more gradually. After hitting his own game-winner against the Jazz on Sunday, Heat wing Josh Richardson said it’s taken him years to work up confidence in late game situations. Mitchell, who doesn’t seem to lack for confidence, is on a faster track.
The potential that everyone sees in the rookie is also what makes some of the older players in the locker room more even-keeled about Utah’s recent ugly run. That same fire that burns Mitchell after every defeat could be the very thing that brings the Jazz back around.
“Just focus on the next one: We’ll look at some clips and get better from it,” Thabo Sefolosha said. “We’ve got all the confidence in the world that he’s gonna make a bunch of [game-winning shots] in his career. We want him to put the ball in his hands and make the right play.”
Donovan Mitchell’s track record
Throughout his career, Donovan Mitchell has played for elite schools that rarely lost:
2013-14 • Brewster Academy, 33-0*
2014-15 • Brewster Academy, 34-1*
2015-16 • Louisville, 23-8
2016-17 • Louisville, 25-9
*National Prep champions