Los Angeles • Between the takeoff and finish of a dunk, there’s an instant that hums with a rising intensity, when a crowd realizes what is about to happen.
It’s punctuated with sharp intakes of breath that precedes awe. It’s an instant that leaves an imprint.
Donovan Mitchell has been creating that imprint since he was 15 years old.
Mitchell was asked recently if he felt like his life was about to change when he competes at the Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday night in Los Angeles for All-Star Weekend.
“I don’t look at it like that,” he said, with a nervous laugh.
The first college coaches to take interest in him were watching him at a high school practice, dunking to an audience of his teammates. As a Utah Jazz rookie, he’s assumed an almost nightly slot on ESPN’s SportsCenter, dedicated to slams that get people out of their seats.
The only thing changing for Mitchell on Saturday is the environment of Los Angeles and the scope of the broadcast, which will be nationwide. He was born with gifts that have helped place him among the best dunkers in the world, and those around him have seen this coming for a long time.
Chuck Millan, who runs a venture called Team Flight Brothers, met Mitchell when he was a scrawny teenager. He was running the National High School Slam Dunk Contest, and Mitchell was one of the lesser-known names in a field.
Even then, Millan had an inkling where Mitchell was headed.
“For me, it’s what I do: I notice these things,” he said. “Certain guys have certain mannerisms when they walk or do certain things that tell you about what they can do. But I think even for the untrained eye, I think Donovan looks like he’s a pretty athletic kid. Obviously it’s a little surprising that he’s that athletic — freak athletic.”
Mitchell can leap with the best of them: His max vertical at the NBA Combine last May was 40.5 inches. But it’s part of a package. Leaping ability alone is not enough.
If Millan were to build the perfect dunker, his ideal candidate would be about 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 — shorter guys can do more in the air, and they can look more impressive when finishing. He would have big hands, capable of palming a ball. He would have long arms to reach high above the rim. Obviously, he would be an explosive leaper.
“Honestly,” he said, “Donovan is pretty close to all of that.”
For Mitchell, practicing dunks is not a chore. When he went to Brewster Academy, he would spend hours at a time working on dunks, bouncing the ball off the backboard, off the back wall of the gym, through his legs at the foul line. He even threw down a windmill against the Sacramento Kings this season.
Millan is one of the coaches helping Mitchell put together a routine for Saturday. He initially approached Mitchell with a list of five or six dunks that might push the envelope of an event that sometimes feels starved for new ideas.
“He’s confident in himself,” Millan said. “He’s willing to try everything he has on the table. I don’t bring crazy stuff, but there’s dunks on that list that are pretty difficult. And he just said, ‘Those all look really good.’”
There’s obvious differences between being a good in-game dunker and a good contest dunker: The judges will be looking for creativity, and Mitchell will need to chose a routine that showcases his verticality and his reach. It has to look hard. For Mitchell, he has explosiveness and reach, but he’s also one of the shorter competitors in the field, and he doesn’t jump nearly as high from one foot as two. Those slight limitations may impact how judging drums out.
But also, Millan said, it can boil down to showmanship. While Mitchell might not resort to wearing a Superman cape like Dwight Howard or jumping over a car like Blake Griffin, the presentation of each dunk will have to feed into the energy of the dunk itself. That’s where Mitchell’s natural charisma comes in handy.
“His attitude is so contagious,” Millan said. “You always know that he’s having fun.”
Mitchell said he’s been feeling nerves. A dunk contest fanatic, he’s watched contests for years. He wonders how Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine developed the consistency to nail every dunk they attempted in the 2016 contest that saw them go to overtime.
“I’ve done that before, and I’ve also missed,” he said. “So I’m trying to keep my head on straight and stay focused and just make that first dunk because if you don’t, then it goes downhill from there.”
Mitchell has spent the past week getting tips and jabs from his teammates. Royce O’Neale joked that he tried some things out in his NBA 2K videogame that Mitchell should incorporate into the contest. Rudy Gobert said he would be on Twitter during the contest, ready to hurl praise or critiques from Mitchell’s performance.
But while he does care about the support of his teammates, Mitchell’s audience is growing beyond his locker room. And maybe, it will change his life.
“This will be the most star-struck I will be ever in my life,” he said. “I’ve been watching this since I was like, eight. And now that I’ll be a part of it, it’ll be crazy.”
ALL-STAR SATURDAY<br>Donovan Mitchell will be the localheadliner in the final event of the evening, but the NBA is hostingthree events at Staples Center the night prior to the All-Star Game,starting at 6 p.m. MST.<br>Skills Challenge • Joel Embiid(76ers), Buddy Hield (Kings), Lou Williams (Clippers), Andre Drummond(Pistons), Al Horford (Celtics), Lauri Markkanen (Bulls), SpencerDinwiddie (Nets), Jamal Murray (Nuggets)<br>Three-Point Contest •Eric Gordon (Rockets), Devin Booker (Suns), Klay Thompson (Warriors),Bradley Beal (Wizards), Wayne Ellington (Heat), Kyle Lowry (Raptors),Tobias Harris (Clippers), Paul George (Thunder)<br>Slam Dunk Contest • Victor Oladipo (Pacers), Donovan Mitchell (Jazz), Larry Nance, Jr. (Cavaliers), Dennis Smith Jr.(Mavericks)