In the handful of interviews that Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has conducted with the media since the team reconvened, a couple of consistent themes have emerged.
Perhaps not the most typical of topics for a 23-year-old in his third season as an NBA player. And yet, he’s made it clear, those notions are foremost on his mind, more important to him than ever before.
A season from hell will do that. And, in his mind, the circumstances demand it: The forced hiatus due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The microscope that his relationship with teammate Rudy Gobert has been under since they became the first two players in the league to test positive for COVID-19. His reticence to publicly clear the air. The death of George Floyd spawning social and racial justice movements. The pending resumption of play. The adjustments necessary to account for the loss of high-scoring teammate Bojan Bogdanovic.
In spite of his constant worrying about his lack of access to high-level equipment or facilities during the break, that time off nevertheless wound up yielding Mitchell a huge benefit, in his estimation.
The opportunity to process his priorities.
“I’ve been going nonstop since I got into the league — you get in, you start playing, the dunk contest, the playoffs, go to China, go to all these different places for Adidas, come back, play again, go back overseas, play on Team USA, and then another shoe tour. I’ve been going nonstop,” Mitchell said. “This time has allowed me, really, to sit back and just watch. You know, I’m asking questions from guys around the league, how they handle different things. I think it’s been a time for me to really just find myself in a way that I never really found, because I’ve been on the move for so long.”
A short, but critical to-do list
What he found are a few things he wants to get better at.
Improving as a player, obviously, is one way. But he also wants to improve as a teammate, which prompted him to reach out to other players during the break — either to talk shop about hoops, to organize group workouts on Zoom, to gauge opinions on various topics in his official capacity as the Jazz’s team representative, or simply just to check in on how they were doing. He also felt compelled to start using his prolific social media platforms to speak out on the issues going on in the world.
“The biggest thing for me is not allowing the name I’ve created on the floor and off the floor to kind of affect the work that I’ve been doing,” Mitchell said. “Continuing to work on my game, get better as a teammate, better as a leader, better as a player in so many different ways — I think that’s really where it starts, because it’s easy to kind of get what I’ve been able to get at an early age and early in your career and kind of just chill. I try to do the exact opposite and kind of just focus on myself and the game and let everything else kind of flow the way it has been.”
Asked about Mitchell’s professed newfound maturation, coach Quin Snyder argued that, in his estimation, the guard’s evolution has been ongoing for longer than he gives himself credit for.
And it’s revealed itself in some more subtle, nuanced ways, as well.
“That maturation process has been going on. And some of it you guys don’t see as much. Some of it we see on the floor, some of it we see in the locker room, some of it we see during video [review],” Snyder said. “With everything that’s happened, whether it be COVID, a lot of the social justice issues that we’ve been faced with as a society and all the way down to very micro-level with our team, in our community, all those things — Donovan, there’s an awareness and a care factor there that has manifested itself in even more leadership. And that awareness and that desire to speak his mind, to educate himself, and to play a role in that is something that I think happens as we grow as people.”
His teammates have noticed the changes, as well.
Emmanuel Mudiay always found Mitchell to be “a pretty easy-going guy,” but noted that in quarantine conversations with his fellow backcourt mate, Mitchell was obsessed with staying in shape, with not putting on weight he’d have to work out later. And now, with a few weeks yet to go before the Jazz open the NBA’s slate of “seeding games,” he finds that Mitchell “looks like he’s at peace.”
Tony Bradley, who came into the league the same year that Mitchell did, but who had nowhere near the same level of instantaneous success, noted that his fellow 2017 draftee has always been a source of encouragement to him, and is even more so now.
“From Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3, I’ve seen some type of growth — either on the court or off the court,” Bradley said. “Just him helping me. … Year 1, I didn’t play as much; Year 2, I didn’t play as much; but when I got an opportunity to play this year a little bit, he was always trying to help me on the court and just doing different things. He’s a great leader.”
Royce O’Neale, Mitchell’s best friend on the team, was initially not so inclined to contribute to the narrative of his buddy’s apparently transcendent development.
“Nah, Don’s still childish,” O’Neale replied — without hesitation and with sarcasm dripping from his tongue. The multifarious forward would subsequently even concede that Mitchell had initiated myriad group chats, instigated group discussions about the news of the day, taken everyone’s temperature on their comfort level with playing in the bubble, solicited opinions on how the team can improve.
“He wants everybody else getting better,” O’Neale said. “He’s trying to lead by example.”
Getting into the distribution business
To that end, when asked what component of his game he’s most been trying to bolster since the Jazz resumed group practices and scrimmages, Mitchell did not talk about how it would be incumbent upon him to find more ways to score now that Bogdanovic is sidelined by surgery to repair a ligament in his shooting hand.
Instead, he answered, “Becoming a better passer, a more willing passer.
“Getting into the lane, obviously, I get there and take certain shots or whatever, but I think being able to find my teammates — especially with Bojan being out — we’re gonna need guys to kind of pick it up and pick up the slack,” Mitchell added. “So for me, obviously taking the shots that I can get, but also being able to find my teammates, getting them easier looks, which will then also come back and make it easier on myself. But being able to do that will not just help me for where we are now, but help me for years upon my career.”
While Mitchell does not shy away from his professed desire to be a team leader, he also has the sense to recognize that the role entails as much listening as it does speaking.
“[My goal is] being able to be a leader, go out there and make sure I’m ready and being ready to lead these guys. [I’m also] seeking out advice,” he said. “… I think the biggest thing is kind of getting a feel for what we’ve got going on here, and then kind of going from there.”
Snyder is eager to see how Mitchell’s process continues to unfold.
“In Donovan’s case, his awareness has been raised and he’s been very much desiring to try to make an impact in many different areas, including our team,” Snyder said. “He’s one of the guys I’ve talked to if not every day, almost every day. And those conversations have been wide-ranging — some of them about our team, some of them are personal, some of them are societal. Donovan is a very thoughtful person, and that’s what we’re seeing. You’re seeing a young man who isn’t as young as he was last year and is growing and will continue to do that. And I’m just excited that he’s on my team and I get a chance to coach him.”