“I said tonight that you don’t have what it takes to get to the next level.”
That is what TNT studio analyst Shaquille O’Neal said to Donovan Mitchell in the immediate aftermath of the Utah Jazz’s 129-118 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night — a game that not only saw the Jazz rack up their seventh consecutive victory, but which saw Mitchell play arguably his best game of the season, hitting 11 of 19 shots overall and 6 of 7 from deep in totaling 36 points, seven rebounds, and five assists.
And so it was that a national television showcase for the Jazz instead became a source of both controversy and motivation for the team’s All-Star guard.
During halftime of the game, TNT’s “Inside the NBA” crew of O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson got into a discussion about whether Mitchell was anything more than a pretty good bucket-getter on a pretty good team, whether he possessed true “superstar” ability to impact the game in ways other than scoring.
Mitchell was told of O’Neal’s critique by the Hall of Fame center himself, then asked for a response.
His clearly-annoyed-but-refusing-to-take-the-bait one-word reply: “Aight.”
[Read The Triple Team analysis: Donovan Mitchell puts up efficient all-around game as Jazz win 7th straight]
But Mitchell would have much more to say to local media later.
“We’re on a seven-game win streak right now, we’re playing good basketball — I hate to take a win like this and make it about what they said about me,” he noted. “You look at how we played and guarded, I’m happy.”
There was, indeed, plenty to be happy about, considering that the Jazz had just rallied back from a 16-point deficit, had just overcome their worst quarter of basketball of the season when they allowed 43 first-period points to the Pelicans, had just improved to 11-4 overall on the season.
And yet, as it was happening, the TNT crew was coming to the consensus that Mitchell does not do enough beyond scoring to be the primary guy on a championship contender.
O’Neal opened the argument by suggesting that Mitchell “needs to be a second or third option” in order for a team to compete. When Smith countered, “I’m seeing that he scores at will and I’m seeing he’s overpowering people,” Barkley interjected, “That’s not what a superstar is. A superstar’s a guy who can win the game multiple ways.
“A lot of guys are great offensive players, but a superstar’s a guy who can win a game; if he’s having a bad shooting night, he can get a lot of rebounds or he can play defense,” Barkley added. “… When guys try to explain this type stuff, it seems like it’s old guys hating. It’s not old guys hating. It’s like, ‘OK, he’s a great scorer.’ I will give you that, but he makes zero impact on the rest of the game.”
O’Neal doubled down on that premise: “He’s a great scorer, I agree with that. But if he’s not scoring, what else can he do?”
Mitchell’s teammates, of course, rallied to his defense.
“I’ve been a big fan of Don’s and seeing the way he’s grown over the last few seasons, even before I was here. His progression has been great, and I don’t know how you can make make a statement regarding his progress at such a young age,” said Mike Conley, who finished with 20 points, six assists and three steals. “He’s a guy that’s gotten better every year. He’s added things to his game. And he’ll continue to get better.”
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Center Rudy Gobert, who added 12 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks, and whose $205 million contract extension was the target of derision for O’Neal on a couple of occasions just weeks ago, noted that if the Jazz keep piling up the victories, their critics will be left with nothing of consequence to say.
“I think that at the end of the day, whatever they want to call us, if we keep winning games, they’re going to have to watch us anyway,” Gobert said. “Hopefully they get to watch us until July [when the NBA Finals are scheduled to take place], and then they can call us whatever they want.”
For his part, Mitchell — of course — disagreed with the analysts’ assessment of his game, saying, “I think I’ve made some solid strides” in areas other than scoring.
He noted that he enjoys the simplicity of rebounding, the act of putting a body on an opponent, elevating skyward, and battling to see who comes down with the ball. He added that while he knows he can progress yet as a passer, he nevertheless takes pride in moving the ball, “being able to make the simple play, not always just trying to make the hero play, the home run play.”
Mitchell also made it clear, though, that whether some critics change their opinions of him is ultimately irrelevant — the Jazz have bigger business at hand.
“I’m here to to play basketball, and be the best teammate and the best player that I can be. [And if] they don’t like it, they don’t like it,” he said. “I’m not trying to make this about me — this is team basketball. At the end of the day, we’re winning, we’re doing good things, we just got to keep it up because you got Golden State coming in [Saturday] and we got to be ready for that.”
JAZZ 129, PELICANS 118
Key moment • After fighting most of the way back in the second quarter, a 21-2 run by the Jazz in the third put them firmly in control.
Big number: 3 • The Pelicans were dominant from deep early on, going 8 for 11 from 3-point range in the first quarter. They’d only make three more beyond the arc for the rest of the game, though.
Up next • The homestead continues Saturday with the Golden State Warriors visiting. Tipoff has been rescheduled from a 3 p.m. matinee to the usual 7 p.m.