Talk about a quick re-thinking.
Less than 24 hours after star Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell was declared out for the Jazz’s Game 1 matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies due to an ankle sprain — which resulted in a Jazz loss — the team announced that Mitchell would play in Wednesday’s Game 2 in the early afternoon on Monday.
So what changed? Did Mitchell’s ankle, injured in a contest against the Indiana Pacers over a month ago April 16, heal that rapidly?
It didn’t. Instead, Mitchell was angry with Jazz decision makers after being ruled out for Game 1, and the Jazz responded to keep their star — with a contract worth $163 million over the next five years — happy.
“I was frustrated and upset. I was ready to go. I was ready to go,” Mitchell said on Monday. Mitchell confirmed he was “shocked” by the decision to prevent him from playing.
Before Game 1, Mitchell told reporters that he had no pain, and was excited to play in the game after completing shootaround on Sunday morning. “I’m ready to go tonight,” Mitchell said. But team doctors met after shootaround and disagreed, saying that they “weren’t comfortable” with Mitchell playing in the contest.
Mitchell’s frustration over not playing is part of a larger disagreement between Mitchell’s personal trainers and the Jazz’s training staff about Mitchell’s rehabilitation process and recovery from the ankle sprain he suffered over a month ago, sources tell The Salt Lake Tribune.
ESPN reported that Mitchell began rehabilitating with Jazz trainers shortly after the injury, but “after he progressed slowly in the early stages of recovery, Mitchell began to work with his personal training staff on the rehabilitation.”
In a Thursday press conference, Mitchell off-handedly mentioned that he felt his recovery had improved recently: “I feel like it’s kind of been progressing well for like the past two weeks, I want to say,” Mitchell said. “I mean, you’re gonna quote me on that, but I could be wrong. But I feel like that’s when things started to go in the right way and projecting well.”
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder called the effort between Mitchell’s trainers and Jazz trainers a collaboration. “We want to do the best thing for the player,” Snyder said. Mitchell addressed that in Monday’s press conference as well, saying, “It’s no secret, guys have used their own people for sure. We’re working in conjunction with the team. It’s not like a picking sides type of deal.”
Mitchell’s late, surprise game status ruling — he wasn’t listed on Saturday night or Sunday morning’s official NBA injury reports, indicating that at least those on the Jazz who fill out the injury report thought he would play as well — is reflective of the disagreement between Mitchell’s trainers and Jazz training staff.
The late scratch wasn’t just a surprise to the public and to Mitchell, but to his teammates as well.
“It was a big surprise. I just don’t know … I try to stay out of all this because it’s just going to give me a headache,” fellow All-Star Rudy Gobert said when asked about the situation. “When you wake up [from a nap], you get ready for a game, and you find out that your star player is not going to play, it throws you off a little bit.”
Mitchell said he addressed his teammates before Monday’s practice. “I feel like I let them down in a sense, when you’re not there to play in a playoff game,” Mitchell said. “And that probably hurts me more than anything else. It eats me, I barely slept because I think about that stuff.”
Mitchell said he didn’t have a similar meeting with team management about the situation.
“They cleared me, and that was it. There was no big discussion. There’s no time for that — it’s the playoffs,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to talk with the guys I go to bat with.”
Mike Elliott is the team’s Vice President of Performance Healthcare, a title which reflects that he leads the Jazz’s training staff. The Jazz’s training staff won the 2019-20 Training Staff of the Year award from the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association after shepherding the Jazz through their public early fight with COVID-19.
The snap decision to change Mitchell’s status could draw other eyes as well. The NBA has relatively strict rules about honesty in injury reporting, and so the league could decide to fine the Jazz for injury report mismanagement; the Sixers and Raptors have also received fines for that this season.
But there is optimism within the franchise that a quick return, and an improved Jazz performance in Game 2, that Mitchell and the Jazz can put the disagreement behind them relatively quickly. Team officials were encouraged that Mitchell was a vocal leader during Game 1, staying engaged with the game on the floor.
And near the end of his press conference, Mitchell was asked an obvious question: after the surprise change in status before Game 1, was he at all worried about being ruled out for Game 2, even after all of this?
The 24-year-old smiled, and simply replied: “No.”