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Donovan Mitchell’s work ethic has transformed his play. Now, can he take the next leap?

The Utah Jazz All-Star averaged 26.4 points and 5.2 assists per game last season

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) as the Utah Jazz host the New Orleans Pelicans, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.

The brand new Summit NYC luxury apartment building stands 41 stories tall, in New York City’s Midtown neighborhood, tucked between the Chrysler Building and the East River. Studio apartments start at $4,350 per month. Something a little more spacious could run closer to $10K.

The tenants there have come to be annoyed by Donovan Mitchell.

OK, OK, not Mitchell specifically. That’s unfair. But here’s the deal: Mitchell works out with NYC-based trainer Chris Brickley, as do a bundle of NBA stars, like Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, C.J. McCollum, and even Kevin Durant. Brickley, in cahoots with Summit’s management, has set a clear rule: When an NBA player wants to work out with Brickley, all of the other tenants of the building using the gym have to leave the area. The building gets Instagram cred, the NBA stars get privacy, and the tenants are left with a part-time workout facility in their apartment building. So it goes.

And Mitchell might be Brickley’s hardest working client — with some unique requests on the gym time.

“When you leave college, you’re like, ‘Man, I’m never going to wake up at 6 a.m. again.’ You’re excited,” Mitchell said. “And then it’s like, ‘Well, no, if you want to be great, you’ve got to get two or three of these in a day.’ ”

A typical offseason workout day for Mitchell, then, means getting up even earlier than he did in college. It consists of two workouts: one at 5 a.m, and one at 2 p.m. “And they were the most strenuous workouts. The guy pushes like no other,” Brickley told BasketballNews.com.

Sorry, Manhattanites.

“I never know what the next person is doing on a daily basis, but I put it in my mind that I’m going to try to outwork them,” Mitchell said.

Thanks, in part, to complaints from tenants who can’t use the facilities when they want to, Summit NYC has a 1.5-star Yelp rating.

Mitchell has two All-Star nods — and counting.

Donovan Mitchell’s early days

Mitchell has always logged long hours in pursuit of excellence. As a young boy, that meant hours-long trips to basketball practices in the city with neighbor — and now Jazz teammate — Eric Paschall. Back then Mitchell split his attention between baseball and basketball, focusing exclusively on the latter only later in high school.

So Paschall knows better than most of the leaps and bounds Mitchell took after dedicating himself to the game.

“It’s hilarious. All the stuff you see Don doing now, he didn’t have none of that,” Paschall said. “He would just go hard right, and just try to dunk on people and catch lobs. The handle he has now, the way he shoots the ball, he didn’t play like that at all. It’s just hilarious.”

Mitchell, though, wanted more. Brickley, a former college bench player at Louisville under Rick Pitino, held workouts at the college before Mitchell’s freshman season. Having already worked as a player development coach with the Knicks, Brickley represented the future to Mitchell, thanks to his real knowledge of NBA players’ games and how to get there. Meanwhile, Brickley could see that the kid was special right away.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward MaCio Teague (31) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) as the Utah Jazz host the Milwaukee Bucks, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

“His worth ethic is on 1,000. He’s just one of those guys. He has that ‘it.’ So, I’ve always known it, and I’ve always known that once he got an opportunity to show it, he would show it,” Brickley said.

Mitchell, by his own admission, “couldn’t shoot” in his freshman year — indeed, he only made 25% of his 3s in that season from the shorter college line. So Mitchell worked to improve that shot.

“I spent that whole summer shooting NBA 3s, just finding ways to expand my range so that the college line felt relatively easy,” Mitchell said.

An adjustment to the arc on his shot was required, as his previous line-drive form didn’t cut it from the deeper distance. So Mitchell’s coaches at Louisville, led by assistant Ralph Willard, set up cameras in the practice gym to measure the highest point on Mitchell’s shot, to see if it was staying consistent. Mitchell went from a shooting arc in the low 30s to something eight or nine degrees better in one summer.

Once Mitchell got to the NBA, his workouts started to be more about footwork — and just sheer numbers of practice shots attempted.

“A lot of it was catch and shoot, but the majority was off the dribble,” he said. “That was the biggest thing, the off-the-dribble threes — being able to force the bigs to be high up on the floor allows me to get to the rim and do what I do. So that’s pretty much what it’s been, all reps.”

Adaptation forced

The progress in Mitchell’s 3-point shooting is relatively remarkable. Not only has he improved his shooting percentage from beyond the arc in every season, but the shots he’s taken have been harder and more contested in every season. Mitchell’s shots used to be mostly catch-and-shoot looks, now they’re about 60% pull-up shots.

Those are difficult shots on their own — but were made more difficult by the circumstances of the playoffs last season.

Thanks to an awkward ankle injury suffered in April, Mitchell didn’t enter the playoffs at full strength, controversially even sitting out of the first game due to the ailment. Then he tweaked the injury in Game 2 of the Clippers series, just as the Jazz were getting out to a 2-0 lead in the pivotal second-round series. He couldn’t move well, couldn’t leap like he was used to.

It meant Mitchell’s ability to attack the rim cratered. For the rest of the series, Mitchell would shoot a dismal 32% on anything inside the arc; even just 39% on layups.

“It’s something I’m going to have to deal with,” Mitchell said then. “I mean, it [expletive] sucks. I ain’t got nothing else to say. Like, it’s tough when you’re trying different things that you normally do and you see spots you can get to, but you can’t, so you got to find a way to make it happen.”

He did, actually.

Without his usual versatility, Mitchell showed off an elite skill that had gone under the radar. In the Jazz’s final, catastrophic loss, Mitchell’s shooting was perhaps the only positive. He scored 39 points, 27 of them from deep.

“I’ve kind of got to a point where I’m appreciative of the injury for myself,” Mitchell told The Athletic. “For my personal growth on and off the floor, I think that injury really ... kept me on the ground for the entire playoffs, and it allowed me to have to make decisions on the ground.”

In a losing effort, Mitchell remarkably approximated Damian Lillard.

Last regular season, Lillard averaged three made pull-up deep shots per game, making them at a 37% clip. In those last four games of the playoffs, on a bum ankle, Mitchell made five per game, making them at 45%. (Only Lillard matched Mitchell’s feat, averaging 5.3 pull-up three makes in his six playoff games.) Mitchell shot them with hands in his face, in traffic, with and without the benefit of a screen, and from a significant distance.

What can he be this season?

The goal for Mitchell now is to put it all together: the absurdly good shooting he displayed in the playoffs last year, the best-in-class athleticism he showed in winning the dunk contest in his rookie season, and, well, some extra ingredients too.

“I think the biggest thing for me right now is efficiency,” Mitchell said. He’s heard the criticism, that he’s not one of the league’s more efficient scorers like, say, fellow Brickley pupil Harden — and wants to address that this year.

In particular, Mitchell thinks he can be more efficient in the paint, on both his shots and his pass attempts. He’s inspired by the slow, methodical actions taken by players like Harden, his mentor, Dwyane Wade, and one budding star in Dallas.

“Naturally, I kind of want to go up and around, up and over. I can’t do that every possession. A great example of that is Luka (Doncic). You look at how he plays and he’s obviously not as athletic as I am, but he does the fundamentals. Getting to the paint, shot fake, step throughs, there’s so many different things he does when he gets into the paint. He gets so many different counters out of that,” Mitchell said.

Besides the off-the-dribble 3-point shooting, the paint moves represented much of what Mitchell worked on this offseason. He began to show them off in the preseason, including one move that really impressed. Rather than forcing his way forward to a tough floater, Mitchell used a behind-the-back dribble that’s new for him, then found space for the easier shot.

Mitchell was proud of his move, but also cushioned the hype. “I think for me, just because it happened once doesn’t mean I’ve got it. I think that’s where a lot of players kind of fall into that trap — ‘I did it once, I got it, I don’t have to work on it again.’

“That move doesn’t just happen on the floor. It happens with your footwork, it happens with the stuff you do in the weight room, having the balance to take that shot. Those are the things I’m continuously working to try and better myself.”

The teammates and coaches who have seen Mitchell play in training camp say that they’re expecting his highest level of play yet this season, on both ends of the floor.

“I think there’s probably another level there for him that he wants to take,” Joe Ingles said.

Thanks to the ankle injury that cost him about a month, Mitchell missed out on what would likely have been a position in the All-NBA Third Team, his first such consideration. While that would be an obvious next rung on the ladder, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for a player to take an even more significant step forward in their fifth season. Kawhi Leonard, for example, didn’t get his first All-NBA selection until his fifth season, neither did Jason Kidd. When they were nominated for All-NBA, they went straight to the All-NBA First Team.

Mitchell has a path there. If he truly is able to score nearly 30 points per game on improved efficiency, while improving his defensive effort, and doing it for a team projected to be atop the Western Conference — well, that’s all of the ingredients of an All-NBA First Teamer.

It is a difficult path? Absolutely. But it is a path, nonetheless.

Mitchell, however, is more concerned about the postseason than personal accolades. At a recent practice, Mitchell was asked about his team’s chances to win the Jazz’s first NBA championship.

“That’s the goal, to do something that’s never been done. We’re not going to be able to coast there and get it, we really have to put the work in,” Mitchell said. After all, work got him here, right?

In other words: Mitchell, after taking over one Summit, has his sights set on another.

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