Who watches more film than Donovan Mitchell? The Utah Jazz guard hopes his off-court study will take him to new heights

Mitchell is a student of the game with a voracious appetite for breaking down game tape

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45), in NBA action between Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

Donovan Mitchell is in the middle of a conversation. Sitting in the Utah Jazz’s practice facility, the All-Star guard is discussing his film-study habits when a question comes up.

Hey, who actually does watch the most film in the NBA?

Does anybody watch more film than you do?

“Rajon Rondo,” Mitchell immediately says. “You hear stories, but I saw it firsthand in the bubble. Throughout the playoffs, everywhere he was at, he had his iPad. And I mean everywhere. Every time I saw him in the elevator, he had his iPad with him. It’s a different level.”

Just then, Jazz assistant coach Keyon Dooling walks by. “Hey, Keyon,” Mitchell asks. “Who’s the person who watched the most film in your career?”

“Rondo,” Dooling said. “It wasn’t even close.”

Jazz guard Mike Conley is asked the same question.

“Probably Tony Allen,” he says, referencing the six-time All-Defensive team member with an apt nickname: “The Grindfather.” “We lived in the same neighborhood, and you’d see him just walking around with his laptop, just taking walks. He’d just be watching film and listening to music.”

Rondo and Allen used film-watching to turn from late first-round picks to elite role players, earning themselves careers that spanned a decade and a half.

Mitchell, though, has his eyes on higher sights.

“Why is LeBron James so great? Because he knows the game before he even gets to a spot. He has 18 years. I have five.”

“Same thing with Steph, same thing with Dame, and James Harden, Kevin Durant,” Mitchell says. “As the leader of this team, I’m in year five. I got to find ways to be able to outsmart and outthink because, at the end of day it’s going to come down to me. If I’m not ready for it, up here” — Mitchell points to his head — “I’m not going to have success on the court.”

“That’s ultimately where I want to get to, being able to do that,” Mitchell says. “Ultimately, if you want to beat the best you got, you got to outwork, outthink and outsmart the best.”

To do that, Mitchell turns his attention to the tape.

Donovan’s film-watching routine

First, he rewatches every game, especially his possessions. In doing so, he puts particular attention on his reads: both times when he makes the right play and times when he forces the wrong play and turns it over.

“Why’d I turn it over? Why did I have five today? Why did I have zero last night? Why did I have one against Atlanta? Why did I have four against Orlando — why did Orlando speed me up? Why did I have success in Miami?” Mitchell lists off. “Those are the questions I ask myself on a daily basis.”

Mitchell varies when he watches each game, though, depending on his emotional state after the game. Sometimes, he says, he’s too tired or isn’t in an emotional place to get anything out of the film-watching experience. In those occasions, he’ll watch a movie on the plane to the next city, take a nap, and get up to watch the game in the morning.

Other times, he wants to use his connection to the game he just played in — especially when he plays poorly.

“Sometimes it’s good to watch that right from the jump,” Mitchell said. “Especially when you’re, like, ‘What the hell happened?’”

On a game day, though, Mitchell moves to the next challenge. On those days, he’s only watching plays of the other team: their plays, how they play defense, and film on who his matchup is expected to be in that game. Naturally, he has a pregame routine with a 30-minute video edit created by the team’s coaches on what he needs to know for the upcoming matchup — but frequently, he’ll do much more film-watching early in the day.

“He’ll come in the next day, and ask people, ‘Did you see that play, or this play, or did you see what they did in this timeout? I think they’re going to start this guy on me and this guy on you,’” Conley said. “He’s already put scenarios in his mind.”

An evolution in film watching

Mitchell knows what kind of plays are likely to get him on highlight reels. High-flying dunks. Threes over multiple defenders. Difficult scoop finishes in traffic. He became one of the NBA’s brightest stars — earning his own shoe deal, All-Star appearances, and entry into the NBA’s social elite — because of the moments when he jumps higher, moves quicker, finishes stronger.

Those aren’t the plays Mitchell finds most rewarding, though. Mitchell wants, most of all, the plays on the court where he’s simply smarter. “It’s about being able to put myself in situations where I don’t have to — don’t take this the wrong way — where I don’t have to work as hard,” he says.

As a young teen playing AAU basketball with Jazz teammate Eric Paschall, Mitchell wasn’t watching film. His team wasn’t really highly ranked enough for his games to be reliably videotaped. But he did the next best thing: watched even more NBA games than his also basketball-obsessed friends. Even at Louisville, he’d always make sure to have the TVs at the practice facility tuned to NBATV.

But in the summer between being drafted by the Jazz and training camp, he went into hyperdrive. Mitchell said he watched nearly every game that the George Hill/Gordon Hayward/Rudy Gobert 2016-17 Jazz played — trying to get a feel for how Quin Snyder ran his team on both ends of the ball. And in particular, he watched the Jazz’s series against the Clippers “about a thousand times,” in which Chris Paul’s play really stood out in the Jazz’s series win.

“How can I get to a point where I’m thinking the game that much, at that at that pace? Where it’s not at a timeout when I figure it out, but it’s on the fly?” Mitchell said.

Mitchell says he made a leap when he realized that his success was directly tied to his teammates’ position on the floor. He gives an example:

“If I know every time I’m on the right side of the floor that I’m going to get trapped, I’m going to put the ball on the left side. If I know on the left side they’re going to try and trap, I should put Bojan over here” — he points to the other side of the floor. “OK, cool. Now, I’m going to go on that side, attack, and find Bojan.”

In other words, Mitchell isn’t just dictating his own play, but moving his teammates around to put them in situations where the team can succeed. For most of the game, that means having those conversations with head coach Quin Snyder, so that it might lead to a changed play. But if the Jazz are playing in transition, or late in the game, you’ll often see Mitchell directing traffic on the court.

“I love watching film, but now it’s about also understanding it at a higher level,” Mitchell said. “It’s being able to manipulate the game before the game, even.”

Mitchell’s studious habits mean that his teammates don’t mind getting moved on the court as need be — they know he sees something that could work.

“It’s impressive, for somebody who is so young, still developing as a player in this league,” Conley says.

Mitchell’s still a young maestro, but he’s studying to become a great one.