Before we get started here, understand that this column is not a criticism of Donovan Mitchell.
It’s a consideration of what Mitchell is and what he is not, what he might be and what he might not be.
And the fact that that consideration is undertaken now, as this season’s playoffs approach, is his own fault, because he has made himself into a star player. And star players are judged differently than other players, given more glory when things go perfectly and given more blame when they go imperfectly, given more responsibility to create perfection, given less leeway in explaining away imperfection when that is the result instead.
Such is the atmosphere the Jazz’s team leader has blasted himself into at the age of 25. A compliment to his talent, to what he already has accomplished, indeed, a crown, but also a tightening collar.
He, more than any other player here, is the face of his franchise, even as some Jazz fans are afraid that he’ll one day wake up and decide he cannot win enough with the Jazz, that he has to go elsewhere to gain his fame and championships, someplace where the stage is bigger and the lights are brighter, where the gains are more easily gotten.
The problem with that last part is he’s under contract with Utah for another fistful of years, and the only way out, if that’s what he were to desire, is through a swell of messy discontent that would besmirch the name and reputation of an individual who not only is the leader of an NBA team, but also a leader of a generation, filled with young people who look to him to speak out on matters of education and justice and social propriety. Mitchell has put himself in that position, too, by way of his eagerness and willingness to see what’s wrong with the world around him, to identify it and try to improve it.
Utah has benefited from his presence for reasons beyond the lines and confines of a basketball court.
Only Mitchell has any idea as to whether he, deep down, wants to leave sooner or later to play for the Knicks or anybody else other than the team that is paying him upwards of $200 million to work and to be happy and to win right where he is.
Back to basketball, in his five seasons with the Jazz, Mitchell has bettered himself nearly every year. He came in as a rookie to an outfit in desperate need of what he could bring it — scoring, charisma and hope — what with its former star jumping ship for Boston.
You know the story. He took the Jazz to the second round of the playoffs that first year, and he took them to the playoffs in the subsequent three seasons, each of them ending in an early exit. Two years ago, in the bubble, Mitchell was stellar, averaging 36.3 points in what ended up being a horribly disappointing result, as the Jazz went ahead 3-1 on the Nuggets and then lost three straight games. Last postseason was difficult, as well, as the Jazz garnered the best regular-season record in the league, and then were ousted in the second round by the Clippers, hampered as they were by Mitchell’s dinged wheel, a wheel that spun off its axle toward the end.
Through all of it, Mitchell has both emerged as an All-Star and evidenced a need to be more than just that. He’s needed to see the floor better, play with greater efficiency, become if not a defensive stopper, at least something more than a piece of open road.
Why? Because that’s what superstar players do.
They do whatever their team needs them to do to win not just regular-season games, but playoff series. They show the way.
Mitchell knows all of this. He’s smart enough to know it, aware enough, too.
He knows he’s a star, but how super is he? Ah. That’s the mystery.
There are hundreds of examples through which to shuffle in the affirmative and a few in the dissent. Most recently, he knows that when his team needed him to close out the game against the Giannis and the Bucks the other night, he failed it — by missing important shots, not just at game’s end, but throughout the contest. He made just 10 of 32 attempts, scoring 29 points. Not enough as the defending champion’s star outshined him.
The difficulty for Mitchell is what it is for all great players — finding the right balance in making opponents pay for his brilliance without forcing the matter, without punishing his own team with careless play.
On that night, which really is just a blip on the screen, Mitchell hurt as much as he helped and that’s what happens when the ball doesn’t find the hoop. Sometimes that can happen even when it does.
Two nights later, against the Bulls, another blip, Mitchell was luminous, giving his team exactly what it needed — efficient scoring (12 of 22, 9 of 15 from 3, for 37 points), timely passing (five assists), energized resistance, proper attitude and leadership. He also killed it against the Knicks on Sunday night, going for 36 points in another Jazz win.
When the Jazz face strong teams, teams that have their own star(s), it’s his calling, along with Rudy Gobert’s, to match and surpass whatever it is those other stars are offering. He doesn’t have to match his counterpart point for point, basket for basket. stat for stat, but he must boost the Jazz in the same or superior manner the other guy is boosting his team. That’s a brisk order in a league that has remarkable, standout players — all of whom are set on achieving what Mitchell wants to achieve.
But if the Jazz are ever to really contend for a title, that’s the requirement. His requirement.
The rest of the crew can clank blades and slam battle-axes with their singular opponents on decks all around the ship, but the captains ultimately must face off and take control, one or the other, to conquer it.
Playoff series are rarely won by just one player, and Quin Snyder’s strong team-oriented philosophy emphasizes that, but within that framework the team’s star has to be exactly that — preeminent.
Especially when he’s being paid as such because that personal payout limits other means by which success can be had. For the Jazz, that puts tremendous pressure on You-Know-Who and You-Know-Who.
The upside is that Mitchell still has time to pursue the aforementioned perfection — figurative, not literal — even if it dodges him for the time being. He’s still a young man. But patience is growing a bit thin, not just his own, but also the organization’s and its fans’.
Progression, then, alongside perfection, is the theme.
With a dozen or so games left to play before the second season begins, the time has come for the star to shine his brightest.
It’s a lot to ask of Mitchell. How he responds to it will determine not just who he is, not just who he is not, not what he might be, not what he might not be, but whether the requirement is too much, whether the asking should be done at all.
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