Cleveland • It’s fair to say that former Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is having a career-best season in his first year with the Cavaliers.
After averaging 24 points per game in his five seasons in Utah, he’s up to averaging 29.5 in his new uniform. He’s become more efficient than ever before, shooting over 50% from the field and 42% from the 3-point line. Compared to his time in Utah, he’s getting all the way to the rim more often, rather than settling for in-between shots — and has developed immediate chemistry with backcourt teammate Darius Garland.
Perhaps a bigger surprise is that the Cavaliers are the NBA’s No. 1 defense right now. While that’s largely thanks to their flexible big-man duo of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, Mitchell has been solid in his role defensively as well. The combination of both ends has been enough to put the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 slot through their first 30 games.
It’s been good enough that Mitchell has even been in the MVP conversation. Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff argued for that after a recent performance:
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. You know, at one point in time, winning mattered in the MVP votes. You’re seeing people’s names be mentioned that don’t have the record that we have. I think it’s fair for (Mitchell) to be in that conversation for sure.”
Why has he been more successful? Mitchell just says he’s happier — “having fun again” after a rough season with the Jazz last year. He’s also said that he’s “thankful” for the Mavericks, because they eliminated the Jazz in the first round last year. His former Jazz teammates — at least, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and Rudy Gay — don’t take that as a shot against them, just a recognition of renewed joy in a new location.
On Monday night, Mitchell will face those old teammates and the rest of the Jazz for the first time in a different uniform. After his team’s morning shootaround on Monday, he met with the media. The following question-and-answer session has been lightly edited for clarity.
What are your thoughts on facing your former team for the first time?
I think it’ll be fun. I saw two of the guys throughout the season when we were both in L.A. It’s always good to go against your good friends, your former teammates, coaches and staff. It’ll be weird, I think so for sure. It was weird seeing them on film and seeing the tendencies and stuff like that. But it’ll be fun. You know, it’s not just about me playing my former team, we’ve got Lauri [Markannen] and Collin [Sexton] coming back. So it’ll be great for both sides.
Is it weird that you’re not going to get the full “face your former team” experience? So many of the guys are gone, Quin Snyder is gone, so many new players.
Yeah, I think I’ve already gotten used to it, because I’ve seen Joe [Ingles], I’ve seen Bojan [Bogdanovic], I’ve seen Rudy [Gobert]. So I’ve gotten used to it by now. I think probably seeing Quin will be the weirdest, whenever I see him at some point in time, though I’ve talked to him every so often throughout the season. But I think the weirdest part of will be seeing the coaching staff: Alex Jensen, the training staff, Lamar Skeeter — even Will. Will Hardy was my coach at Team USA a few seasons ago, so that’ll be the weirdest part seeing them on the bench. You always play against your guys in practice, so you’re used to that, but seeing the coaching staff will be the weirdest part.
Did you have much contact with Will before training camp?
We had spoken a bunch about the possibilities. We were actually at my house talking about ideas for the season and then Rudy got traded while he was at my house. That was probably the last time we spoke in person, but I’ve talked to him on FaceTime.
That’s a wild moment.
Yeah, it was wild. It was wild how it happened, but you know, we were going over different things, and things happen.
Which house were you at when you were meeting with Will? Was that in Salt Lake?
Nah, that was in Connecticut. He came down and we spoke about just a lot. First of all, it was just good to see him. It’s kind of crazy to think that he may be my coach. Then being like “What do you need from me?” I told JB [Bickerstaff] the same thing: “What do you need from me? I’m gonna find a way to get better.”
You know, this speaks to Will’s character. We had no idea what the hell was going to go on over the summer, and he was texting me like, “Get in shape, get in league shape.” You don’t have to do that. Odds are, I’m probably not going to be in camp, but because of the relationship we have, because of the coach and the person he is, he still was texting every so often. “What are you doing to get in shape, are you in your best shape?” Like, he just continuously said that.
That’s why I’m not surprised with how great these guys are playing, how hard these guys play, because he did that with me and it was a pretty good bet that I wasn’t going to be back on the team. I think that’s something that I gravitate towards. On Team USA, you don’t really get too hard on the players all the time, you know? But he was always the guy being like “You’re not doing s--- today. What are you doing?” holding me accountable. And that’s why I always thought that, given the opportunity, that he would be a good coach.
So what have you thought about Utah’s start this year?
I said it to somebody earlier, they’ve got a talented group over there. I think the world, the NBA world, was so consumed with everything going out — me leaving, Rudy leaving, Quin leaving, Bojan getting traded —they didn’t know what to expect.
Lauri has been this good for a long time. I think that now he’s getting an opportunity to showcase that. You started with the summer and he’s been able to go out there and put it out there on the floor. Mike’s obviously the veteran guard which we all know, JC (Jordan Clarkson) has taken another leap as a player to not just be a scorer. They’ve got Malik Beasley who is a good shooter. Walker Kessler, from the games I’ve seen he’s really taking a big step. I can keep going down the line on everybody else — Nickeil [Alexander-Walker[ has done really well.
So they got guys who can really go. I think that really took everybody by surprise but if you know basketball, you know the team, you know what they’ve done. Combined with what Will’s done as a young coach, it’s been impressive.
If you put on your reporter cap, how would you assess the trade at this point?
I look at it as a win-win. Everybody’s flourishing, doing well, happy, and sometimes a new beginning is just what you need. That’s for both sides. I don’t know what the vibe is in the locker room over there, but when I talked to the guys it just seemed like a fresh breath. Sometimes your time just runs out. I just think for me personally, I’ve said this on several occasions, I’m happy in a different way. They seem to be that as well, they’re playing well as a group. I’ve watched a bunch of games. It’s great to see both sides thriving after something that took a whole summer to kind of figure out.
How much did you need a fresh breath after last year?
I think it was very important, just for myself. Just kind of taking the summer, I didn’t go to summer league. I just chilled, and took time to myself, because I needed that. Because I didn’t live up to my expectations that I have put on myself. Sometimes you can be really hard on yourself over and over and over again. Sometimes you need to sit back and just breathe for a second.
Then you get put in a situation where your role is different, you’re becoming a leader, you’ve got younger guys, you got guys you gotta teach, you’ve got guys that you’re learning from, a coaching staff that’s really helped me continue to push my development. I think that it’s been really good.
What’s new and improved about you this year? It seems like you’ve been flourishing here.
Honestly, for me, it’s just a few things. Obviously my commitment to the defensive end, I’ve been really pushed by this coaching staff to really do that. Obviously, like I said, I put that on myself. Even if I didn’t put on myself, they would make sure they do that for me and my teammates as well.
And continuously finding a leadership role in different areas. Whether it’s scoring the ball, facilitating, leading in the locker room, leading by voice, leading by example, continuously doing that on a nightly basis. You know, obviously in my time in Utah, we had 12-year vets, 13-, 14-year vets. So now, you’re trying to get to this level that we want to be at, that I’ve been at my whole career. Bringing a guy like Darius, Eva, Isaac [Okoro], bringing those guys to help build. And I’m not doing it on my own. You know, we got Kevin [Love], we’ve got Ricky [Rubio], Caris [LeVert] has been in the playoffs. So it’s continuously just trying to find ways to build upon the group.
We’ve talked throughout the season about these moments where it’s sunk in for you that you’re here. Is this another one of those moments?
I think it will happen. But I think more so when we go to Utah. I think that’ll be the “it’s official” thing. It’s already sunk in that I’m here. But I think it was like you said, those moments in the season, whether it’s playing against the Knicks, going back home for the first time, playing against Utah, going back to Utah, going there for All-Star if that happens, playing against Dallas. There’s just so many different things you get during the season.
And that’s one thing I’ve learned from just the past few years is understanding and appreciating the little moments in this 82-game season. Otherwise, it can become monotonous and the same over and over again. So understanding and appreciating — and to feel it. Don’t ignore your feelings, feel them and enjoy them.
As you look back on your time in Utah, what are you grateful for?
I’m grateful for a bunch of things, to be honest. I think we did a lot, as much as we didn’t get done what we wanted to get done. We did a lot in our time there. A lot of good on the floor. We did a lot of really good things off the floor. I say we, because we as a group not just myself, we as a team did a lot. Whether it’s me and Royce going to high school games, or Rudy giving $100 to everyone working in the arena, or Mike doing what he does with his charity, what we did with giving scholarships after every win last year. We did so many different little things with the community, with basketball as well that I’m always appreciative of. I’m carrying that aspect of my career on to Cleveland.