Overlooked no more, Donovan Mitchell ready for his time in All-Star spotlight
Donovan Mitchell has been getting plenty of advice from teammates since he was named to the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest.
Problem is most of it was sarcastic.
“A lot of sarcastic advice, especially from Joe Ingles, telling me what he thinks I should do,” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “I watched his highlights from Australia. I don’t think he could jump over a phone book.”
Can Ingles even dunk?
“He can, he’s got one on the season,” Mitchel said, sarcastically defending his teammate. “We all pretty much jumped out of our seats like we were celebrating winning the Finals.”
Donovan Mitchell loves being one of the guys, joking around with teammates, but things are about to change for him. His star is about to get a lot brighter — Mitchell is going to be in the NBA’s spotlight during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles this Friday and Saturday.
Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to the leader in the Rookie of the Year race averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a night for Utah. That doesn’t mean casual fans know who he is. Not a lot of people tune in to see the Jazz play — they don’t get on national television much. Much like his team, Mitchell has flown a bit under the radar.
Not anymore. The Jazz are on an 11-game win streak led by Mitchell, who will be showcased All-Star Weekend in Saturday’s Dunk Contest and Friday’s Mountain Dew Kickstarter Rising Stars challenge. The high-flying dunks he was throwing down when not many were tuned in will be in Saturday’s brightest spotlight.
One year ago he remembers watching the Rising Stars and Dunk Contest in his dorm room at Louisville.
“So it’s kind of cool to be part of this game,” Mitchell said.
He’s also partnered with Mountain Dew Kickstarter to do a number of events around Los Angeles that weekend — raising his profile even further. Letting people see the funny, relatable guy behind the numbers and Utah hype. He felt it was a natural fit.
“One thing I don’t tell a lot of people, I used to drink Mountain Dew at Louisville, every day before practice,” Mitchell confessed. “It was my ritual… I used to drink it with a bacon and egg bagel. That was my morning, every morning at Louisville.”
The Utah Jazz training staff put a stop to that habit, but he still loves the drink.
Last June’s draft has turned out to be loaded and deep, but Mitchell’s breakout season has fans of 12 other teams saying “how did we pass on this guy?” Mitchell kind of expected it.
“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell said. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.
“Playing under (Rick) Pitino, it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”
Mitchell mostly played the two-guard at Louisville, but last season when Cardinal point guard Quentin Snider got hurt, Pitino handed Mitchell the keys to the offense — and he turned heads by dominating.
“I think the biggest thing was just having confidence in myself,” Mitchell said of the stretch that turned the heads of some scouts — particularly the ones in Utah. “Obviously, when our starting point guard got hurt I played a lot of minutes at the one for nine to 10 games. Being 6’3”, you’re going to have to be a one in this league, and you have to defend ones.
“When NBA teams were looking at me, I don’t think the problem was the defensive end, they wondered if I could handle one, running the team, getting guys in the right spot. There was a point in time where, for myself, I didn’t know if I could do that in the NBA. The fact that (Jazz) Coach (Quin) Snyder has put the ball in my hands, and having a guy like Ricky Rubio, who is right next to me in the locker room, helping me every day has helped this transition. We watch film relentlessly, we work out relentlessly, I think that really helped me.”
Mitchell has proven he can be the guy in the spotlight — but again it was an injury that gave him a chance. When Rubio was injured earlier this season, Snyder gave him the keys to the offense. Mitchell had worked to get his efficiency up, and when given a chance he was ready and never looked back.
Back in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. Like a lot of rookies he looked overwhelmed. However, no rookie has made the leaps in efficiency that Mitchell has this season — by December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1. Those numbers have come back to earth a little, but when the game is on the line during Utah’s current 11-game win streak that has vaulted them back into the playoff picture in the West, the ball is in Mitchell’s hands. He owned the end of a recent game against the Spurs.
Mitchell credits his teammates and a lot of hard work — from the film room to the weight room — for his quickly improved efficiency.
“I can watch (video of) Kyrie (Irving) finish off one foot. Obviously, I’m a two-foot jumper, I think that’s why my efficiency was a little bit down in college,” Mitchell said of changing how he left the floor on jumps. “Being able to finish off one foot — same foot, same hand, like non-traditional finishes — has helped me a lot. Finishing through contact, getting on a lifting regimen — I didn’t really lift much in college, I was more focused on losing weight — and just being able to work on my balance. There’s so many little things off the court, in training and in the weight room, that have helped me, and working on finishing around the rim.”
Mitchell watches film with and works out with Rubio a lot. Rodney Hood — traded at the deadline to Cleveland — also was a confidant.
“Rodney Hood’s been instrumental in kind of mentoring me throughout this entire season,” Mitchell said. “We play the same position, obviously, and he’s been really, really helpful. It’s his career, and he has he has a really big, big role in Cleveland, and I’m really excited for him.”
Mitchell is going to get noticed this weekend, and he wants people to get to know him the person — not just as a guy who dunks.
“Outside of basketball, I’m a relatable guy, and I think partnering with Mountain Dew will allow people to see that,” Mitchell said. “I think I’m funny, I think I’m liked by people. So I’m going out there to show people how I am, my character off the court, how I handle myself, I’m not a jerk or a wiseguy or anything. I’m just relatable. Every kid I see I sign the autographs. Anything like that to show people how I am off the court and not the guy they kind of hear about but don’t really see.”
They’re about to see him now.