By Will Baldwin
It seems with every moment Donovan Mitchell graces an NBA court, he was born to be a professional basketball star. Despite standing only 6 foot 1 inch without shoes on, Mitchell makes up for his lack of size with dynamic athleticism, great skill and a presence of an NBA veteran that shouldn’t be possible for a rookie. But, it wasn’t always like this.
See, Mitchell wasn’t even always a basketball player. He wears the number 45 as a tribute to his favorite player, Michael Jordan, as well as the sport that was his first love: baseball.
“Baseball was my sport growing up. I really wanted to go to college for baseball,” said Mitchell. “I was a pitcher, shortstop. You could really put me anywhere, but those were my two spots. I really wanted to be highly recruited for baseball.”
Mitchell’s father, Donovan Sr, was a career long minor leaguer with the Houston Astros before transitioning to a career in the front office with the New York Mets during his son’s childhood.
For Donovan Jr, everything was going according to plan until sophomore year when a freak play changed his life forever.
“Sophomore year I broke my wrist,” explained Mitchell.
“(The catcher) actually broke his jaw on the play, and I broke my wrist (on the same play). There were two injuries in one. But it was something I’ll never forget.”
That wrist injury forced Mitchell to miss the summer basketball season but in doing so, it caused him to realize basketball was his true love.
A Providence assistant coach who had been recruiting him advised him to change schools so, he transferred to the powerhouse Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he stood out for the very fact he wasn’t nationally ranked or well-known at all amongst the basketball community.
“When he arrived here, he didn’t have a number next to his name or a national ranking,” Jason Smith, the school’s coach, said. “He was hungry.”
That hunger ultimately lead Mitchell to carry his team to a national title in his junior season. He ended his time at Brewster the 83rd ranked high school player in the class of 2015 and, off to Louisville to play for Rick Pitino.
After an inconsistent freshman season where he averaged just seven points and started only five games Mitchell knew he had to improve. Though his goal was the NBA, he knew it was a process to get there and who better to ask on how to get there than his Hall of Fame coach Pitino.
“I said, ‘Look, Donovan, you’re a freak athlete, but if you’re serious about this game, you have to get a jump shot with arc and really develop it,” Pitino said.
“I haven’t seen a guy improve his jump shot more than him in my 40 years of coaching.”
In one sense, it was completely shocking the season Mitchell had as a sophomore but in another, once you understand who he is, it wasn’t at all.
He would improve in virtually every single category including points, 7 to 15, steals, 0.8 to 2.1 (first in the ACC) and, assists, 1.7 to 2.7. The most shocking improvement though came from behind the arc where improved from 25% to 35%, a ridiculous jump in one season. According to Mitchell though, it was all about hard work and a new mentality.
“I would say it’s just the confidence behind it,” he said. “Just expecting every shot to go in was what changed. If you watched my reactions from December on (last season), I was really upset every time a shot didn’t go in. I was pissed. I expected that shot to go in. At the beginning of the year, I was praying that shot would go in.”
That improvement lead Mitchell to declare for the combine but, he needed even more convincing to officially go pro and declare for the draft.
During his second week of workouts, Mitchell got the opportunity to join a game that featured Chris Paul, Paul George and other current pros. After the workout, it became obvious that Mitchell was ready for the NBA to the veterans he was playing with. So, Paul pulled the youngster aside and informed him it was time to enter the NBA.
“Sometimes you can just see it in a person,” Paul said. “You can see how much he loves the game. He’s going to be good for a long time.”
After individual workouts with teams and an invite to the draft in Brooklyn (which surprised him he got the invite), it was finally time to find out where he would be headed.
Once Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets selected Kentucky guard Malik Monk, Mitchell had no idea where he was headed.
“I didn’t miss a shot in the Detroit workout, so I was like, ‘I’m definitely going to Detroit, 100 percent,'” Mitchell says. “Then Luke [Kennard] got drafted. And I’m thinking, ‘OK, Denver, I didn’t work out for them. Cross them off.’ Then I’m looking at 14, Miami, and I’m thinking, I had my worst workout in Miami. So I’m like, all right, I’m not going 14. Then 15, maybe Portland, maybe. Sixteen, 17, 18, maybe, but they all told me they didn’t think I would slip that far, so maybe they have their eyes on somebody else.”
“So now I’m thinking, ‘Dang, everybody was right. I might slip.’ I have a tendency to freak myself out. All I could think was, ‘I’m going right to the gym to work out after this.'”
Then, out of nowhere, Denver selected him.
On the way to the stairs, he was told the Nuggets had been picking for the Jazz and he was headed to Utah.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” he says. “I don’t think I stopped for the rest of the night.”
After an impressive Summer League that saw him average 28 points per game, the league was intrigued with the young Utah guard but, no one, not even Mitchell could anticipate what would happen next.
With the exit of former All-Star Gordon Hayward in the off season via free agency, the organization had a couple of options. Jazz General Manager Dennis Lyndsey and Head Coach Quin Snyder saw this season as an opportunity for development but according to Lyndsey, what happened next was anything but scripted.
“Instead of trying to make him go through all the rookie rituals that traditionalists would put him through, let’s just embrace where he’s at and have him get better on the fly,” explained the G.M. “We had a few thumbnails during the summer that (showed) maybe he could handle a few more possessions than we originally anticipated.”
Once those extra possessions started to come early in the season, Mitchell began to show his true NBA colors. The rookie has already posted six thirty point games including two forty point games and, has displayed the presence on the floor of a seasoned veteran. Even the man who drafted him, Lyndsey has been blown away.
“No one could have predicted this,” Lyndsey said. “I was there. I made the selection, but nobody in my group said he was going to average 20 points a game and be great — at least to date – at helping us in close games from a usage and efficiency stand point in fourth quarters.”
Maybe most impressive of all though is the praise and respect he has gained from veteran teammates. Joe Ingles is in his fourth year in the NBA but brings even more experience playing overseas and internationally before coming to North America in 2014. Ingles, may just be one of Mitchell’s biggest fans.
“The first thing is how quiet and humble he is,” said the Jazz forward. “He’s just a normal kid. He’s literally just a normal kid who loves playing basketball. He just wants to learn. He sits down and watches film with Ricky (Rubio), about pick and roll, sits down and watches film daily. He tries to get better and better at the things he’s not good at.”
All of Mitchell’s impressive performances lead him to be invited to All-Star weekend to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge and, as an injury replacement in the Slam Dunk Contest. For Mitchell though, all of this success has taken the rookie by surprise.
“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan after two years of college,” Mitchell said Friday before the Rising Stars game. “Being here for All-Star, even being in the NBA, wasn’t entirely in my plan.”
If Mitchell was nervous prior to the Rising Stars challenge, he didn’t let it show. Following a Team World turnover, Mitchell got a breakaway opportunity and threw down the dunk of the night in what was clearly a prequel for his performance the following night.
In front of celebrities, NBA stars of the past and present as well as millions on television, Mitchell was presented with the marquee stage of the Slam Dunk contest. The guard would put on a show, capping his performance with a tribute to Vince Carter’s “It’s Over” dunk from the famous 2000 dunk contest.
Once again, the rookie showed a type of presence that is anything but ordinary for a player of his age to have. The night would end with Mitchell holding the same title of Slam Dunk Contest champion as his favorite player did in 1987 and 1988.
The difference between Donovan Mitchell and so many others who have showed promise is simple, this early success will do anything but satisfy him and that, is the mark of a true future superstar.
“I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly.”
“But now that it’s here, I expect myself to do a lot more and continue to work as hard as I can to get better and better.”