When the NBA needed an injury replacement for Aaron Gordon in the upcoming All-Star weekend slam dunk contest, there was an obvious choice.
Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell Jr. quickly has proved to be a charismatic character with dynamic dunks. He also already had shown an ability to replace a Gordon.
The Jazz did not know they needed to find their next star when they traded up 11 spots in last June’s draft to grab Mitchell. But with All-Star forward Gordon Hayward leaving for Boston a month later in free agency, the Jazz and Salt Lake City were stinging until Mitchell’s Las Vegas Summer League shine was salve for the burn.
It helped that Mitchell wanted to be in Utah, targeting the Jazz for his first pre-draft workout and embracing Utah for its contrast to his New York roots. It only got better, just like him.
The question-asking, video-studying guard is winning over fans, NBA stars, coaches and teammates with his special play and gracious way.
“It seems like he’s been in the league for a long time,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio said of the NBA’s top rookie scorer.
Mitchell shot 25% for his first five NBA games but cracked the Jazz starting lineup by November and was Western Conference rookie of the month for December and January, when he averaged more than 22 points a game.
He posted a 41-point game against New Orleans in December and scored 40 at Phoenix this month, making him the only rookie besides Blake Griffin and Allen Iverson to notch multiple 40-point games since Michael Jordan did so in 1984-85.
“It’s still a shock,” Mitchell said. “The more I look at it and say, ‘Oh, man, I’m surprised,’ I think that will distract me from the moment of the now. At All-Star break, I can kind of look back to this part of the season and go, ‘Wow,’ and then get right back into it once it starts. If I kind of look at everything as a whole, I think it will take me away from focusing on the moment.”
Utah swung a draft-night deal to secure Mitchell, trading its No. 24 pick and Trey Lyles to Denver to get the 21-year-old at No. 13. Many scouts carried concerns about whether he was big enough to be a shooting guard at 6 feet 3, but his 6-10 wingspan and 36-inch vertical leap are great equalizers.
Mitchell’s penchant for improvement and commitment to defense already were apparent at Louisville. His jump shot transformed there to help him average 15.6 points as a sophomore. He is averaging 19.2 points in the NBA, keeping recently hot Utah in the playoff hunt despite 7-1 center Rudy Gobert missing 26 games because of injuries.
Mitchell has a pro sports pedigree as the son of Donovan Mitchell Sr., the New York Mets’ director of player relations and a former minor-league infielder. The younger Mitchell stopped pitching at age 13 but never stopped bringing the heat on dunks while using curves and changeups to get by defenders.
“He’s not scared of anything,” Jazz guard Joe Johnson said. “He competes every night at the highest level. He’s been poised for a rookie. He’s definitely surprised a lot of people but it’s expected now.”
Mitchell’s humble, hungry approach has earned the respect of league superstars. LeBron James, his childhood hero, and Russell Westbrook have been among the players to encourage and compliment him personally. Mitchell outdueled James on his 33rd birthday to beat the Cavaliers on Dec. 30.
“After you play those guys the first time, the next time you play them, it’s like, all right, we’ve been here before,” Mitchell said. “I understand this now. Lock in and don’t let the outside stuff or the fact of who I played against get to me. That’s been the biggest change realistically to 2018, to be honest with you. The Cleveland game was a great end to 2017, just being able to go out there and kind of relax. Come out for introductions, not getting absorbed and everything and not jumping up and screaming like I want to. But understanding that if I keep my energy high, it’s when I start to go fast and out of control. If I’m able to just relax myself and slow down, that’s been helping me.”
Coming out of the draft, Mitchell had talent and persona that analysts had an easy time identifying but a difficult time projecting what it meant. Before the All-Star break, he already is drawing star comparisons to Dwyane Wade (from James) and Damian Lillard.
“He just really seems to remind me of Damian, especially in his early years,” said Phoenix interim head coach Jay Triano, a former Portland assistant coach. “His ability, and it was more the way the ball went through the net. The shot hits and then it’s down fast off that back iron. He’s got that same type of body. He’s got that same type of quickness to attack the basket. He’s got the deep range the same way. His body is always on balance. I just keep thinking every time I see him and watch him in the scout prep, ‘Man, this looks so much like Damian.’”
Mitchell had just made 14 of 19 shots in his 40-point game at Phoenix with seven three-pointers when he repeatedly mentioned a flaw — throwing the lob pass off pick-and-roll plays instead of shooting floaters regularly. He did not even know he had scored 40 until Johnson told him.
Mitchell ardently wants to be “a more well-rounded player.” He already is a Rising Stars Challenge pick and most pundits’ second-ranked rookie of this year candidate behind Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons.
“I think it’s deserving,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said of the honors going to Mitchell. “I don’t think — and it’s evident by the fact that he’s got it [rookie of the month] again — that it’s something he’s working toward. He’s just playing. Oftentimes, when you do that and just compete, good things happen.”