Donovan Mitchell wasn’t much of a shooter. He wasn’t really a ball-handler or a passer. He didn’t have basketball in his blood.
But he could jump — high. Like, really high.
“I wasn't really much of a basketball player,” Mitchell said. “I just dunked and played defense.”
He was better suited for the pitching mound where he could follow the path his father, Donovan Mitchell Sr., laid out in a previous lifetime as a minor league player in the Houston Astros organization.
But the obvious choice isn’t always the best one.
Saturday night, the junior Mitchell came up against another son of a pro athlete — one who even shares a name and a bloodline with the first ever winner of the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest.
But from the time Mitchell decided to ditch the stirrups for shorts on a permanent basis, he had a secret weapon.
“Believe it or not, I've been preparing for this since I was a kid. Like ‘What am I going to do?’” Mitchell said with a superstar smile and a freshly polished trophy in front of him. “But I didn't know I'd be able to jump this high — so it kind of added a few more tricks.”
No one’s were better at Staples Center in the premiere event of All-Star Weekend, with the Utah Jazz rookie out-dueling former Laker Larry Nance Jr. in the finals.
Since he first slammed a basketball through the rim as a seventh-grader at a Harlem Park, Mitchell’s mind had been at work.
With the first dunk, he brought out a second backboard positioned behind the baseline, tossing the ball off the glass before windmilling it through on the other hoop.
Had it not been the opening dunk of the contest, it might’ve scored a 50.
For his second dunk, he involved his younger sister named — wait for it — Jordan. He caught a pass off the side of the backboard, leaping over her along with comedian Kevin Hart and Hart’s son.
The dunk scored a perfect 50.
He was perfect again to start the finals, flipping the ball off the backboard before catching it in the same hand, leading to another powerful windmill slam before closing out the contest with an homage to Vince Carter — banging in a reverse 360-degree windmill slam that Carter used to cap an iconic performance in 2000.
“I’ve watched a lot of Vince's videos,” Mitchell said. “So, I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven't made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn't make it. Tried it last night, didn't make it.”
But with everything on the line, needing 47 out of 50 points to beat Nance, Mitchell pulled it off.
“I didn't think I was going to win, to be honest with you,” he said. “If you ask anybody around me, I was like, ‘Yeah, it's fun to participate.’ That was my thing. ‘Yeah, it's fun to be in it.’ I didn't think this was going to happen.”
Nance, though, was born to be in this position.
After injuries kept him from being considered the last two seasons, he entered the contest with creativity and force.
For his first dunk, he enlisted the famous NBA halftime act “Quick Change” to help him get into his father’s old Phoenix Suns jersey before he perfectly mimicked Larry Sr.’s signature “rock the cradle” dunk.
Nance, who had to quick change into a Cavaliers uniform after being traded by the Lakers at the deadline, had planned on doing that dunk to honor his dad since before he even made it to the NBA.
“It was very cool,” he said. “Obviously a big moment for my family and something I’ll cherish forever.”
Nance Jr. made it to the finals leaving Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo behind in the opening round before falling to Mitchell.
Saturday’s victory was nothing new for Mitchell — his Utah team is the hottest in the NBA, winning 11 in a row before the All-Star break. And despite being picked 13th in the 2017 NBA draft, he’s one of the favorites for rookie of the year, averaging 19.6 points per game to lead all first-year players.
And Saturday night, the former pitcher with baseball in his blood threw his best fastball.
“Maybe y'all don't know, but I didn't think any of this was going to happen,” Mitchell said. “So the fact that any of this is happening is incredible to me.”