SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell says he likes to be different, which may explain why, unlike most basketball players who think first about putting the ball in the hoop, he talks about defense.
The Utah Jazz rookie, who was selected with the No. 13 pick from the University of Louisville in last summer’s NBA draft after the Jazz traded up to get him, isn’t afraid to admit that he prides himself on his defense, which is one big reason the Jazz selected him so high.
“I like being different,” he says. “Not a lot of people like (defense). It started when I got to Louisville because I wouldn’t (get to) play unless I played defense. That’s kind of how it started. It’s a different respect when you play defense, it shows you hustle differently and you work a little bit harder because you have to do both sides.”
His coaches love it, particularly head coach Quin Snyder, who, in his three years with the Jazz, has emphasized defense every step of the way and has built his team into one of the NBA’s best in the defensive department.
“He’s so aggressive defensively, we were kidding him the other day he almost fouled out during practice, which is hard to do,” Snyder said with a chuckle.
Earlier in the week, Snyder lit up when asked specifically about Mitchell and his defensive mentality.
“Donovan’s defense — if you’re on the wing and trying to get open, you better be ready, because he’s going to make it hard for you to catch the ball,” he said.
The defensive-minded Jazz were happy to draft Mitchell last June, trading former first-round draft choice Trey Lyles and the No. 24 pick to move up and grab Mitchell. He’s listed as a “combo guard,” one who can run an offense but also knows how to score.
“We know he’s been a scorer and has a scorer’s mentality,” said Snyder about Mitchell, who more than doubled his scoring average between his freshman and sophomore seasons at Louisville. “He’s a willing passer, and that’s a good attitude and mindset with our team.”
X X X
Mitchell grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he played for the Brewster Academy Prep School. His father, Donovan Mitchell Sr., who works for the New York Mets as the director of player relations, was a minor-league baseball player for seven years and at one time, young Donovan dreamed of following his father and becoming a professional baseball player.
He played shortstop and pitcher with a fastball of 86 mph and he also had what he called a “filthy” changeup. But his plans took a turn when he was a sophomore in high school and injured his wrist, keeping him off the baseball field for a summer and turning his sights toward basketball.
“Sometimes I'll watch TV and I'll think, 'Man, I wish I could be out there pitching against whoever it is,'" Mitchell told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "But you don't want to live with regrets. I enjoy the fact I made this decision, and I'm happy with it."
Mitchell’s wrist injury also slowed his basketball recruiting process, keeping him out of AAU ball in the summer. He wasn’t recruited by top programs like Kentucky or Duke and instead was pursued by schools such as Creighton, Cincinnati, Florida and Wichita State, before he decided on Louisville.
He only started five games as a freshman in a year the Cardinals were on probation and couldn’t participate in the NCAA Tournament. But the following year, he made huge strides and became the leading scorer on a balanced squad that went 25-9 and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Not only did Mitchell lead his team with a 15.6 scoring average, he was second on the team in rebounding and assists, and he ranked 21st in the nation with 2.1 steals per game.
After his freshman season, Mitchell had gone to his coach, Rick Pitino, and asked what he needed to do to perhaps make it to the NBA. Pitino told him he was a “freakish” athlete but said he needed to become a better shooter with more arc on his shot.
So Mitchell worked hard on his shooting during the summer before his sophomore season. While playing 13 more minutes per game, Mitchell’s overall shooting percentage declined, but his 3-point shooting improved dramatically from 25.0 to 35.4 percent, while shooting considerably more long shots. He sank 80 3-pointers after only attempting 72 as a freshman. In back-to-back league games in January, he sank six 3-pointers.
“I haven’t seen a guy improve his jump shot more than him in my 40 years of coaching,” Pitino said.
Following the season, Mitchell put his name in for the NBA draft, and while many, including Pitino, believed he should stay in school, Mitchell signed with an agent in May with the intent to stay in the draft.
Mitchell went to the NBA Combine, where he measured 6-foot-3 with his shoes on and had an eye-opening 6-foot-10 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical leap. That got the attention of the Jazz, who are big on wingspans ever since drafting Rudy Gobert and his 7-foot-9 wingspan back in 2013.
Then when Mitchell came to Salt Lake for a workout, the Jazz were wowed by his athletic talents as well as his electric personality. His outgoing and engaging demeanor is already a hit with the media and will be with the Jazz fans as they get to know him this season.
After being pegged as a late first-rounder when he first declared for the draft and jumping to a projected No. 20 around the time he hired an agent, Mitchell kept moving up the charts until he became a lottery pick for Utah.
"I'm excited," Mitchell said on ESPN right after being drafted. "Love that organization. They were my first workout. I love everything about them. I'm excited. I'm just so happy."
X X X
If Mitchell didn’t endear himself to Jazz fans with his comments in June, he certainly has since arriving in Utah.
He’s exhibited his charisma in interviews where he is as articulate as any athlete who has ever competed in the state, sounding more like a 40-year-old than the 20-year-old who doesn’t even own a driver’s license.
Mitchell was a star in the Utah summer league, scoring 23 points in his debut and then averaging a combined 20.4 points per game in the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues. His best game was a 37-point, 8-steal effort against Memphis in Las Vegas, when he showed off both his offensive and defensive skills.
While defense may get Mitchell on the floor during his rookie season, so will his offense for a team that will need to find some scoring after losing its top two scorers in Gordon Hayward and George Hill during the offseason.
Mitchell worked out with Jazz teammates in Southern California later in the summer and in September in Salt Lake, and impressed many of them
“From what I’ve seen from Donovan, who is a rookie, he’s the definition of hustle and unselfishness and defense,” said Rudy Gobert. “(The Jazz) did a great job of picking the right guys (who) can fit in the system very well.”
Thabo Sefalosha came to the Jazz this season with a reputation as a defensive specialist, so he could be the perfect player to mentor Mitchell on the finer points of defending. He’s liked what he’s seen of the rookie.
“It’s a big difference coming from college to the NBA, but he has a lot of potential and is very eager to learn,” said Sefalosha. “So it’s been fun just talking to him and see what he does and correcting a few little things. But he has a lot of potential.” While there is a lot of anticipation surrounding Mitchell this season, Snyder warns not to raise expectations too much, saying, “when the game gets going in an NBA game with NBA players on the floor it’s a little different.”
Still, it’s hard not for Jazz fans to dream about what Mitchell can become for the Jazz in the coming years. His peers have taken notice as shown by a survey of NBA rookies at the end of the summer. Mitchell received the most votes for “steal of the draft” and was tied for fourth in the voting for which player would end up as rookie of the year.
Arjay Perovic, who coached Mitchell for several years in AAU basketball, gets back to that same word when talking about Mitchell, calling him “different” from other players he’s coached.
“As a basketball player, he can do it all, rebound, score, play defense, pass the ball. But Donovan separates himself by being a leader,” Perovic told CBS Sports.
“It’s his attitude and charisma. He always knew he was one of the best players, but he was always humble. He would put his ego aside for what was best for the team, and he always led by example. He always cheered on his teammates and was selfless. He’s just a special kid.”