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Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell aims to improve on his 'terrible' defense

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) defends against Toronto Raptors guard Delon Wright (55) in the second half during an NBA preseason basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Utah guard Donovan Mitchell, right, defends against Toronto guard Delon Wright during a preseason game Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — When he first joined the Jazz last year, Donovan Mitchell talked all about defense, how important it was to him and how he planned to make his mark in the NBA by becoming a top defender.

Then his spectacular season happened as Mitchell turned out to be an unexpected superb offensive player, leading the Jazz, and all NBA rookies, with a 20.5 scoring average. Hardly a word was spoken about Mitchell and defense the rest of the season.

When the topic of his defense was brought up earlier this week, the reporter could hardly finish his question, before Mitchell bluntly said, “I was terrible last year.” He went on to acknowledge he had some good games defensively, but playing defense in the NBA was a big adjustment.

“It took me a while,” he said. “There was a lot to get adjusted to — positioning, understanding that guys are going to hit shots ... I prefer a guy to score 10 points or less, but it’s not very realistic all the time.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder chuckled when told of Mitchell’s assessment of being terrible, saying “Johnnie (Bryant) called it terrible all year,” and adding, “We have that bar for everybody and obviously if Donovan is evaluating himself, you can imagine how we’ve evaluated him.”

That sounds like Snyder wasn’t pleased with Mitchell’s defense, but he said it’s difficult for players who are their team’s top offensive threat to be the top defenders as well.

“I don’t want to make excuses for Donovan, we won’t do that, but there’s a realism involved, more mentally than physically, if you’re playing every part of the game offensively and the team’s relying on you to create, there’s a natural tendency to take a play off,” he said. “That’s a habit and a focus and it’s the same focus that we’ve asked him to have on offense. As he continues to grow as a player, you’ll see him be more focused on certain things. It’s hard to focus on everything.”

Mitchell said a focus on defense for him will “definitely” be front and center this season and he talked about what he must do.

“Just being able to find ways make it tough on guys, get over screens, get on the boards, being a help, talking more, trying to be as vocal as I can,” he said. “I’m just trying to find ways to build on it.”

Snyder is confident that Mitchell will be improved defensively this year.

“The great thing about Donovan is that he has that expectation for himself,” he said. “There were games last year where he played excellent (defense). This is just a process for him.”

JAZZ NOTES: Mitchell and the rest of the Jazz may not have to worry a lot about defense Friday night (7 p.m. Vivint Arena) when they take on another Australian professional team, the Adelaide 36ers. Last week, Utah cruised to a 58-point victory over the Perth Wildcats from Australia ... After Friday’s game, the Jazz hit the road for a game at Portland Sunday night, before playing at Sacramento Thursday night in the final preseason contest. Then the regular season begins the following Wednesday back in Sacramento ... The first home game will be Oct. 19 against the world champion Golden State Warriors.