HOUSTON — Exceptional as Donovan Mitchell is, as high his ceiling, the Jazz guard enters Sunday’s playoff opener still relatively unknown. He has a signature shoe, an NBA League Pass commercial and a smile that could launch a fleet of Larry H. Miller cars.
What he doesn’t have is high visibility beyond the NBA. He has yet to transcend the sport, à la Houston’s James Harden. Even as a player, Mitchell gets overlooked. In late March 2018, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton listed “The next 11 players who could change the future of basketball.” Mitchell wasn’t included but Trae Young — still in college — was.
Here comes opportunity knocking at the door.
Winning relies on teamwork, and Mitchell is a great teammate. But the playoffs are also about marketing. This will be his coming-out party if he plays well. Last year, he was a rookie and a novelty. This postseason is his chance to go from top talent to All-Star. After that, he won’t be able to brush his teeth without drawing an audience, much less appear at high school games and July 4th backyard barbecues.
The opportunity to display his skills nationwide first arose last year, when the Jazz played Oklahoma City, and later the Rockets, in the playoffs. Mitchell was great most of the time. His statement dunk in Houston shook buildings in Matamoros. But a five-game elimination in the second round kept fans from fully experiencing the Donovan Effect.
This year he will be more recognizable. Harden is on the way to his second MVP award, but Mitchell’s name is out there. Some experts are saying this is the playoffs’ most intriguing first-round matchup.
Harden is easily the main event in the Houston-Utah playoff series. He’s the only player in history to total 50 points, 15 assists and 15 rebounds in a game. No other player has recorded 2,000 points, 900 assists and 600 rebounds in a season. Such numbers have made him a six-time All-Star and landed lucrative commercial deals such as the one with State Farm. Mitchell is only a second-year player, awaiting discovery. On the court, he is ahead of Harden’s second-year pace.
Harden’s style was muted in his early years, because he had to share the ball with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There simply weren’t enough shots available for the talent. Mitchell shoots whenever he wants and nobody complains.
The Jazz guard’s character, unselfishness and overall persona don’t yet make him as recognizable as Harden’s beard. But he’s getting there. Harden’s foul-inducing play infuriates opponents and their fans. Mitchell, on the other hand, has few haters.
Last year Mitchell drew attention as the runner-up for Rookie of the Year. But now he’s a seasoned pro. The league’s publicity machine is in hyping the Harden vs. Mitchell angle and why not? Both can play either shooting guard or point. Both score at a high pace. And both can dunk with panache.
As much as Quin Snyder rightly talks about teamwork being the key, the NBA is about stars, and this series has them. Harden is a megastar, Mitchell an aspiring one. If Mitchell were to shine in the series — especially if the Jazz win — it would take him into a different realm. Right now he can fuel up on the disrespect of not being an All-Star. He recovered from a fairly slow start to the season and finished impressively. On New Year’s Day he tweeted “New Year, new me.”
His point: There’s more where that came from.
Basketball Reference has Harden’s player efficiency rating and win shares well above Mitchell’s. But both are the difference between their teams being upper-half in the West and missing the playoffs. Harden has experience and momentum behind him, but Mitchell has ambition.
Houston fans wear T-shirts that say “Fear the Beard,” accompanied by Harden’s image. Mitchell has a smaller, trimmer beard. But just like his reputation and his game, it’s growing. Oh, how it’s growing.