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Donovan Mitchell needs to be even better if the Jazz are serious about winning the title

Mitchell has elevated his game each year he’s been in the league and understands he may need to carry an even bigger load if the Jazz are to make a run this season.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell warms up before playing the LA Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. The All-Star guard is the first to admit there are parts of his game that need to be improved.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell warms up before playing the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. The Jazz were bounced from last year’s playoffs in the second round by the Clippers, and look to avoid a similar outcome this season.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Donovan Mitchell is asked to do a lot.

He is the Utah Jazz’s leading scorer, led the league in points per game during the playoffs in 2020, and was fourth in points per game in the most recent postseason, despite an ankle injury that was painful and limiting.

Mitchell is also a vocal leader of this Utah Jazz team. Outside of Rudy Gobert, there’s not a voice on the roster that holds more weight. He’s a mentor to the younger players (even though he’s only 25 years old), he’s a two-time All-Star, he’s one of the best young players in the league. But the truth is that if the Jazz want to achieve the goal of winning an NBA title, it’s going to require more from Mitchell.

“It’s a big part of our push,” he said, acknowledging that his continued improvement is a critical component to the Jazz’s future success. “For myself, there’s always room to grow and get better. It’s no secret, I’ve said that there’s things I need to continue to build and work on. So for me, it’s about doing that and making that jump.”

Instead of seemingly putting everything on Mitchell, it would make sense to look at the entirety of the Jazz roster and look for ways to get better, and the Jazz did just that.

In the offseason the Jazz added Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall, Hassan Whiteside and drafted Jared Butler. They made moves that make the team deeper, more versatile, and more stable for the future. But even with those tweaks around the edges of the roster, the fact remains that the Jazz’s success is largely going to depend on the trajectory of Mitchell’s growth.

The truth of the situation seems to be something that would add an inordinate amount of pressure to someone like Mitchell, who is already tasked with doing so much and wearing so many hats. But at this point, he’s accustomed to the pressure.

When he was first drafted and brought to the Jazz, he had small goals that felt big. He just wanted to crack the Jazz rotation.

Well, that goal was met pretty quickly and it became clear that Mitchell was going to be much more than just a rotational player. He said that was when the pressure started mounting. Now, getting better and leading the Jazz seems like more of a responsibility than anything else.

“I’ve kind of felt that pressure since year two, to be honest with you,” Mitchell said. “I think after what I did my first year there was kind of like an expectation. You can go one of two ways, you can be a one-hit wonder or you can take off. So I feel like as far as on the court pressure, I don’t feel like it’s any different.”

With that responsibility, Mitchell knows that being too critical of himself could end up being more of a detriment than anything else, so it’s important that he stays reasonable in his expectations.

“Not being too hard on myself,” he said. “Because there’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs. We may start off strong, may start off slow, but at the end of the day just keep trusting the work that you put in.”

Silver lining

Through the 2021 playoffs Mitchell was in significant pain. He came back early from a serious ankle sprain and continued to take hits as the postseason unfolded.

He was still phenomenal. Through grimaces and trying as much as he could to not land on his injured right ankle, taking jump shots with most of his weight on his left side, Mitchell was sensational. But the Jazz lost 4-2 to the Clippers and were sent home after the second round.

Mitchell didn’t watch the rest of the playoffs outside of the Milwaukee Bucks closeout game in the Finals. It was mentally painful to see other teams in the place that he felt the Jazz could have been. It was even more painful to think, what if?

What if he wasn’t hurt? Maybe the Jazz would have beat the Los Angeles Clippers. What if Mike Conley wasn’t injured at the same time? Maybe the Jazz would have had a chance. What if Mitchell was able to give just a little bit more?

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) walks downcourt after receiving a technical foul as the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder open the 2021-22 season at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell walks downcourt during game against Oklahoma City to open the 2021-22 season at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Oct. 20, 2021. With the Jazz off to a 3-0 start, Mitchell understands the need to continue growing his game in order for the team to reach its ultimate goal — winning an NBA title.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Those questions don’t serve much of a purpose and don’t lead to anything good. Mitchell couldn’t control the injury that he sustained last season, but what he is able to control is how he uses that experience moving forward.

If there’s any silver lining to the way things played out in the playoffs last season, it’s that Mitchell was forced to play differently. He didn’t have the same amount of burst and strength as he normally did. The athleticism that had served as one of his greatest attributes was no longer something he could use to his advantage in the same ways he always had.

Out of necessity, Mitchell played more on the ground, and doing so allowed him to grow and see the game differently.

“That’s when the reads and the footwork and all those things become even more important,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And those are the things that he’s working on right now. If they cut you off here, what’s your counter? And so as you build those different counters, it usually has to do with playing with your feet as much as anything.”

That experience gave Mitchell a better perspective on the importance of health, the need to prepare for longevity and even gave him new tools for playing and using his talent in a different way. And still, the Jazz are going to need more from him.

What more can be done?

Perimeter defense has been an issue for the Jazz in the postseason for a long time. The Jazz have worked to improve the way they handle switches and they have, as stated above, added more versatile and stronger players to increase the effectiveness of their defensive schemes.

Mitchell knows that he could be better defensively. He talks about it a lot. This season, he’s determined to make his bite as impactful as his bark when it comes to defending.

“The biggest part is communication and being able to speak as well as do,” Mitchell said. “If I’m going to say we’ve got to play defense, I’ve got to go out there and (expletive) play defense.”

Getting better on the defensive end is no easy task, but Mitchell is up to the challenge. There’s a lot of film work involved, a lot of work deciphering and practicing defensive angles and cuts and sliding. Again, a lot of footwork.

“It’s not going to be like, boom,” Mitchell said of a timeframe for improvement. “It’s going to be about building, about taking time and getting through it. It’s easy to look at the stats and say, you know, what else can you do? There’s a lot more.”

Some people might say that with the energy that Mitchell expends on the offensive end, with the load he carries for the Jazz in scoring and playmaking, it might be unrealistic to ask him to turn into a lockdown defender.

Some people might believe that Mitchell’s ceiling is as a dynamic and powerful scorer and an average defender.

Snyder will tell you that some people are not Donovan Mitchell.

“I think the truth is, if you allow yourself that out, then when you get tired, it’s easier to take it,” Snyder said. “With Donovan, he’s determined to commit to every possession. ... Yes, it’s hard to focus on every possession, it just is. That focus and that concentration, I think is something that he’s continued to emphasize and continue to improve.”

It’s not just the defensive side where Mitchell sees room to get better. He talks about becoming more efficient, and he’s not just talking about shooting percentages. Efficiency to Mitchell means making the most of every minute on the court and cutting down on errors.

He’s working on being able to control the pace of the game, trying to limit his turnovers, to make better reads earlier and to be able to correct mistakes in real time. Mitchell wants to improve his game in every area, even where people might not necessarily see a need for it.

“I’d like to think there isn’t a ceiling,” Snyder said of Mitchell. “The minute we set a ceiling, maybe you hit it.”

The sky’s the limit really takes on a different meaning for Mitchell and those who are around him, which is a great sentiment. For the Jazz to reach the pinnacle of the basketball world, they might just need Mitchell to be able to touch the sky.