How Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley honed their coaching chops while nursing injuries
Both players were fully invested during their time on the shelf, imparting wisdom to teammates in street clothes from the bench
At any point during an NBA game you’ll see different coaches barking orders at players on the court, taking them to the side during a timeout, a dead ball, during a free throw or while a play is under review to impart some wisdom about a matchup or something else that they see happening on the court. Sometimes you’ll see multiple coaches talking to different players all at one time.
The Utah Jazz have an impressive coaching staff, led by head coach Quin Snyder, who is in the running to win Coach of the Year honors, and a team of nine assistant coaches — Alex Jensen, Dell Demps, Mike Wells, Lamar Skeeter, Keyon Dooling, Jeff Watkinson, Sergi Oliva, Bryan Bailey and Vince Legarza.
Dealing with a sore hamstring, Conley missed nine straight games from April 28 until he rejoined the team in the penultimate game of the season on May 14. Mitchell missed the final 16 games of the season with a right ankle sprain.
Though the two weren’t able to be on the court with their teammates through the homestretch of the 2020-21 campaign, they refused to stay out of the trenches entirely and were as involved as they possibly could be — coaching their teammates while wearing street clothes and champing at the bit to get back in the thick of things.
“I’d rather have them on the court, between the lines,” Snyder said with a hopeful laugh. “But, I think both of them are really engaged, and you can hear them communicating, not just with the players but also with the assistants, and I’ve had opportunities to talk to them.”
Conley comes at the game with the wisdom of a 14-year NBA veteran and advice that can only come with experience.
“We expect a lot from Mike on the court and off the court and I think leadership-wise, he’s been unreal for the two years he’s been here,” Joe Ingles said. “He’ll be willing to tell us things he sees out on the court, regardless if it’s a playoffs or not. He’s done it all year with myself, and Trent (Forrest) now, while he’s been sitting out.”
“I’d rather have them on the court, between the lines. But, I think both of them are really engaged, and you can hear them communicating, not just with the players but also with the assistants, and I’ve had opportunities to talk to them.” — Quin Snyder
Mitchell brings the fiery energy of a 24-year-old basketball junkie who has a reputation for watching film and games more than anyone else on the team.
Jordan Clarkson joked recently that Mitchell was so intense about staying engaged that even when the team wasn’t around, Mitchell was coaching them.
“Don today sat on a bench and was talking to an invisible team like he was the coach and started drawing up plays,” Clarkson said with a laugh, joking that maybe Mitchell had taken the coaching bit to the extreme.
Though Clarkson jokes about Mitchell as a coach, he also has deep gratitude for the help that Mitchell and Conley have provided while being sidelined by injuries. With two of the Jazz’s lead ballhandlers unable to play for an extended stretch, more responsibility was put on the shoulders of Clarkson, Ingles and Forrest, a rookie guard on a two-way deal.
“Coach has been having me bring the ball up the floor sometimes and I’m kind of lost-minded sometimes on what to call and what plays to run and stuff,” Clarkson said. “Those guys are always there to help and tell me what they see, so it’s been a good experience.”
Though Clarkson isn’t as familiar with being a primary ballhandler or running the point, Ingles is. But, as the saying goes, you never stop learning, and Ingles has found Conley to be invaluable as a pseudo-coach.
“He’ll come over at timeouts and tell us what he sees or feels and he’s usually, 99.9% of the time, right,” Ingles said of Conley.
While many fans and pundits have wondered whether the Jazz would experience some bumps in trying to reincorporate Conley and Mitchell back into the lineup so near the playoffs, and whether the Jazz should be worried about Conley and Mitchell being rusty after their extended absences, the Jazz have no concerns.
And, if you listen to Conley talk about coming back to the team, he sounds like a seasoned coach, spinning the conversation around to see the positive aspects of him and Mitchell missing time.
“I thought it did a lot of good for our team, for guys who weren’t necessarily getting a lot of minutes earlier in the year, that we’ve called upon the last few weeks,” Conley said. “Trent and Joe, J.C., Bojan (Bogdanovic) and everybody’s just really kind of stepped up a lot. So hopefully it was like a blessing for our team.”
The silver-lining outlook from coach Conley isn’t a hard one to dispute. Bogdanovic has been playing lights out since Mitchell’s injury, averaging 22.8 points on 41.2% 3-point shooting and 90% from the free-throw line. Clarkson averaged nearly 30 points over the last seven games of the season, Ingles has been as reliable as ever, Georges Niang has shown a new level of hustle and quick decision-making, and Forrest has been incredibly impressive considering his age and inexperience.
Meanwhile, Conley and Mitchell have been able to dissect the game from a different point of view, which has been not only valuable to those that are on the floor, but also has been giving Conley and Mitchell time to analyze how teams are guarding the Jazz and how they might moving forward.
“Just seeing the game from the sideline, you get a different perspective a lot of the time and are able to process it differently,” Conley said. “Whether I’m talking to Trent or Georges or Royce, whoever it may be, you see little nuances in their game, ways they can help our team, ways that they can be effective in their roles. ... and whenever you get a chance you bring them aside and tell them a couple options they could have had on that play or another way they can attack a defense or where they can get in better position on defense. It’s just a bunch of observations from two guys who love the game and know it very well.”
Conley rejoined his team on the court for the last two games of the regular season and in his limited minutes during the regular-season finale against the Sacramento Kings, he looked like he’d already shaken off any rust that may have been lingering.
Mitchell did not return to play in the regular season, but by all accounts from his teammates, they expect him to be well rested, healthy and ready to go by the time the playoffs begin.
Despite missing Conley and Mitchell through some of the grueling final days of a tough season, the Jazz were able to maintain the No. 1 seed, saw their role players respond well to increased work loads and responsibility, and finished the season with the best record in the NBA.
So, while the Jazz absolutely benefitted from the wisdom imparted by Conley and Mitchell, they can’t wait for their stints as sideline coaches to be over and to have their starting lineup intact for the playoffs.