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Playing through injury hasn’t stopped Donovan Mitchell from elevating his game

Can Donovan Mitchell take the Jazz to the NBA’s mountaintop? The All-Star guard has shown off another level to his game.

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Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell celebrates a basket against the LA Clippers.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell celebrates against the LA Clippers during the NBA playoffs in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 10, 2021. Mitchell has been playing through injury, but still elevating his game.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Donovan Mitchell walked off the court after Game 1 of the Utah Jazz’s Western Conference semifinals matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers in Salt Lake City and knew that he hadn’t given it everything he had.

He finished that game with 45 points, dazzling in the second half, scoring 32 of his 45 in the last 28 minutes. He was the best player on the floor that night, which is saying something considering the Clippers field their own star-studded team that features seven-time All-Star Paul George and two-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP and five-time All-Star Kawhi Leonard.

In just his fourth year in the league, Mitchell has completely flipped the script on what was expected of him when he was first drafted 13th overall in 2017.

He was seen as an explosive and athletic guard who was promising, but limited. His handles weren’t exactly top notch and he wasn’t seen as a reliable passer. Though he had good shooting form he was inefficient and often settled for ill-advised mid-range shots.

Today, Mitchell is a two-time All-Star, a stable and reliable ballhandler who dictates the tone and pace of a game. He is a pure shooter who easily knocks down step-back and pull-up 3-pointers in the face of his opponents. At just 24 years old, Mitchell is the leader of the Utah Jazz and has improved his game by leaps and bounds every season.

“His level just kind of, some days it skyrockets and some days it’s a little flatter but it’s constantly, constantly rising,” Joe Ingles said of his teammate. “It’s not just with awards, or any wins, or dunk contests or whatever ... there’s obviously players that make the jumps and leaps that he has, but it’s a very special number of guys that are able to do it.”

He is a tireless worker, addicted to watching film and fixing the imperfections of his game. He is ruthlessly competitive, physically and mentally tough, and never, ever satisfied.

Despite his transcendent performance and what he did to push the Jazz to a 112-109 victory in Game 1 of the Jazz’s second-round series against the Clippers, Mitchell couldn’t help but wonder what the night could have been like if he’d played better in the first half.

“In the first half, on both ends of the floor, I wasn’t making the right reads,” Mitchell said. “I was getting my (expletive) kicked.”

After nearly every question Mitchell was asked about his performance, the ability to overcome a deficit earlier in the game, his level of focus, about playing against Leonard, the Jazz’s opportunity this season, he continued to stress that he didn’t play well enough in the first half, that he could have been better.

Mitchell was already playing through pain, having returned to action just two weeks earlier after missing the final 16 games of the regular season and the playoff opener against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round because of a significant right ankle sprain he suffered on April 16.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to dig deep into a different place.” — Donovan Mitchell

What’s more, Mitchell was under the weather.

He had just come off consecutive 30-point performances against the Grizzlies including a series-winning Game 5 in which Mitchell was unable to get through his postgame interview without coughing, sniffling and clearing his throat multiple times.

In Game 1 against the Clippers he was lightheaded and nauseous before the game began and was fighting against those feelings in the lamented first half that he couldn’t shake, even after a victory.

Two days later he was mad at himself for not getting more assists. Two days after that he was mad that he didn’t get to the free-throw line more often. He always wants more and always wants to be better than he was the game before.

Through the first four games of the Jazz’s second-round series against the Clippers, Mitchell has limped off the floor in two of the games. Even so, he’s been steadfast in saying that he’s fine playing through pain, as long as things don’t get worse.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to dig deep into a different place,” he said.

Though he’s been playing through pain and sickness and without fellow All-Star Mike Conley, Mitchell continues to surprise in each game with how he’s able to push himself to new heights and new levels. 

“I think that shows his mental toughness, I think it shows his competitiveness,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “I think those are two of the things that have allowed him to improve the way he has and to become the player he has. The other thing is his work ethic. He’s one of those guys that loves to work on his game.”

Mitchell is unafraid to ask for help and is willing to take pointers from anyone that might be able to impart some wisdom. He is coachable, which is not always the case with superstars and it’s something that he takes pride in.

If the Jazz are going to make it to an NBA Finals at any point in the near future, it will be because of the emergence of Mitchell as a superstar in a league that has continued to doubt whether he can reach that level.

If the Jazz are going to have continued success over the next few years it will be because Mitchell refused to settle for what was good and instead, continued to strive for greatness.