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What do Donovan Mitchell and Michael Jordan have in common? More than you think

The Jazz star is front and center as Team USA moves on to World Cup play; it’s a place where he’s increasingly comfortable.

Utah Jazz player Donovan Mitchell during media day in Salt Lake City on Sept 25, 2017.
Utah Jazz player Donovan Mitchell during media day in Salt Lake City on Sept 25, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The finest marketer the Utah Jazz have ever produced struck again this month. Donovan Mitchell is displaying his blinding smile, his teachability and his talent more than ever as the FIBA World Cup nears.

His signature shoe is so popular that even opposing players — OK, former teammate Ricky Rubio — are wearing them.

Move over Michael Jordan.

Mitchell is a quick study when it comes to branding. His latest savvy move is sticking with Team USA for the World Cup, which begins late this month. More than 50 NBA players were invited to play this year, but all except the current 13 declined or were injured. If no one else leaves, there is only one cut left. Mitchell is a virtual lock to stay.

All the better for him during the slow basketball months.

If this sounds like a dig at a well-intending person, it’s not. It’s a tip of the hat. Mitchell is doing the smart thing by building his brand and polishing his game under USA coach Gregg Popovich. In this group of players, it’s fairly easy to stand out. Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, are known. But Derrick White and Joe Harris?


Some say playing for Team USA means to put one’s personal interests on hold. Actually, playing in the tournament is in Mitchell’s personal interest. He plays in a small market. Although a legitimate NBA star, he has never been on an All-Star team. This exposure is invaluable. Meanwhile, he gets to learn from Popovich, who Quin Snyder termed the greatest coach in basketball history.

So Mitchell is risking injury in high-intensity, offseason play as he makes Americans proud. The Jazz say they’re all in favor of it. Considering Dante Exum’s disastrous injury while playing internationally, it’s fair to question the choice. Everyone on the U.S. team has reasons for playing. Mitchell sincerely has two of them: his country and himself.

Playing is the wrong choice from a risk standpoint, but it’s the right career move. He is fashioning into one of the league’s most potent young marketing forces, a regular mini-Michael. At one time Jordan was believed to be the most recognizable person on the planet. Mitchell’s not yet there. But he has the charisma and the game to go far. He is family friendly and camera ready. After an exhibition win over Spain, he smoothly excused the many NBA players who bailed out, yet simultaneously justified his own decision.

“Some guys are older. Some guys rest their bodies, I understand that — that’s the nature of the game,” Mitchell told reporters. “For me, I’ve never been a part of USA Basketball. I’m honored to be here. I’m honored to have this privilege.”

Anyone who questions Mitchell’s overall sincerity hasn’t encountered him. He’s as earnest as a volunteer. Many higher profile players such as Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry turned down Team USA invitations. Even Damian Lillard, whose marketing skills equal Mitchell’s, opted out to rehab an injury. Kevin Durant couldn’t have played if he wanted, thanks to his Achilles injury.

In some ways, Mitchell brings better optics than his famous colleagues. Harden has a reputation of extreme offense-centric play. LeBron James is worth enough money to buy Greenland — same as Trump — but has weighed in on polarizing social and political issues. Mitchell has low-keyed politics. Durant has become less agreeable as the years passed. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is playing for Greece, requires a 15-second TV spot just to say his name.

Curry continues to roll as one of the league’s truest stars, both on and off the court. But a dearth of superstars playing this summer has left an opportunity for Mitchell to stretch. A headline in The Ringer on Monday asked, “Is This the Worst Team USA in Modern NBA History?”

Maybe. But that’s not so bad for Mitchell. He has shone this summer in his play, his demeanor and his branding.

That alone deserves some kind of medal.