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Donovan Mitchell wants his legacy to be about more than basketball

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looks into the fans as the Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
FILE: Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looks into the fans as the Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When Donovan Mitchell was drafted 13th overall in 2017, he didn’t expect instant success in the NBA.

Less than a month after the 2017-18 season began, Mitchell was permanently installed in the Utah Jazz’s starting lineup and he’s been on a meteoric rise ever since. He finished his rookie season as the Jazz’s leading scorer, won the dunk contest during NBA All-Star week, had one of the most prolific rookie seasons of any guard and was runner-up for Rookie of the Year.

“To do what I did my rookie year I was in shock,” Mitchell said on Friday. “To be honest with you I had dreamt of it, but I didn’t expect it to happen so fast for me.”

It seemed inevitable that Mitchell would end up with a max deal. That came to fruition this past week when Mitchell inked a five-year max extension worth up to $195.6 million with the Jazz.

The deal marks a milestone in Mitchell’s career, guarantees him and his family financial security, and means that there are even higher expectations for him than ever before.

“I’m just gonna continue to do what got me here,” he said. “I’ll continue to be the same person, same player, same work ethic, and everything else will kind of just fall into place and if it doesn’t, that’s how it was meant to be.”

But even if all of the on-court accolades and championships do come Mitchell’s way, it’s not what he wants to be remembered for. He wants his legacy to be about more than just basketball.

During the past year, Mitchell has taken it upon himself to be a voice for social causes that reached beyond the basketball court. He has been an advocate for education and criminal justice reform, racial justice and fighting voter suppression.

When the Milwaukee Bucks staged a protest in the NBA bubble in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, leading to multiple days of playoff games being postponed, Mitchell placed himself firmly at the center of conversations about what could be done to create change.

Following a summer of protests and civil unrest in response to a rash of Black people killed at the hands of law enforcement officers, the NBA took a stand with many players and coaches using their time with reporters and in front of television cameras to talk about these incidents.

“That’s the legacy I want to leave,” Mitchell said. “Championships are great, games are great, but at the end of the day I’m a Black man first. That’s the legacy. I want to be able to tell my kids, ‘Look, your dad was a part of this.’”

Mitchell certainly has plans for big purchases when his new, highly lucrative deal kicks in after the upcoming season, the last on his rookie deal, but he also sees the new deal as an opportunity to expand his charitable endeavors. He’s full of ideas for ways to impact college opportunities for those who might not be able to afford it or helping families who experience food insecurity, giving to underfunded schools, all things that he’s already done.

“I’ve done so many different things off the floor as far as giving back, and I’m in a position now where I can do things on a higher level,” he said.

It’s not as if Mitchell’s hope for a legacy that extends beyond the court is mutually exclusive from what he achieves on the court. He understands that in order to continue to have an elevated platform and to ensure a lengthy career he has to perform well.

To that end, Mitchell has concentrated on learning from his mistakes and successes so he can improve and continue on his upward trajectory as a basketball player. He rewatches the high-scoring performances from the first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, but he doesn’t focus on the point total.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives around Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) as the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.
FILE: Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives around Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) as the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I was able to just play with more pace,” Mitchell said, noting that pace doesn’t necessarily mean quickness. “Being able to slow myself down, slow the game down that happens in a variety of ways. Being on the ball a little bit more and knocking down the three ball really helped to expand my game, allowed me to get to the paint, make the right reads.”

Mitchell wants to be the absolute best version of himself on the court for as long as the game allows, and also set himself up to be able to help others and be a voice for those who do not have a voice even after his NBA career ends.

“Basketball goes away in about 10 to 15 years if you have a long career, but the end of the day I’m still a Black man,” he said. “There’s certain things and there’s injustice in this world ... and I’m trying to be the catalyst and one of the people who start things to show people and educate people so we can improve as a country, and if I can go down and tell my kids that that’s what I did in this world I would be very happy.”