“Donovan Mitchell is going to be a star. Don’t doubt it. Relish it. Embrace it. This is not a case of a punk youngster who must be put in his secondary place, in a check-back-with-us-later sort of role, because he lacks the obligatory rings around the trunk to be granted front-line, most-favored status. There’s no need for any macho-seniority B.S. with him. That may be necessary for most rookies, but Mitchell is not of that ilk. He needs no humbling. Sometimes talent trumps tenure. And this is one of those times.”
I wrote that back before the season started, back before Donovan Mitchell had bounced a single ball or played a single minute in a single NBA regular-season game. And I wish it had been some kind of unique, solitary, visionary insight.
We were all saying it. You, me, your buddies, your co-workers, your dad, your mom, your Grandma, your Uncle Willie, everybody.
Anybody with eyes to see could spot what was apparent, not the least of which was Quin Snyder, who said right away of the rook: “He’s got talent and he competes. He has the desire to get better. When you’ve got that, it’s going to happen.”
This kid was and is a rocket blasting well past the limits of the ordinary, a rocket the Jazz are riding.
In his rookie season and in his initial playoff series, Mitchell has demonstrated himself to be the brightest, highest-flying first-year player on the planet. Ben Simmons has skills. Mitchell carries a team. You saw what he did in the regular season, and through his first two playoff games he’s scored more points than any guard ever. His combined total of 55 points broke the former high held by Michael Jordan, who got 53.
What stands out so remarkably about Mitchell is that he isn’t just a piece of the Jazz’s picture, he’s the biggest piece, certainly at the offensive end. What that means is this: A 21-year-old kid, doing something he’s never before done, is being counted on to carry the scoring load for a quality team, emphasis there on quality.
This isn’t a case of some ball-dominant scorer piling up huge numbers because he’s selfish and the rest of his team sucks. Rather, he’s called upon to give the Jazz the scoring boost they need, while everyone else contributes to the degree they can, in the ways they can, nicely complementing Mitchell’s main thrust.
During Game 1 against the Thunder, Mitchell said he momentarily got nervous in an early timeout: “I thought I was going to throw up,” he said. He was so jittery and jumpy that he went for 27 points, despite an aching toe that robbed him of a portion of his explosiveness.
In Game 2, he got his 28 points, even without finding range from distance, piling up the points with 13 in the fourth quarter alone, plowing the way for a Jazz victory on the Thunder’s home court. Afterward, he scolded himself for going through a short lapse where he toned down his aggression. He said it wouldn’t happen again, and he’s likely right.
Pressure, to Mitchell, is a non-factor. His whirling moves through and across the lane, his artful floaters, his creative ways of getting open, are to a degree instinctual, but only because he’s practiced them 10,000 times. When he unsheathes them, there’s no time to think or worry or freak out. He just acts — without clogging his nervous system, his glands, his synapses with concerns about what might happen if he misses.
If he misses, as he said afterward, his teammates will crash the boards and give him or themselves a do-over. No big deal.
It was notable that Rudy Gobert, the Jazz’s other star, was the one urging Mitchell to keep shooting, to keep pushing, to keep hauling the load that is properly his. The NBA’s most impactful defender knows full well what kind of players, what kind of attacks are the hardest to stop. When the big man says shoot, Mitchell listens, without reservation about what anybody else might think.
With Gobert doing what he does on the defensive end, the Jazz have two of the league’s best young players. How many 25-and-under duos on other teams would you be willing to trade Mitch-Go for?
There’s truth in what Snyder has been saying for quite some time now, as the Jazz have ascended from a sub-.500 team to the force that they have become: “The strength of our team is the team.”
That’s hard to argue, what with the latest example being Derrick Favors going for 20 and 16 in Game 2, Ricky Rubio getting 22 points, nine assists and seven boards, and others making key contributions at important times.
In a league, though, that celebrates star players, especially at this time of year, the Jazz have that covered, too.
Donovan Mitchell will be an All-Star for many seasons to come, a difference-maker for a team that needs a difference made. That seems so obvious now.