If you are an NBA fan, chances are you’ve heard a lot about a guy named Donovan Mitchell lately.
Get used to it.
Mitchell has been lighting up the NBA Summer League circuit for the Utah Jazz, first in Utah and now in Las Vegas. He has put his name alongside more heralded and higher draft picks, such as Jayson Tatum, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, by averaging 16 points, 3 assists and 4 steals, while providing some of the Summer League’s most memorable highlights. Mitchell’s high-flying dunks, relentless defense and unflinching willingness to put his body in harm’s way (a la a young Dwyane Wade), have people gushing about him in a way that seemed far-fetched just a couple months ago.
You’re forgiven if Mitchell’s ascent has come as a surprise to you. His story isn’t typical for today’s future NBA stars. He wasn’t the most highly recruited kid out of high school. He wasn’t one-and-done.
After sustaining a wrist injury that caused him to miss time on the AAU summer circuit as a rising high school junior, Mitchell fell off the big-time recruiting radar a bit. The next summer he returned and dominated, shooting him back up the ranks and catching the eye of Rick Pitino and Louisville.
At Louisville, Mitchell took time to adjust and was a productive, while not spectacular freshman, scoring 7 points per game, and averaging 19 minutes a night.
As a sophomore, he took off, likely even surprising Pitino, and became the Cardinals’ number-one option and go-to player. Mitchell averaged 15.6 points and 4 rebounds on his way to first-team All-ACC honors, while leading Louisville to the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
Even after his stellar sophomore season, Mitchell wasn’t sure if he was ready to make the ultimate jump to the NBA. However, after talking it over with family, friends and advisers, including his AAU coach, Arjay Perovic, he decided to test the NBA Draft waters.
Mitchell’s test results and measurements at the NBA Draft combine were freakish. He recorded a 40-inch vertical leap and a 6’10” wingspan on his 6’3″ frame. His interviews gave teams a glimpse of his high IQ, character and superior work ethic.
He made the no-brainer decision to keep his name in the draft. And with the 13th overall pick, the Denver Nuggets nabbed him and traded him to the Utah Jazz for Trey Lyles and the draft rights to the 24th overall pick, Tyler Lydon.
On draft night, I asked Mitchell when the first time was he thought that being an NBA draft pick was possible, be it high school or even earlier.
“I would say about two months ago, to be honest,” he said. “I didn’t see myself being here. Well, not this day, but it came a lot faster than I expected. Two months ago is when I realized that I could play at this level and really compete at this level, and I think that’s what really kind of has gained my confidence.”
“I always had confidence,” Mitchell continued, “but, to play at this level you need a certain type of confidence that puts you head and shoulders above other people, and I think two months ago is when it really kind of clicked for me.”
That click has been noticeable. In his first four games in Summer League, Mitchell has been more aggressive than he was this past season at Louisville. He has been full alpha male on the court at all times and seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder, as if to show people that the 13th overall pick was a slight.
A case in point was Mitchell’s performance against third overall draft pick, Tatum, last week. Mitchell took on the challenge of guarding the Celtics’ future star and proceeded to pick his pocket at the top of the key and then engage in a stare down with Tatum after an intentional foul. To top it off, on the next possession, Mitchell floored Tatum with a spin move followed by a pretty no-look assist for a layup. The plays went viral and had social media buzzing.
Don’t expect anything different from Mitchell once the real NBA season starts. The Jazz, which prides itself on creating a family atmosphere, as well as seeking out and cultivating players with great character, work ethic and intelligence, would seem to be a perfect fit for Mitchell.
Perovic, co-founder and head coach of The City — an AAU program based in Soho, New York City — coached Mitchell from age 7 to 17. He has coached numerous division I basketball players over the years, yet describes Mitchell as “different.”
“As a basketball player, he can do it all, rebound, score, play defense, pass the ball. But, Donovan separates himself by being a leader,” Perovic gushed.
“It’s his attitude and charisma. He always knew he was one of the best players, but he was always humble. He would put his ego aside for what was best for the team, and he always led by example. He always cheered on his teammates and was selfless. He’s just a special kid.”
Perovic then went on to tell a story about Mitchell that has always stuck with him. He recounted a 15-year-old Mitchell giving up his starting position in order to help a teammate’s confidence.
The sky could be the limit for Mitchell. And the Jazz, despite Gordon Hayward’s crushing departure, may have hit the lottery in 2017.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.