When the buzzer sounded, Donovan Mitchell was devastated. The Michigan Wolverines had just upset his Louisville Cardinals in the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament, three games shy of their goal of getting into the Final Four. As he walked off the court, he tugged on his jersey, looked up to the stands and sighed. While talking to reporters in the locker room afterward, he told them he was "focusing on coming back to school and getting ready for my teammates for next year." And as he boarded the team bus in Indianapolis to Louisville, Kentucky, he was sure he would stay for another season.
When the buzzer sounded, Nicole Mitchell felt a sense of urgency. She was sad for her son, but she also wanted to ensure he didn't make any rash decisions. So she hopped in her rental car and sped down I-65 to pick him up from his dorm that same night. As they sat in a McDonald's parking lot close to campus, Donovan didn't want to consider anything other than returning for another year and competing for a national championship.
Nicole, a teacher, had always been grateful for how athletics had helped advance Donovan's education, and she didn't mind the notion that he'd get one year closer to a degree. But she also knew he was ready to play pro basketball, and she didn't want him to regret making an emotional choice that would have lasting consequences. She convinced him to get some sleep before making any commitments.
Seven months later, the conversation seems absurd. But Mitchell almost missed out on being selected 13th in the NBA draft. The Utah Jazz almost missed out on his 17.7 points and 3.4 assists per game. And the NBA almost missed out on a consensus top-three candidate for Rookie of the Year. Mitchell never doubted that this moment would come in his basketball career, but he was the last person to believe this would be his year.
DONOVAN MITCHELL WALKED OUT of his dorm suite in April with a single bag slung over his shoulder. He left most of his clothes in the closet, most of his shoes stacked up in the corner and his television plugged in. He didn't pack his possessions into boxes because he still believed he'd be back. But he had heeded his mother's advice—and borrowed some of her money—to send himself to a couple weeks' worth of CAA predraft training sessions in California.
This wasn't the first time Mitchell was the last person to realize his own potential. Donovan Mitchell Sr. was a minor league baseball player and has worked for the Mets since 1999, serving as the team's director of player relations since 2010. Donovan Jr. always figured he'd follow in father's footsteps. He balanced baseball and basketball all the way through his freshman year of high school. But when Mitchell enrolled at Canterbury, a boarding school an hour away from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, as a sophomore, his mother asked him to excise baseball and focus on school and basketball.
Mitchell initially agreed, but he struggled with the decision. He had just been named his basketball team's player of the year, but he still wasn't considered a top-100 recruit, and he felt his future was still brighter on the diamond.
"In baseball," Mitchell says, "I was pretty cocky."
A few weeks before the season began, the coaches begged for his services, and he acquiesced. "I felt like I was the man," he says. Baseball could still be his backup plan.
His mother saw a subtle shift in him as the season began. She didn't think he was listening well when they talked on the phone, and she thought he might be slacking off in school. She and his sister, Jordan, visited him soon after the baseball season started. On the way out, she sneaked into a parking space near the field and watched her son from afar. He and some other kids were jumping off a small stone wall, and she thought it looked dangerous. She called him and watched as he brushed off her warning not to hurt himself.
"Just be careful," she told him. "God has a way of leveling things out."
A week later, Mitchell was playing shortstop—he was also a pitcher—and watched a pop fly sail skyward. As he tracked the ball, he missed the catcher sprinting toward him. They collided. The catcher broke his jaw, and Mitchell broke his wrist. He would miss the rest of the baseball season, as well as the all-important AAU basketball summer circuit.
"That's the thing people don't realize—that injury changed my outlook on everything," Mitchell says. "It wasn't like I was a jerk or an assh--e, but I had to learn to appreciate things a little more. After I broke my wrist, that's when I learned."
In the next two years, he transferred to a boarding school in New Hampshire, pulled up his GPA, was elected class president and landed at Louisville as a top-30 recruit. With the Cardinals, he endured a scandal-clouded freshman season that resulted in the program being barred from postseason play for improper recruiting tactics.
He never seriously considered being one-and-done, but when then-Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino was coaching the Puerto Rico national basketball team that summer, he brought in a former player, Chris Brickley, to help train the squad in Louisville. Mitchell, who practiced against the team a few times with his Cardinals teammates, went out of his way to meet Brickley and asked to be put through an NBA workout.
"I was like, 'This is it?'" Mitchell says. "'I can do this.'"
Rather than coasting on confidence, he returned as a sophomore and attacked every perceived weakness in his game. He became a better ball-handler, improving his assist rate and reducing his turnover percentage, per Sports Reference. He became a better defender, finishing the season with a top-50 steal percentage, according to kenpom.com. And perhaps most important, he proved to be a capable three-point shooter, improving from 25.0 percent from behind the arc as a freshman to 35.4 percent as a sophomore.
He was the perfect floor general for Pitino, who was quicker to give constructive criticism than praise over the course of his career. Mitchell thrives on being told what he can't do.
Before he arrived in California for his predraft training, he had been told he was a lottery long shot. He was a likely first-rounder, but his projections ranged from mid-20s to the second round. Coaching him in California was Don MacLean, a former first-round pick and the all-time leading scorer at UCLA and in the Pac-12. And competing against him were Duke's Luke Kennard, Oregon's Jordan Bell and Wake Forest's John Collins.
A few days in, MacLean asked Mitchell if he was still considering going back to school. Mitchell said he was. MacLean eyed him skeptically. "That's absurd," he said.
After a week, Mitchell admitted to himself that he'd prefer to go pro, but he still needed proof he could do it. During the second week, Paul George, Chris Paul and Julius Randle dropped in to run scrimmages with them. Like many players, Mitchell is more likely to remember his misses than his makes, but he felt like he hardly missed a shot against NBA stars. Paul pulled Mitchell aside at the end of the day and told him it was time to go pro.
"Sometimes you can just see it in a person," Paul says. "You can see how much he loves the game. He's going to be good for a long time."
When Mitchell called his mother later that night to tell her the news, she said: "Finally."
"I never give myself enough credit," Mitchell says. "But then Paul and CP told me, 'You could be pretty good.' And I thought, maybe. Then they started breaking my game down, the way I played, and that gave me a different sense of confidence: Yeah, I'm ready for this."
HE WASN'T READY FOR how well he would be received by Jazz fans. By the end of summer league, fans were chanting his name at games. But on draft night, Utah seemed like a distant possibility.
Players often schedule their first pro workouts with teams that seem unlikely to draft them. Mitchell's stock rose considerably in the weeks before the draft, so starting with the Jazz—who had the No. 24 pick—seemed safe. Mitchell had never been to Utah, but he loved Salt Lake City at first sight. In his Uber from the airport, he texted his mom a picture of the mountains. That night after what he thought was a great workout, he called her and told her how much he loved the city and how he was disappointed he wouldn't play there.
With the draft in Brooklyn, Mitchell could have welcomed a large group of friends and family to celebrate, but he decided—as he often does—to stick with just his family.
"I keep a small—a very, very, very small circle. It's just me and my mom and my sister," he says. Then he laughs and says, "And maybe Chris Paul."
Surrounded by his mother, his father, his sister and his agents, Mitchell started paying attention around pick No. 8. He'd had a good workout with the Knicks the day before and thought he might surprise people by going in the top 10. After the Knicks picked Frank Ntilikina, he turned his attention to Charlotte. He loved the idea of playing for Michael Jordan, the man who inspired his No. 45 jersey. But when the Hornets selected Kentucky's Malik Monk, Mitchell's mind started to race.
"I didn't miss a shot in the Detroit workout, so I was like, 'I'm definitely going to Detroit, 100 percent,'" Mitchell says. "Then Luke [Kennard] got drafted. And I'm thinking, 'OK, Denver, I didn't work out for them. Cross them off.' Then I'm looking at 14, Miami, and I'm thinking, I had my worst workout in Miami. So I'm like, all right, I'm not going 14. Then 15, maybe Portland, maybe. Sixteen, 17, 18, maybe, but they all told me they didn't think I would slip that far, so maybe they have their eyes on somebody else. So now I'm thinking, 'Dang, everybody was right. I might slip.' I have a tendency to freak myself out. All I could think was, 'I'm going right to the gym to work out after this.'"
Then Denver selected him, and on the way to the stairs, he was told the Nuggets had been picking for the Jazz and he was headed to Utah.
"I couldn't stop smiling," he says. "I don't think I stopped for the rest of the night."
The following month, Mitchell was relaxing in a hotel with his mother on July 4, a day off between summer-league games, when he received a text from a member of the Jazz communications department. Gordon Hayward was going to sign with the Celtics. Mitchell watched as the news spread rapidly on social media, but he didn't worry.
"When Cleveland lost LeBron, they were a lottery team; when Miami lost him, they were a lottery team," Mitchell says. "We never had that rebuilding mentality. We're still aggressive. We still plan to make the playoffs. When I talked to Rudy [Gobert], he told me, [Gordon] made his decision and that's fine. But we're going to play the way we play and surprise a lot of people."
Three days later, Mitchell helped secure a summer-league win over the Celtics in part thanks to stifling defense against fellow rookie Jayson Tatum, who averaged 22 points over his first two summer-league games but finished with just 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting against the Jazz. Utah fans, who had come into the arena with jerseys modified to read "Coward" and signs that said "Betrayward," chanted "MVP" for Dante Exum and Mitchell.
"Talent is a given," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder says, "but when you have a younger player who's really willing to work and is honest with himself with his weaknesses and is willing to get better, people recognize that and appreciate it. I think the biggest thing for Donovan is that in almost every instance, there's a level of humility that accompanies him. And that's as big a reason for his success as anything else—that he's been humble."
MITCHELL IS A MAN OF routine. His habits and superstitions are a side effect of spending his formative years in baseball clubhouses. At one time, he wouldn't play without making sure he'd put his socks on the wrong feet. Even now, although he has a deal with Adidas, he still wears the same shoes for startlingly long periods of time. He wore one pair from the NCAA tournament through the last game of summer league this year.
Now, his rituals primarily revolve around music. From the moment he wakes up from his game-day nap, he has a set list. It starts with two songs when he hops in the shower, one when he's toweling off and another two when he gets dressed. When he walks into the arena, it's always to the same track. And then he listens to the same two songs before every game. He keeps each set of songs on separate music apps so he doesn't listen to them out of order. He can't reveal any of them; otherwise, the good fortune could go away.
This season has been anything but routine for Mitchell and the Jazz, though. After losing Hayward, the team has struggled with injuries—Exum suffered a potential season-ending shoulder injury in October, and Derrick Favors (concussion), Rudy Gobert (knee), Joe Johnson (wrist) and Rodney Hood (knee) have shuffled in and out of the lineup. After a .500 start, the Jazz skidded to 6-10 and now stand at 14-18, good for ninth place in the ultra-competitive West.
Snyder's system of advantage basketball is built to be able to plug in the next man up, and Mitchell has been its most accomplished acolyte this season. Billed as a defensive player before the draft, he's been better known for his explosive offense so far in Utah, blending Eurosteps with ferocious dunks and stunning assists.
Though the Jazz are playing the NBA's most difficult December schedule, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index (via Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News), Mitchell has been on a tear. This month, he's averaging 23.6 points and 3.7 assists per game with a usage rate of 30.7 percent, per NBA.com. He's within spitting distance of the coveted 50-40-90 line, shooting 49.1 percent from the floor, 38.7 percent from three and 87.5 percent from the free-throw line.
He has also continued to ingratiate himself with fans with simple gestures like dropping in on a Utes game the night after he dropped 41 points against the Pelicans.
On Saturday, Mitchell achieved another dream when he faced his hero, LeBron James, for the first time as a professional. The first time Mitchell saw the Jazz's schedule on his phone, he memorized the date—Dec. 16—and had imagined the game countless times.
Mitchell finished with 26 points in a loss, but he got perhaps the biggest consolation prize imaginable for a young star. After the game, James offered him some words of encouragement as Dwyane Wade waited patiently to do the same. On Instagram, James later dubbed Mitchell "young king."
At this point, there are few Donovan Mitchell doubters remaining. That means he'll have to find a new motivational routine. He'll spend the rest of his career proving people right.