I would say that was my welcome-to-the-NBA moment, those pickup games. —Donovan Mitchell on playing in Chris Brickley's legendary pickup games in New York
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s almost midnight at Vivint Arena.
Long after the 17,725 fans stroll out Saturday to beat the traffic, 54-year-old David Simonsen is one of 50 or so custodians to clean the spot from top to bottom.
As he’s rolling a trash can to the dumpster on a chilly night, the Salt Lake City resident gets asked about Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell after just witnessing his epic 41-point night to beat the New Orleans Pelicans, 114-108.
“All the hype that’s about him. I think it’s all true,” Simonsen said. “He brings like a persona with him. I can’t wait for the playoffs this year because he’s going to bring a lot to the table.”
Yes, it’s true. From the custodians to diehard fans to local kids — and now national media — the 21-year-old, first-year guard is certainly making an impact.
After setting a Jazz rookie record on a career-night with 41 points, four rebounds and four assists on 13-for-25 shooting, the former Louisville star became the first rookie to score 40-plus since Blake Griffin versus the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 17, 2011.
His mentor Darrell Griffith set the previous Jazz record with 38 points on Feb. 13, 1981, against the Boston Celtics.
To put his numbers into context, only six other active players have notched the 40-point mark in their rookie season, and those guys are Steph Curry, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon and Griffin.
His array of driving layups, euro steps and six 3-pointers made their rounds all over social media Friday night, but Mitchell is taking it all in stride.
“Honestly, I’m not really worried about it,” Mitchell said. “My role is to go out there and help the team in any way possible. Tonight it was score, tomorrow it may be defend and I may not hit a shot (the next game) but it’s not going to really affect me.”
Responses like those are why people love him in Salt Lake City. Ever since Utah acquired his draft rights from Denver’s 13th overall pick for Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon, Mitchell has won Utah fans over with his humble spirit and acceptance of the city. While Gordon Hayward’s decision to leave the Jazz for the Boston Celtics felt like a punch to a gut, Mitchell has provided a breath of fresh air.
Now after 23 games, an unlikely rookie is making the Jazz (12-11) relevant again with five straight wins as the team enters the toughest schedule for any NBA team throughout the month of December.
During postgame interviews with Jazz broadcaster Kristen Kenney, Mitchell has started a ritual of squirting his teammates with water, but after his big night, Derrick Favors took pride in returning the favor with two Powerade water bottles.
“I just had to get him back. I was happy for him,” Favors said, smiling. “I had to cool him down a little bit. He got a little hot, that’s all.”
As the chemistry develops, his teammates are starting to believe in him more and more each day. The potential has been there from day one, but Mitchell is getting better at making quick reads, finding guys on the floor and picking his spots.
At Louisville, he never even eclipsed the 30-point mark, let alone 40.
“He’s a monster,” said Jazz forward Ekpe Udoh. “His time is now and you better take note.”
“I’ve been in this league for nine years and I’ve seen a few rookies come and go and he’s got it,” echoed Jonas Jerebko, another Jazz forward. “He’s very talented, he works hard, plays defense, both ends of the floor, so I’m just trying to share the experience I have because he’s going to be in this league for a long time.”
To understand Mitchell, though, you have to get familiar with his background. He’s extremely close with his mother, Nicole, and younger sister Jordan — even having Adidas etch his sister’s name on the back of his white Dame 4 sneakers as a good luck charm on his 41-point night.
Nicole entered the spotlight last month when he surprised her with a brand-new Audi truck in the parking lot of The Greenwich Country Day School, which he shared on social media.
Mitchell is far from a flashy guy and didn’t even earn his driver’s license until November after completing a driver’s training course in Utah where he then hit up the Larry H. Miller Used Car Supermarkets in Sandy to purchase an all black Range Rover.
“I love it,” Mitchell told the Deseret News the day after the purchase.
He wears No. 45 in honor of Michael Jordan’s baseball career, is nicknamed “Spida” for his long arms, 6-foot-10 wingspan and freakish athleticism, despite being just 6-foot-3.
Oh yeah, and his father, Donovan Sr. just happens to be the New York Mets’ director of player relations and community affairs, so he’s been around pros his entire life — sometimes taking their bats and gloves.
“He’d go to all the Mets games, come down and spend time with me during spring training and when I was managing, he would get on the bus with me and ride to different games,” Donovan Sr. said. “All the players that he was around when he was younger, they’re all rooting for him. They’re all hitting me up on Facebook and everything else asking me ‘is that the same Donovan that was in the locker room with us?’”
His favorite Mets were David Wright, Scott Kazmir, Daniel Murphy and Curtis Granderson.
After Thursday’s win against the Los Angeles Clippers in Staples Center, Mitchell posed for a photo with Wright and former Mets player Josh Satin on Twitter expressing how crazy it is from watching them to having them see him play.
“I think him being in the locker room, watching these guys do their interviews, how they went about their business and the daily regimen, I think he really started to understand what it takes to be a professional,” Donovan Sr. said. “He would be out there with the guys stretching and throwing and doing everything else that they were doing and it actually got him to learn that this is what a routine is on a daily basis.”
Mitchell spent his early years in Elmsford, New York, before moving to Greenwich Connecticut, where he attended Connecticut’s Canterbury School and Brewster Academy then played two years at Louisville.
He still credits Houston’s Chris Paul and Oklahoma City’s Paul George for influencing his decision to turn professional with their advice.
Over the summer, he also credits popular trainer Chris Brickley’s legendary pickup games at New York’s Life Time Athletic with Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith, Lance Stephenson and Tyreke Evans for getting him ready.
“I would say that was my welcome-to-the-NBA moment, those pickup games,” Mitchell said. “Chris has done an incredible job.”
Brickley now watches with excitement, but isn’t surprised based off Mitchell's work ethic.
After the 41-point night, Brickley posted footage of Mitchell’s offensive repertoire with the hashtag #IveBeenTryingToTellEveyone. Smith would comment with the hashtag #problemchild.
“I’m not surprised at all by how well he is playing,” Brickley told the Deseret News via text message. “This summer he was playing against some of the most elite guards in the NBA and was performing at a high level.”
As praise and notoriety continue to grow around Mitchell, Jazz coach Quin Snyder loves the fact that he’s keeping his head on straight. Mitchell went off for 29 of his 41 points in the second half.
“He knows it was a big night and he knows he has to continue to work,” Snyder said.
Ironically on the same day as Mitchell’s career-high, the league announced Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Los Angeles’ Kyle Kuzma as the Eastern and Western Conference Rookies of the Month.
If he stays at this pace, Mitchell is putting himself in that elite category of first-year players. Griffith is the only other Jazzman to win Rookie of the Year and continues to mentor Mitchell throughout this early process.
“I told you on draft night that Donovan is an awesome player,” Griffith said. “What a great night for Donovan and the Jazz, 41 and a win!”
Simonsen and many others are looking forward to seeing more nights like those in Utah as Mitchell continues to get better.
It makes the long nights up until 4 a.m. at Vivint Arena after Jazz games worth it, but Mitchell’s competition isn’t this year’s rookie class or pleasing anyone else, it’s satisfying the man in the mirror.
“I used to (watch other rookies) at the beginning of the year, and I kind of let all that get in my head, so I kind of tuned it out,” Mitchell said. “Like, I’ll see it but I don’t really follow it too much.”