I’m not satisfied until we get a championship and after we win one, I want to win two. Never getting complacent has always been my mindset, and, if I continue that, I think I’ll be OK. —Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell
Confetti rained in the Toyota Center, as a disappointed Donovan Mitchell could only watch in disappointment while the home team celebrated.
Limping with an Adidas slide on his left foot, and a gray Dame 4 sneaker on his right foot, the Utah Jazz rookie met his friend and mentor Chris Paul near center court for a hug.
Mitchell injured his foot in the fourth quarter of Game 5, as the Houston Rockets would close out the Jazz 112-102 in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“Even though I was out, I can’t just sit in the back. I want to be with my teammates throughout the entire thing, but it’s tough sitting there watching but they fought and they competed,” Mitchell said after scoring 22 of his team-high 24 points in the third quarter. “Obviously, we’re unhappy with the result, but we’re happy with everybody as a whole.”
For Mitchell, his stellar rookie campaign was over. His remarkable year marked the beginning of a new era in Salt Lake City.
In 10 months, Mitchell’s life has taken a 180-degree turn. For those following, his rise has become legendary as the subject of many profiles starting with a pre-draft workout at the Jazz practice facility last summer.
“As you look back at it and say, 'OK, you had an inkling of what he could do but we’re all surprised what he did,'” said Walt Perrin, Utah’s vice president of player personnel.
After Mitchell's sophomore season at Louisville, both Paul and Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George convinced the athletic prospect to turn pro.
Mitchell was drafted 13th overall by the Denver Nuggets before getting traded to the Jazz, then he lit up the Las Vegas Summer League but struggled mightily in his first five games, hitting 25 percent from the floor before earning a full-time starting role and never looking back.
He led all rookies in scoring with 20.5 points per game in the regular season then became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony.
“I was a teammate with Derrick Rose when he was a rookie, Russell (Westbrook) and (Kevin Durant) when they were young in their first two seasons in OKC, and the talent level is right up there with those guys,” said Jazz veteran Thabo Sefolosha. “He’s fearless, relentless. He goes and has incredible confidence in his ability, and he’s just a good overall basketball player and I’m surprise that he was able to show it this early, but I think that he showed even in the summer of us getting ready in practice in stuff that he’s going to be great for years to come.”
But even with co-signs from teammates and the game's biggest stars such as Westbrook, Durant, Paul, George, James Harden, Damian Lillard and LeBron James, the 21-year-old doesn’t want to become a one-hit wonder.
“This isn’t a victory lap summer, it’s been a great year, but, in my head, there’s a lot more to work on,” Mitchell said. “I guess the foot is a blessing in disguise because I have to take some time off, but just being ready to stay focused and I won’t be going anywhere too crazy.”
Guys like Tyreke Evans, Michael Carter-Williams and O.J. Mayo were other star rookies who took off in their first year until their careers fizzled out after that. The next few months of this offseason will be pivotal as he plans to re-watch every game and learn from as many past greats as possible.
“You can ride the wave and be complacent, and I’ve never been that way, but I think that’s what plays into some of the guys you’re talking about,” Mitchell said. “They kind of get there and be like ‘This is my moment’ or ‘This is it.’
“But we made the semifinals, we didn’t make the conference finals, we didn’t make the finals, so there are a lot more to go, and I think that’ll be my biggest thing going forward is just focusing on ways to get better and improving,” he added. “I’m not satisfied until we get a championship and after we win one, I want to win two. Never getting complacent has always been my mindset, and, if I continue that, I think I’ll be OK.”