KEARNS — Donovan Mitchell stood in front of 300 high school students Tuesday morning and joked that he was trying to help them get out of class.
They laughed and cheered — while he admitted he was just playing — but these Kearns High teenagers were actually in this invitation-only assembly because of the extra efforts they made in class last school year.
They were also there because, once again, the generous, community-oriented Utah Jazz player showed he's as big of a star off the court as he is on it. In conjunction with his mom, agent and NBA team, Mitchell has agreed to visit and donate gear to high-achieving students at this school.
"You guys see me playing basketball, but … the opportunity that I've been able to have wouldn’t be there without education," the second-year Jazz guard said. "Today I just wanted to give back to you guys for your hard work."
On Tuesday, qualifying students — either through teacher nominations or improving GPAs from 3.0 to at least 3.7 — were surprised to find out that Mitchell was the guest of a surprise assembly. They were even more excited to personally meet him and receive T-shirts and backpacks.
It was one heck of a way to kick off the school year.
Mauricio Izarraraz, who earned a perfect 4.0 GPA last year, said he didn't know why he'd been pulled out of class. Imagine this surprise when he saw Mitchell sitting on the stage of the auditorium.
"It was crazy," Izarraraz said with a big smile.
The KHS senior enjoyed his brief interaction with Mitchell, too. He told Mitchell it was nice to meet him, and the Rookie of the Year runner-up kindly responded, "Nice to meet you, too."
"My brother's going to be so jealous," Izarraraz said.
The young Jazz fan had to explain to his friend Alondra Delgadillo who Mitchell was, but she's now a big fan, too. She even got an autographed T-shirt for herself and her senior classmate after letting Mitchell borrow a Sharpie marker during the assembly.
"I didn't really know who he was until (Izarraraz) told me, but I think it's really cool," said the senior, who carries a 3.8 GPA. "We all worked pretty hard, so it's a good thing we get rewarded."
That's precisely what Mitchell wanted to do in his latest effort to "give back to the community" that embraced him as the new face of the franchise last year.
"I'm really proud of you guys," Mitchell told the Kearns students.
Mitchell even took a few minutes to speak to Kearns High basketball standout and Division I prospect Emmanuel Andrew after the assembly.
"It really showed me what I can do if I keep working hard at what I'm doing," Andrew said. "It's a great opportunity for him to come here, take his time out of the day to talk to us kids. That's not expected from him, you know? … It was really a surprise. Nobody knew he was coming. I was really excited."
Andrew was excited to get some one-on-one advice from a rising NBA star, too.
"He just told me don't chase big-name schools, just chase the school where you feel like you're going to fit in and I'm going to make an impact as a freshman," Andrew said. "He said a lot of kids these days just want to go to Kentucky just because it's Kentucky, but it's not like you're going to play there.
"You just have to find a place where it feels like home."
Mitchell took time to answer a few questions from students in the crowd, too.
Can you sign my backpack after?
"Yes. Don't everybody ask the same question."
How did you get the idea of using two backboards to win the dunk contest?
"To replicate a pass-off-the-back-wall-and-dunk-in-the-hoop slam he used to do in high school."
Where did you go to high school?
"Brewster Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire."
Will the Jazz make it to the Western Conference Finals?
"Hopefully we go beyond that, to be honest with you. Hopefully, we make it to the NBA Finals. We've got some exciting stuff this year. … I'm excited for this year."
Can you dunk on Rudy Gobert?
"I can. I haven't, though. I tried one time and he got in my face, so we'll see what happens this year."
How do you feel about the Rookie of the Year race?5 comments on this story
"For this upcoming year? (laughs) To be honest, the whole year was fun. Ben (Simmons, the winner) had a great year. I had a pretty good year. Jayson (Tatum) had a pretty good year as well. For me it was just a lot of fun, whether I won it or not. …
"My goal for my rookie season was some solid playing time and average eight points a game. That was the goal coming into the year, so to go from that to being a finalist for Rookie of the Year was great for me. At the end of the day, I'm not worried about that one. I can never win that award again. We've got MVP and try to win the Finals and other things we can win multiple times that I'm going to focus on."