SALT LAKE CITY — A slightly irked Donovan Mitchell addressed a scrum of reporters outside the locker room following the Utah Jazz’s home opener Friday.
With a sellout crowd in attendance at Vivint Arena to welcome the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the Jazz came up short 124-123 after allowing a game-winning tip-in from former Jazzman Jonas Jerebko.
Both Jazz sharpshooter Joe Ingles and Warriors star Draymond Green compared the game to a playoff type atmosphere with an ESPN broadcast team there as well.
But Mitchell said he was trying not to get too down on himself after shooting 7-for-23 to score 19 points. He also went 4-for-12 from beyond the arc and is averaging 21.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists on just 34.1 percent shooting through the first two games of his sophomore season.
Utah is 1-1; with another home game scheduled Monday against the Memphis Grizzlies, but Mitchell is already noticing a difference in how teams are attacking him in Year 2.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Mitchell said. “More physical, they’re taking away my easy looks, and now I’ve just got to be able to hit tougher shots. That’s all it is.”
The Warriors swarmed him hard defensively, starting with Klay Thompson on the perimeter.
Mitchell also saw tight defense from Sacramento Kings guard Yogi Ferrell in Wednesday’s season, but he still ended with 24 points on 8-for-21 shooting to lead Utah to a 123-117 victory. However, he did feel himself forcing shots early in that game, too, before coming on strong in the end with 11 fourth-quarter points.
“Just pressing — trying to make something out of nothing instead of making the simple play that I’ve been working on all summer,” Mitchell said after the Kings' win. “Just kind of got away from it, but it’s one game. Obviously the first game, you’re excited and it got the best of me, but I think the biggest thing is staying under control and fixing it, and I’ll be good.”
After blowing up out of nowhere as a rookie, Mitchell is now facing the pressure of being a franchise star. He’s now high on the scouting report and will have to find a way to adjust. Although Warriors All-Star Kevin Durant won Rookie of the Year in 2008, he didn’t have the same expectations for his sophomore year when the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder.
“See, it’s different now because all it takes is one game and people will hype you up. I think for Donovan, he played last season as if he were a veteran, but he’s still learning along the way,” Durant told the Deseret News. “I think so many people put so many high expectations on these guys after a good season or a good stretch, but I think he’s on that path of being a star. He might not be a MVP candidate this year or an All-Star, but who knows, he might be? I’m just saying he might not have those accolades his second year in the league, but I think as you keep letting him develop and grow, you’re going to get there.”
Durant’s first-year Seattle team finished 20-62 in 2007-08, and he wouldn’t make the playoffs with the Thunder until his third season in 2009-10. Even then, the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated them in the first round 4-2.
In Mitchell’s situation, he led the Jazz to a 48-34 finish, including a Western Conference semifinals appearance straight out the gate after beating OKC in the opening round.
“My second year was different because we weren’t expected to be a good team, we didn’t have a veteran team or good talent that were expected to be good, and I didn’t have a playoff run my first year so I was kind of coming in with no pressure and no expectations, just hooping,” Durant said. “I think he’s got a little bit more pressure than a lot of us had coming in our second years, and he’s one of those guys that’s built for it. He’s from New York.
“That’s a concrete jungle out there, so he knows how to navigate, and I think he’s in a great system that’s going to allow him to be himself and shield him from all that other BS that comes with being a star in this league, and he’s going to grow tremendously and it’s going to be fun to watch being a Utah fan,” he added.
Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard can also relate to adjusting to the challenges of being Rookie of the Year in 2013 out of Weber State to being pegged as the franchise star the next season. Lillard’s first-year team went 33-49 in 2012-13, but he would lead them to the second round of the playoffs during his sophomore act in 2013-14 after a 54-28 regular-season finish.
“The thing that I learned is your rookie year, you’re kind of a surprise to the league,” Lillard told the Deseret News. “People, they see you’ve got some ability and they respect it, but it’s like they’ll keep giving it to you.
“My rookie year, I had midrange pull-ups every game, the whole season I was coming off open threes every game, and it allowed me to have big games. It was simple, but then the second year it got a little tighter on the scouting report,” he said. “They was trying to take me out now. The top players know I’m their competition, so now it ain’t all ‘Lil Bro’ no more. They’re coming for you and you’re more of a priority, so that changes and you deal with that.”
So as Mitchell goes through this transition of becoming the elite NBA player he wishes to become, he’s not alone in the process. Others have faced similar struggles early on. Even last year, before he emerged as a unanimous All-Rookie First Team selection, he averaged just 9.3 points on 32.9 percent shooting in his first seven games through the month of October before upping his average to 20.5 on the season and 24.4 in 11 postseason games. The difference with him in his situation is that he has older teammates to help him keep his head up.2 comments on this story
“He’s a big part of what we’re doing,” Ingles said. “We need to do a good job of getting him in some situations and not having to create a shot for himself every single possession when he does have the ball.
“The kid is 22 years old, so he’ll be fine,” he added. “We’ll help him, we’ll continue to help him. We did last year. Obviously, he’s a big part of the opposite team’s scout now probably compared to last year, especially at this point last year, so he’ll be fine.”