PORTLAND, Ore. — New Year’s Eve for Donovan Mitchell included catching up with his former college buddies, Terence Greene II and Deng Adel.
While on a road trip to Canada, the former University of Louisville students celebrated a new chapter in their lives at STK Toronto lounge/restaurant.
Then once the clock struck midnight to start 2019, the second-year Utah Jazz guard sent out a tweet: “New year, new me.”
“I was just being funny. Everybody says the same thing every year, so I figured I’d join them,” Mitchell explained ahead of the Jazz’s game versus Toronto on Jan. 1. “I figured I would join the hysterics.”
Although the tweet was intended to be sarcastic, those words have come to fruition.
Throughout the month of January, Mitchell averaged 27.7 points, 5.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds on 45.3 percent shooting while leading the Jazz to an 11-4 record.
Mitchell’s 415-point scoring month and overall average were the most since Karl Malone. His 12-game streak of scoring at least 24 points ended with 22 points in Utah’s 132-105 loss in Portland on Wednesday, but that was the league’s second-longest scoring stretch this season, behind only Houston’s reigning MVP James Harden.
A heckling fan in Detroit ignited Mitchell to post 24 of his team-high 26 in a five-point win versus the Pistons on Jan. 5, and he never looked back, leading the Jazz to six- and three-game winning streaks.
“I had a limited summer, so I wasn’t able to perfect a lot of the stuff,” Mitchell admitted prior to Wednesday’s tip-off in Portland. “Really, it took me until this month to kind of feel like I was in that groove of getting back to myself and counters and all that and just a lot of film. It was really a lot of film.
“There were times I was taking tough shots and passes were wide open and vice versa, I was passing up open shots, so there was a lot of inconsistencies to the beginning of the year, and I think now, this month I’ve been at a point where I’m starting to, because I’ve really had no choice with the point guards being out to have to make those reads.”
As Mitchell admitted, his slow start to Year 2 was mostly attributed to his short offseason where workouts were limited. After suffering a left foot injury during Game 5 of the Jazz’s second-round playoff series against Houston, Mitchell walked around with a precautionary boot until mid-July, then played catch-up before training camp.
Even once he returned, Deseret News sources revealed that a metal plate was inserted inside his sneakers as a technique to stabilize his injured toe and prevent further injury until he grew fully comfortable performing on the foot.
Mitchell shot 44.6 percent in October, 42.2 percent in November, then struggled with 38.1 percent in December as the Jazz also opened 18-20 after being projected by numerous national media outlets to be among the top of the Western Conference standings.
Most notably, his athleticism had regressed as apparent in his 10 made dunks through the first 37 games of his sophomore year compared to last year’s 16 at the same point, per Basketball Reference.
On top of that, Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Dante Exum and Raul Neto were also sidelined with injuries in the midst of the Jazz’s December schedule, which forced Mitchell to accept more ball handling responsibilities. Rubio has since returned from his mild right hamstring strain, but Exum (left ankle sprain) will remain out until after the All-Star break while Sefolosha (mild right hamstring strain) and Neto (left groin strain) will get re-examined next week, but the goal is to be at their best during April and May.
“Donovan’s had to play a lot of point guard for us and I think it’s been a really good thing for him,” said Jazz guard Kyle Korver. “He’s had to really see the floor, control the team and not just score. I think that’s helped his development.”
The league certainly recognized Mitchell’s stellar play as of late as he was selected to participate in the 2019 Rising Stars Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte. He was also named Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time of his career after averaging 31.5 points on 48.4 percent shooting for games played from Jan. 7-13. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard received the Eastern Conference honor.
“First of all, we put the ball in his hands a little bit more, made him be smarter in his point of attack and he’s grown in these last few stretches of games where we didn’t have a point guard,” Jazz forward Jae Crowder said after Mitchell’s 35-point effort in a 114-108 win versus Denver on Jan. 23. “It’s made the game come a little easier to him when he’s moved over to off the ball.
“I think he’s doing a great job of reading and reacting when he’s in pick and roll,” he added. “He’s reading the defense at a high level and probably the best ever in his career right now, and I’m very proud to see the growth in him, I’m glad to be alongside him.”
Although skill development opportunities with the Jazz’s coaching staff are rare for Mitchell at this point of the season, with limited practice sessions, he also worked tirelessly through film study to mimic in-game situations. Assistant coach Johnnie Bryant is one of the key guys behind the scenes in Mitchell’s development, helping him learn team and player tendencies. He’s also never afraid to pick the mind of his veteran teammate Korver, who has played with numerous great players throughout his 16-year career, including Allen Iverson and LeBron James, which is the level he aspires to reach.
“Perfection. Just striving to be perfect. You look at all these guys from CP (Chris Paul) to D. Wade (Dwyane Wade) to Kyle to Dame (Damian Lillard) and everybody wants to be perfect in their reps,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, there’s no such thing as perfect, but being as close to perfect is something they really work on.
“For myself, there are nights where I shoot the ball great and I’m still upset and there’s nights where I shoot the ball poorly, I’m upset,” he added. “There’s nights where I don’t play defense. I can have a 40-point game and not play well defensively, so those are the moments, those are the things that I’ve noticed in guys that have those traits, they’re satisfied but never satisfied in the same way, and I think that’s something I’m really trying to get to.”
Kobe Bryant is just one of the league’s all-time greats to notice that passion, which is why he also welcomed Mitchell to his BodyArmor sports drink company this month. Bryant lauded him as “one of the most electrifying young players in the game today.”
That pursuit of perfection is also spilling over into Mitchell’s design of his upcoming signature sneaker, the Adidas D.O.N. Issue #1 — slated to release this year. Ahead of Utah’s tipoff in Portland, he wear-tested an advanced Marvel-themed prototype model during shootaround while providing feedback to an Adidas representative.
Even with his own sneaker, Mitchell has been extremely hands on with the process, especially after fighting through this summer’s foot injury, and would like to work on a few performance changes — notably near the heel — before they’re ready to hit the hardwood.
As great as January was in Jazz land for Mitchell & Co., guys know there’s still more work to do, and the 27-point loss in Portland on Wednesday served as a friendly reminder.
“We’ve got to steady continue to climb, the season is a long way from over,” Crowder said. “So, what I take from the month we had is a very good incline, everybody got better and we got better with concepts and what we were trying to do on the court, but we’ve got to continue to build on a long season.
“Guys are going to adjust to us obviously, and we need to get better at what we do.”