SALT LAKE CITY — “Man, they won. What are y’all asking?” Donovan Mitchell’s frustration grew as he waited to enter the interview room inside the hallway of the Toyota Center.
“They won 4-1,” he spoke to himself aloud in anticipation of greeting the press. “Speed it up.”
Finally, Houston Rockets players Chris Paul and Clint Capela finished their session before Mitchell walked in beside his Utah Jazz teammates Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale.
Still stinging from the pain of Utah’s 100-93 elimination loss to Houston in Game 5 on Wednesday, Mitchell was questioned from the media about what parts of his game he was looking to improve at the most entering this offseason.
“Better shape,” he delivered a rare two-word answer. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Even after one of the worst performances of his two-year career, where he went 4-for-22 with 12 points, six rebounds and five turnovers, Mitchell is already looking to return for his third year as a better player.
Sure, Utah finished 50-32 and as a fifth seed in the highly competitive Western Conference, but Mitchell has goals beyond that and he knows the preparation it’ll take in order to check them off the list.
“If I had to say myself, I only had a really good few months,” Mitchell delivered his self-evaluation of the 2018-19 campaign during Thursday’s end of season media availability. “That’s me talking to myself, but I think there’s a lot that I can improve on and I appreciate this season in so many ways because through all the struggles I went through, through all the struggles we went through as a team, we had 50 wins and were in the fifth seed.
“We battled the Houston Rockets really good,” he continued. “This summer is a big summer for not just me, but for all of us.”
Mitchell was twice named Western Conference Player of the Week, while averaging 23.8 points, 4.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds as a sophomore. His 23.4 point playoff scoring average is also the third highest in franchise history behind Adrian Dantley and Karl Malone, but he shot just 32.1 percent with a 6.8 player efficiency rating in this year’s playoffs, which was the worst playoff PER since at least 1973 by a player with a 30 percent usage rate, according to Basketball Reference.
However, Mitchell showed flashes of the player he’s capable of becoming, notably during Game 4 where he went off for 19 of his 31 points in the final quarter to lead the Jazz to its lone victory against the Rockets.
“A first-round matchup is tough playing against us, but he’s confident,” Rockets star James Harden praised Mitchell following the series. “He’s confident. You see what he did last game.
“He’s capable of taking over a game and this is only his second year so once he gets them years under his belt and more comfortable,” he continued. “Obviously, we know what his job is but once he gets more comfortable in his role and he knows that he’s one of those guys, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Mitchell’s offseason is already off to a better start than last year, where he showed up to exit interviews with a boot on his left foot. His Adidas D.O.N. Issue #1 signature sneaker is set to release in July as opposed to a year ago where summer workouts were limited after suffering a left foot injury during Game 5 of the Jazz’s 2018 second-round playoff series against Houston. He 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.
Not being able to play, plus riding the emotional high of an All-Rookie record-breaking season at the age of 21, was part of the reason Mitchell was so active last summer in making impromptu appearances at local 3-on-3 tourneys, attending the NBA Finals, NBA Draft, worldwide Adidas trips, crashing pool parties and strolling the red carpet at the NBA Awards.
That won’t be the case this time around, as his team has found a balance.
“The difference between I would say last summer, and this summer is I have my schedule already mapped out,” Mitchell said. “I won’t share it, but I could tell y’all what I’m doing between next month and the start of the regular season, so that’s really where it starts.
“The whole year itself was unexpected and then you’re kind of just there making trips and doing things because, one, you want to be a 21-year-old and enjoy your first summer being in the NBA then you also have to deal with the phenomenon of what happened last season and it was just a lot to handle and then on top of that, I was hurt,” he said. “So, you’ve got all those things going on.”
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey dubbed Mitchell’s busy 2018 summer as a “media tour” after the team mandated rest for him to be fully healed for his second year.
With that decision, the organization anticipated a potential slow start from the franchise guard, but Mitchell and the team would go 32-12 after Jan. 1 — where he upped his averages to 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists during that span.
Lindsey and the organization are expecting Mitchell to spend some time on the East Coast with family now that the season is over, while fulfilling other commitments, but there has been communication with his agent, Ty Sullivan, to be on the same page this offseason.
“He’s in demand and this phenomenon’s happened so Donovan’s gotta understand how to use his time wisely and we’ll help him along with that with some advice,” Lindsey said. “But there’s only so many things that he’s contractually obligated to do as far as being back here.”
Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade even reached out via Twitter once Game 5 ended, congratulating Mitchell on a “great season lil bro.”
Wade also wrote, “We got more work to do I can’t wait to get in the lab with you this summer.”Comment on this story
As cool as that opportunity to work with Wade would be for any young star in the league, Mitchell is approaching it with professionalism because he doesn’t want that same feeling he had after Utah’s latest loss in Houston where he noticed he needed to be in “better shape.”
“It’s still one of those things that’s kind of surreal but at the end of the day, he’s right,” Mitchell said of Wade. “We’ve got work to do. This is going to be huge for me just for my confidence standpoint and just to getting my mind, my body right and looking at guys and competing against guys like James Harden, Chris Paul and all those guys.
“If I want to be like those guys, I’ve got to work and train like those guys and I think that’s where it starts.”