by Ryan Amick | From the moment Donovan Mitchell first put on a Jazz uniform, he has taken over as the face of the Utah franchise. Building off remarkable play in his first two years, Mitchell received the recognition he deserved in year three by making his first All-Star game. Soon after, the unthinkable happened. Mitchell along with teammate Rudy Gobert became the first NBA players to contract COVID-19, leading to the temporary shutdown of the regular season. Despite the break, Mitchell came back better than ever in the NBA Bubble, and showed the world what he’s made of. Along with grit, leadership and pure athleticism (all traits that make up his style of play), Mitchell is also made of money now. His effort in 2020 was met with heavy financial consideration.
On November 22nd, the Jazz gave their franchise star a five-year extension worth up to $195 million. The deal is valued at $163 million in guaranteed money, and includes a player option on the final year of his deal in 2025. To make the contract fully guaranteed, all Mitchell has to do is make one of the All-NBA teams. Given Mitchell’s progression as a player, it’s safe to say he’ll get the $195 million paid in full.
With a deal nearing $200 million, “SPIDA” Mitchell was rewarded with a contract so large, it resembles the projected box office numbers for the upcoming Spider-Man 3 movie. Just like the movie, Mitchell’s contract won’t kick in until 2021, but our SPIDA has been a box office player ever since he stepped into the league. With heroic play night in and out that has helped Utah become a postseason mainstain in the tough Western Conference, your friendly neighborhood @spidadmitchell is here to stay, and is worth the price of admission.
Rise from the Unknown
An unheralded sophomore out of Louisville, Mitchell was relatively unknown in the mainstream coming out of college. While the likes of Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox (the latter two have also received max extensions this offseason) were dominating talk shows, Mitchell was quietly averaging 15.6 PPG and making the All-ACC Defensive team. There was still much to be desired in terms of playmaking and shooting efficiency, so most scouts had Mitchell touted as a late first rounder. That is until he got the chance to prove himself at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine. There, Mitchell stunned scouts and coaches alike, boosting his draft stock with impressive physical attributes, (6’1” guard with a 6’10” wingspan) solid three-point shooting drills and professional interviews. Originally seen as an undersized and “older” guard (was only 20 when he got drafted), Mitchell silenced the naysayers and worked his way into the lottery. He was drafted with the 13th overall pick.
As most Jazz fans probably know, Utah didn’t actually select Mitchell. They had the 24th pick in the 2017 draft. Mitchell was instead selected by the Denver Nuggets at 13 and was then traded to Utah for Tyler Lydon (the 24th overall pick) and Trey Lyles. While Lyles has had a mediocre career at best and is currently playing for the Spurs, Lydon is already out of the NBA. He failed to even log 100 career minutes during his brief time in the association. It is safe to say that Denver regrets making this deal. Mitchell made them pay for their mistake from day one, literally. His NBA debut was against the Denver Nuggets, where he dropped 10 points to start what would be a magnificent rookie campaign to come.
Two months into his tenure with the Jazz, fans had seemingly forgotten about their former star in Gordon Hayward leaving town and joining the Celtics. A new star had been born in Salt Lake City. With a double digit scoring performance nearly every night in October and November, the Jazz knew they had a steal in the athletic rookie. Little did they know, what was soon to come was something that has never been seen by a Jazz rookie before. On December 1st, 2017 the Jazz beat the Pelicans at home. Fans in attendance witnessed Mitchell pour in 41 points on the two-headed monster of Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. It was at this point that Mitchell morphed into Spida, and the rookie phenom finally became a household name.
From there on, Mitchell dominated the rookie of the month talks in the west, winning the award every month from December to March. Mitchell finished the regular season with 20.5 PPG, leading all rookies. He became the first rookie since Melo to average as many points while leading their team to a winning record and a playoff appearance. Despite all these outstanding accolades, it still wasn’t enough for Mitchell to win rookie of the year, as Ben Simmons won the award instead. Though this obviously frustrated him at the time (flashback to Mitchell wearing a t-shirt with the definition of a rookie on it) he tunneled that frustration in the playoffs, where he led the Jazz to a first round win over an Oklahoma City Thunder team with the likes of Russell Westbrok, Paul George and the aforementioned Carmelo Anthony. In his first playoff series, Mitchell twice set the record for most points scored by a Jazz rookie. First, he scored 33 points to put the Jazz up 3-1. Then, he beat his own record with a 38 point performance to send the Thunder home in Game 6.
The Jazz bowed out to the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals, but Mitchell at that point had already exceeded every expectation set out for him going into his rookie campaign. He was only a few votes shy of being crowned the rookie of the year. Mitchell would do more of the same the next season. He improved his scoring by three points per game, and led the Jazz back to the playoffs. The Jazz got knocked out in the first round by the same Rockets team. Despite some improvements throughout the year, Mitchell did not get much recognition in a stacked Western Conference. With guards like Steph Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Chris Paul all residing in the west, Mitchell didn’t get much all-star consideration despite improving on a playoff team. Mitchell still found his way to All-Star Weekend, participating in the Rising Stars game. The previous year, he won the 2018 Dunk Contest. However, Mitchell had his eyes set on a different title, but was sent home by the Rockets a round earlier than the year prior. This left much to be desired for Mitchell entering his third year in the league, and unlike the (original) Spiderman movie franchise, Mitchell got noticeably better in his third installment.
Three straight trips to the playoffs, Rudy Gobert coming off back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year nods, and a trade for veteran point guard Mike Conley all set up the 2019-2020 season to be the year Utah became serious contenders in the West. Nonetheless, they were only going to go as far as Donovan Mitchell would take them. It was time for Mitchell to take that next step into a star player on a serious contender, and that he did. He improved in virtually every metric out there from points, rebounds, assists and shooting splits, to advanced stats like win shares, PER and box plus/minus. Mitchell evolved into one of the best guards in the west, and made his first all-star game in the process. Rudy Gobert also made his long-overdue all-star debut in 2020, and the duo had Utah in the hunt for the third seed in the West. All was going swimmingly for the Jazz, until Gobert became the first NBA player to contract COVID-19. Mitchell subsequently got the virus and it put the entire 2020 regular season on hold. A lot of rumors started to swirl around Mitchell being furious with Gobert, as some reports claimed their situation at the time was “unsalvageable.” Though Mitchell was not thrilled with Gobert, the two eventually talked it out and agreed to focus instead on bringing a championship to Salt Lake City.
Explosion in the Bubble
Once the NBA finally resumed in the Orlando Bubble, the Jazz pushed all the COVID-19 drama aside and were instead focussed on where they would seed in the playoffs. After winning the inaugural game in the bubble against the Pelicans, the Jazz only strung together two more wins and fell to the six seed in the West. Mitchell was shooting inefficiently and even missed a couple games with a leg injury that persisted throughout his time in Orlando. Nonetheless the Jazz were in the playoffs for the fourth straight year and were set for a playoff series against a foe more familiar to Mitchell than the Green Goblin is to Spider-Man; the Denver Nuggets. Over three years after the Nuggets traded Mitchell to the Jazz, the teams met in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. This set up what would become one of the more memorable first-round playoff series in NBA history.
Mitchell wasted no time taking it to Denver. He scored 57 points in Game 1 which was not only the Jazz franchise record for points in a playoff game, but third most in a playoff game all-time. Despite the amazing feat, Utah still lost Game 1 to Denver as Jamal Murray’s 36 points helped the Nuggets win the series opener. Mitchell and the Jazz fired back from the disappointing loss with three straight wins, as Mitchell notched his second 50 point game and the Jazz held a 3-1 series lead.
Mitchell was the hottest player in Orlando, and the Jazz were one win away from advancing. However, Jamal Murray was playing at an equally unstoppable level, and wouldn’t let the Nuggets lose the series. Both combo guards finished Game 4 with 50 points, but Murray wasn’t done there. After winning Game 5, Murray dropped another 50 points in Game 6 to even the series at 3-3. The Mitchell vs Murray showdown saw each player score 50+ points twice in a single series. The only other players to do so are Michael Jordan (1988) and Allen Iverson (2001), but never had this been done in the same series.
The two put on a show for the ages and no matter who won Game 7, this series would live on forever as one of the greatest scoring battles between two players in postseason history. Unfortunately for Mitchell, he’ll be remembered for coming up just short in this battle. He lost Game 7 by two points and watched a Mike Conley three rim out as time expired. Had the Mike Conely three found the bottom of the net, it’s hard to argue that Donovan Mitchell would not have gone on the same type of dominant playoff run that Murray went on. Mitchell averaged over 36 points and shot over 51% from three in the seven game series, and the young bucket getter looked primed to take the Western Conference Playoffs by storm. Alas, the Jazz season ended on a blown 3-1 lead, and fans in Utah can only ponder what would have happened had Mike Conley hit that last second three.
Team Leader On and Off the Court
Mitchell proved what he could do on the court with performance like what we saw in the bubble, but what makes a star a superstar in the NBA are his intangibles. The leadership qualities he possesses date back to his combine interviews, the hustle he brings day in and day out to be better than the year before, the winner mentality that he’s expressed on many occasions in crunch time, or in heated playoff competition. Mitchell has already established all the winning intaginables a superstar needs to succeed. He is only 24. The maturity for his age, athletic gifts and leadership abilities on the court are just as important and impressive as his character off the court.
Just weeks after earning his mega extension, Mitchell pledged over $12 million to Greenwich Country Day School, where his mother used to teach and where he and his sister used to attend school. Along with his SPIDACARES foundation, which earned him a nomination for the NBA Cares Community Assist Award, Mitchell has proven that he’s just as big a leader off the court as he is on it. Knowing your organization is in the hands of a responsible, mature super athlete like Mitchell reassures the Jazz front office that they put their money in the right hands.
Along with his amazing character, is a hunger for success. With two straight first round exits, including an especially tough end to an already challenging 2020 season, Mitchell realizes that his team has the potential to go far in the playoffs and he’s ready to take the next step.
“Losing in the first round ain’t it no more,” said Mitchell.
That was his answer asked about Utah’s expectations going into the 2021 season. After ranking second in the league in three-point percentage and sixth in field goal percentage, the Jazz return all of their strong offensive core. They are headlined by Mitchell and his shot-creating ability. The Jazz also brought back Derrick Favors who spent a year in New Orleans, helping the defense when Gobert is on the bench. Just like last year, a lot of expectations hang over the heads of Mitchell and the rest of this Utah roster. Last year did not have a happy ending, (despite taking place in the Wonderful World of Disney ironically) but there is strong hope for this team moving forward. Whether the Jazz get over the first round hump is yet to be seen. Utah fans can still be reassured that their superstar player is here for the long haul, and is worth every cent he’s owed.
Featured image courtesy Scott G. Winterton | Deseret News