SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, remote control in hand as he sits in the spacious, state-of-the-art film room at the team’s practice facility, rewinds the clip of Donovan Mitchell drilling a corner 3-pointer, replaying it a couple times on the large projector screen.
Snyder then poses a pointed question to the Rookie of the Year candidate, the only player in the room, who is seated to the coach’s right in the front row, flanked by assistant coach Johnnie Bryant.
"What do you got going there? Is that a new arrow thing you got going?" Snyder asks, playfully referring to Mitchell’s post-shot celebration.
"Sometimes I just do things that come to my head," Mitchell says, shrugging and taking a sip of his smoothie.
It’s a brief moment of levity during a 55-minute film session the day after the Jazz’s March 28 loss to the Boston Celtics. These sort of sessions, conducted daily by Bryant, with Snyder occasionally joining the pair or calling in Mitchell for additional individual film study, have been an essential part of Mitchell’s evolution into the rare NBA rookie who serves as a bona fide go-to guy on a good team.
Mitchell averaged 20.5 points during the regular season for the 48-34 Jazz, becoming the first rookie since Carmelo Anthony in 2004-05 to lead a playoff-bound team in points per game. He joined a list of legends (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and David Robinson) as rookies who were the leading scorers on teams that won at least 48 games.
As talented as Mitchell is — and he has drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade from some scouts — that sort of historic production from a 13th overall pick is a testament to the Jazz coaching staff’s developmental work. They’ve guided the gifted 21-year-old, teaching him how to read defensive coverages as he became the focal point of opponents’ game plans and drilling Mitchell on the finer details of basketball.
"You got to the corner," Bryant says to Mitchell, halting the brief humorous interlude and steering the conversation to the reason Mitchell’s catch-and-shoot 3 in transition was included among the few dozen plays worth reviewing from the loss to the Celtics. "You didn’t stop at the break. How many clips have you seen that this year?"
Bryant has been stressing to Mitchell all season the importance of sprinting all the way to the corner when he’s filling an outside line in transition, trying to break him of his habit of settling on the wing. That’s in large part because the corner 3 is a much more efficient shot, particularly for Mitchell, who made 48.5 percent of his attempts from the corners this season, compared to 32.5 percent of above-the-break 3s.
It’s also due to the impact on spacing, opening avenues for teammates by forcing a defender to account for him all the way into the corner.
"I know this might sound bad, but I hope that he misses those shots at the break," Bryant says. "So I can be like, ‘The basketball gods are rewarding you for getting to the corner.’"
"One thing about him is he’s not afraid to try things and really apply it. That’s something that’s rare. A lot of guys want to stay in their comfort zone."
Mitchell grins. He’s heard this plenty of times from Bryant, a 32-year-old former University of Utah guard who has earned a reputation as a developmental guru, having groomed Gordon Hayward into an All-Star before he departed for Boston in free agency.
The dirty work of Mitchell’s development is Bryant’s top priority. He’s the assistant who conducts the rookie’s individual workouts, pregame shooting routines and film sessions, from scouting opponents to game review to watching other stars to try to learn their tricks. Bryant is the constant voice in Mitchell’s ear.
"So it’s pretty glamorous when he’s watching tape and Johnnie’s pounding him on literally like five feet," Snyder jokes. "Spoken like a true coach, right?"
THIS ROLE ISN’T what the Jazz had in mind for Mitchell when they traded up to draft him out of Louisville, where he averaged 15.6 points per game as a sophomore last season.
Utah’s front office identified Mitchell as a prospect who could contribute immediately due to his athleticism and intangibles and who had potential to develop into a primary scoring option over the years.
Then Hayward bolted in free agency, leaving a huge void in the Jazz offense. The blow of that bad news was eased just a little bit by Mitchell’s dominant performance in the Utah Summer League on the day Hayward’s decision was announced. By the time the Jazz summer team left Las Vegas, expectations for Mitchell had increased dramatically.
The developmental timetable for Mitchell accelerated due to his aptitude. He showed the ability to develop new skills — such as finishing off one foot in traffic, a focus in his offseason workouts with Bryant — and instantly incorporate them into his game, grasping through film study the appropriate times to use his new tools.
"These guys dig in," Snyder says of Mitchell and Bryant. "It’s that kind of cycle of ‘practice it, recognize it, use it.’ That whole process is what makes these guys good together."
Mitchell got off to a slow start, averaging only 9.3 points and shooting an unsightly 32.3 percent from the floor primarily as a reserve in seven October games, but he had established himself as a fixture in the Jazz’s starting lineup by mid-November and as the clear go-to guy soon after.
Mitchell’s reliability in that role was a factor in the franchise’s deadline decision to trade Rodney Hood, a pending restricted free agent who was the top internal candidate to be the offensive focal point after Hayward’s departure.
Mitchell averaged more than 21 points per game in each month from December on, consistently excelling as the defensive schemes to stop him became more complicated. The coaches’ crash course for Mitchell, who starts at shooting guard and plays some point guard, has advanced into masters-level classes.
"It’s gone from reading his defender and the defender in pick-and-roll to reading the help," Snyder says after the film session. "It’s deeper — more levels, more things to see."
"WHAT JUST HAPPENED?" Snyder asks Mitchell a few seconds into a clip of a possession on which the rookie initiated the offense, passed to Ricky Rubio on the wing and spaced the floor as Dante Exum sliced for a layup.
Snyder peppers Mitchell with this sort of pop quiz throughout the session, prodding him to explain his thought process.
"I believe it was this time, I told Ricky, I just want to jam the guy off me," Mitchell says, pointing out a detail a casual fan might not notice: a subtle screen Rubio set to force Celtics stopper Jaylen Brown to switch, leaving Shane Larkin on Mitchell.
"You got it, you got it," Snyder says as the screen shows Mitchell coming off a pick-and-roll with Rudy Gobert and firing a simple pass to Rubio, who is wide-open on the left wing because Brown has shifted all the way to the "nail" — the middle of the free throw line — to help.
That’s the kind of respect elite scorers get in the NBA, and this play is an example of the progress Mitchell has made this season.
In this instance, moving the ball to the weak side was the right play, one that draws praise from Snyder.
"Perfect," Snyder says. "So this is a great example, Donovan, of you starting the blender. So even though this play is quote-unquote ‘for you,’ you go right there, and you make the simple play and get off it.
Maximizing the attention Mitchell commands is a frequent theme throughout the film session. It’s why Bryant harps so much on sprinting all the way to the corner in transition. It’s why Snyder shows Mitchell a possession on which the rookie never touches the ball but impacts the play by circling back to the top of the arc while Rubio probes the baseline — "Nashes," as Snyder calls it — stretching the defense to create room for Gobert to cut for a dunk.
"You’re getting to a point where, because of the way people are playing you, it’s even more important for you to space," Snyder says as the clip of Gobert’s dunk plays. "Because if you’re not spaced, we don’t get to take advantage of your gravity, right?"
That gravity is never heavier than when Mitchell has the ball in his hands during a half-court possession. His coaches are constantly teaching him the NBA chess match, identifying opportunities to attack, where to get shots and when it’s best to move the ball.
Snyder beams when he shows a possession from late in the fourth quarter because Mitchell makes a couple of quick, terrific reads. Never mind that Mitchell admits that he didn’t know which play was called, nor did it produce any points.
"In this action here, you’re going to draw attention, and this is the right play," Snyder says as the clip shows Mitchell running a pick-and-roll on the left wing and firing a crosscourt pass to Joe Ingles.
"You’ve done your job right now. Jaylen Brown has to pull in on Rudy’s roll, and that should be a shot for Joe or a snap to Rudy. Basically, what you’ve done here, Donovan, is got us either a shot or a snap. We just didn’t [execute]."
Ingles instead looks to Rubio in the corner and passes the ball back to Mitchell. As the defense loads up again, Gobert sneaks behind Brown to set a back screen as Mitchell fires another pass to Ingles, giving one of the NBA’s 3-point percentage leaders a wide-open look that he misses.
"And that’s the same thing," Snyder says as the second pass leaves Mitchell’s hands. "It’s f—ing great. So two times in one possession, you’ve read the defense and got out. This is great offense."
Bryant tells Snyder to rewind it again.
"Look where Jaylen Brown’s at once you get the ball back from Joe," Bryant says. "He’s loading up ready to help on the drive. You’re the threat.
"This is what James Harden’s really good at. He’ll see the shift, and before he even comes off the pick-and-roll, it’s a quick swing. So as you’re playing, Rudy may come up and set a pick-and-roll, but it may be a situation where we swing it real quick, and then we have an advantage."
AFTER GOBERT ENGULFS Brown with a screen at the top of the arc, Mitchell gets Boston big man Aron Baynes to bite on the possibility that he’ll pull the trigger on a 3, setting up an easy blow-by into the teeth of the Celtics’ defense. Jayson Tatum grabs Mitchell instead of giving up the easy dunk or layup.
"So why was this open?" Bryant asks. "Why did he foul you right here?"
Mitchell: "Because I hesitated and got back into it."
Bryant’s eyes light up as he nods his head, proud that his prize pupil has gotten the message. Mitchell has the gift of rare explosiveness, but he can’t make the most of it if he drives only 100 mph and misses some billboards, as Bryant puts it.
"Exactly. You changed speeds, right? So the threat of you being able to shoot that shot brings him up," Bryant says, clapping his hands.
"Now he comes up toward you. It’s the same clips we watched yesterday morning [on Damian Lillard]. Now he comes up. Now you attack."
Snyder adds his two cents in support of Bryant’s point of emphasis.
"When Chris Paul says, ‘Wait until the game slows down for him,’ that’s what he’s talking about," Snyder says. "Because when you change speeds, by definition, you see more."
"Like I told Johnnie, I don’t do that on purpose," Mitchell says.
"But you can train it, though," Snyder replies. "In fact, one of the things, because you’re getting more curls on the chase, like almost like a skip, you turn and you change speeds with your body even without your feet. That’s why you do all the stuff you’re doing with JB. The sequence is important."
Bryant wants to note one other thing before they move on to the next clip. When Mitchell caught the inbounds pass as he came off the Gobert screen, he put the ball down with his inside hand, allowing his shoulders to get vertical immediately. It’s something they work on every day, the kind of detail that makes a difference but would never be noticed by most fans.
"You’re here, and now you’re downhill," Bryant says.
"That’s big," Snyder adds. "That’s a huge point, being square, because that’s why that’s a threat."
THE NEXT CLIP features another instance of Mitchell coming off a great screen by Gobert and getting in the lane, this time blowing by Guerschon Yabusele for an easy layup.
"This is really good by Rudy," Snyder says. "Especially when they’re up on you like that, Jaylen Brown’s got no chance. Right? And Yabusele has no chance."
Snyder rewinds to show Yabusele jab his right foot toward Mitchell as the rookie hesitates.
"And all you’ve got to do is get him f—ing leaning a little bit, especially because all these guys now are trained to jab, to fake at you. Look at that.
"But I’m telling you: Rudy makes this play."
If all goes well, Mitchell will have the luxury of playing the majority of his career with Gobert, a dominant defensive force who takes great pride in excelling as a complementary offensive player, in particular as a screener. According to NBA.com advanced stats, Gobert averaged 6.1 "screen assists" per game, the most in the league by a wide margin.
Bryant and Snyder spend a lot of time discussing the subtleties of screens with Mitchell. "Connectivity" is one of Snyder’s big buzzwords, and it especially applies to the Jazz’s two franchise cornerstones.
"How is the communication going with Rudy?" Snyder asks. This question comes after a defensive clip, but it applies to offense as well.
"It’s gotten better," Mitchell answers. "Even if what he’s saying I don’t really agree with, it’s kind of just saying, ‘OK,’ so that he feels confident to keep [talking]."
"When you get married," Snyder says, "you’ll realize that’s how it works."
The last clip of the session features an awkward pick-and-roll dance with Gobert. With the shot clock down to eight seconds, Mitchell rushes and jacks a contested pull-up 3 that misses short after Gobert doesn’t get much of a screen on Larkin.
Bryant, who had mentioned moments earlier that eight seconds is an eternity in a half-court possession, blames Mitchell for not giving Gobert a chance to set a good enough screen.
"Let him get in the channel, retreat dribble, keep [the defender] on your hip, let Rudy flip it," Bryant says. "Now you can attack there."
Adds Snyder: "It’s the patience."
FAST-FORWARD TO the following week, when Mitchell coverts a dazzling drive and and-1 layup over LA Clippers center DeAndre Jordan that was featured on all the highlight shows. It’s a high pick-and-roll with Gobert, and after the initial pick isn’t much of a hit, Mitchell spins and takes a dribble with his left and crosses back over.
The move brings Clippers forward C.J. Williams right into Gobert and gives Mitchell a clear runway. He changes speeds and directions as he goes to the basket, getting Jordan on his heels before accelerating at him.
Mitchell draws contact while executing a "goofy-foot finish" — a technique taught to him by Bryant, catching shot-blockers off-guard with a quick, right-handed scoop while leaping off the right foot.
Mitchell listened, learned and executed.
"One thing about him is he’s not afraid to try things and really apply it," Bryant says after the film session. "That’s something that’s rare. A lot of guys want to stay in their comfort zone. He has the ability to go out there and apply it."