SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell turned off his phones, crawled into bed and stared at the ceiling for what felt like forever, still in a giddy sense of shock.
He had about as good of a chance of getting a good night of sleep as the New Orleans Pelicans did of stopping him hours earlier.
The 21-year-old was fresh off breaking the Utah Jazz’s franchise rookie record for points in a game. Mitchell had poured in 41 points in the win, including 17 in the fourth quarter, picking apart the Pelicans with a combination of 3-pointers and drives that made Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey think, "That’s what it feels like [when] Damian Lillard gets it going against us."
PLAYERTEAMPTSSEASONLeBron James*CLE412003-04Carmelo AnthonyDEN412003-04Kevin Durant*SEA422007-08Eric GordonLAC412008-09Stephen CurryGS422009-10Blake Griffin*LAC44, 472010-11Donovan MitchellUTA412017-18* won Rookie of the Year
"I don’t think I stopped smiling from the time I had 35 points until 3:30 in the morning," Mitchell says. "The whole thing is just crazy to me. This whole experience is just a whirlwind. The fact that I’m doing what I’m doing is just amazing to me, and I just want to keep it going."
You didn’t see Donovan Mitchell coming? Neither did he.
Mitchell didn’t expect to emerge as the go-to guy the Jazz desperately needed after Gordon Hayward’s summer departure in free agency. He didn’t anticipate leading all rookies in scoring. Mitchell, the No. 13 overall pick, certainly didn’t think that he’d be building a convincing case that he’s the best player in his draft class.
Heck, Mitchell didn’t even plan on being part of this draft class. He paid all of his expenses when he traveled to Thousand Oaks, California, in the spring to participate in the Creative Artists Agency pre-draft camp because he wanted to maintain his eligibility at Louisville.
He figured he’d measure himself against legitimate draft prospects, get a feel for what aspects of his game needed development and head back to school for his junior season.
"When I left school, my room was still clean, full of stuff," Mitchell said. "I never packed. I was coming back for a third year. In my head, 100 percent, coming back."
Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, a couple of CAA clients who worked out with Mitchell at the camp, changed his mind. They convinced Mitchell that he belonged in the NBA. Mitchell didn’t trust agents when they told him he should enter the draft. It was different to hear it from established All-Stars.
"He’s really good," George told reporters recently, calling Mitchell the steal of the draft. "He’s a tough, fearless kid. We all saw that working out with him this past summer. I knew he was going to blossom."
Paul, who invited Mitchell to his summer camp in North Carolina and still talks to him several times a week, scoffs when it’s suggested that the Jazz guard’s success is surprising.
"He can really, really play," Paul said. "I’m not surprised by it at all. He can play. He’s strong, and he loves the game — both ends, whether it’s offense or defense. I don’t know if it’s because he’s in Utah, everybody’s surprised by it. I’m not."
So what’s Mitchell’s ceiling?
"He controls it," Paul says. "He’s that good."
Lindsey listened intently when he was invited to sit in on the pregame scouting report for his son Jake’s Baylor team when it faced Louisville during a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas last year.
"The whole game plan was Donovan Mitchell," Lindsey said. And the more he learned about Mitchell, the more he liked him.
Mitchell impressed the Jazz brass when he interviewed with them at the Chicago pre-draft camp. Lindsey loved the makeup of Mitchell, the son of a school teacher and the New York Mets’ director of player relations, believing that he developed a "competitive etiquette" by growing up around baseball, a sport Mitchell also played into high school.
"This whole experience is just a whirlwind. The fact that I’m doing what I’m doing is just amazing to me, and I just want to keep it going."
Lindsey came away with the feeling that Mitchell would be a cultural fit with the Jazz due to his character, competitiveness and desire to be developed.
The 6-foot-3 Mitchell, whose 6-foot-10 wingspan factored into his nickname of "Spider," wowed the Jazz with his workout in Utah weeks later, adding to Lindsey’s urgency to trade up to get the guard.
Utah packaged power forward Trey Lyles, a 2015 lottery pick who had fallen out of Utah’s rotation, with the No. 24 overall pick to get the No. 13 overall pick from the Denver Nuggets. The hope was that Mitchell could contribute right away as a defensive-minded role player who complemented Hayward and steadily develop as an offensive threat.
But Hayward, who steadily developed into an All-Star during his seven seasons in Utah, bolted for the Boston Celtics in free agency. Suddenly, the Jazz offense had a massive void to fill. Hayward’s departure has been a huge blow, but Mitchell’s production (17.9 points, 3.4 assists per game) has provided long-term hope and allowed the Jazz to compete for a playoff spot.
"Necessity is the mother of invention here," Lindsey said. "We’re down a very significant player here in Gordon Hayward, and we’re just trying to fight to figure out what’s next.
"We’re sure glad to have the kid."
The kid keeps getting better. Mitchell has developed in subtle ways, such as learning how to finish off of one foot in traffic after always leaping off two feet in college, and made dramatic statistical jumps.
Mitchell got off to a slow start, averaging only 9.3 points and shooting poorly (32.9 percent from the floor) in seven October games. He was much better in November (18.1 points on 41.3 percent shooting). The rookie has been a bona fide star in December, which started with his 41-point performance. Mitchell has averaged 23.1 points this month, shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 37.7 percent from 3-point range.
Mitchell, an explosive leaper on pace to break Lillard’s rookie record for 3-pointers made in a season, has started next to Ricky Rubio since mid-November but also plays a lot of point guard. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder calls Mitchell "just a guard," adding that labeling him as one particular position does a disservice to Mitchell’s game.
It’s notable that Snyder increasingly hands Mitchell the keys to the Jazz offense late in close games, a wise decision considering Mitchell’s ability to create and his clutch production (27 points on 10-of-18 shooting in 32 minutes). He’s the only rookie leading his team in clutch scoring this season, although Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Boston’s Jayson Tatum have also been remarkably productive and efficient in such situations.
"You trust him because he cares and he wants to improve," Snyder said. "When he makes a mistake, we’re coaching him hard, and he’s willing to accept that. As a result, his teammates respect him. That’s how you grow — not just your game, but your contribution to the team. We haven’t been concerned about him being a rookie. He’s just a player, and we try to help him, use him the best way we can to help our team. It’s evolved into that.
"He’s pretty selfless. He has a leadership component because of his commitment to the team that for a young guy is unique. Usually, you find that over time. He has not asked for that, he’s not trying to become that, but the way he plays and the fact that he’s able to create for other people allows guys to embrace him."
PLAYERTEAMPTS/36FG%3P%Donovan MitchellUTA30.755.633.3Jayson TatumBOS20.966.775.0Lauri MarkkanenCHI19.735.733.3Ben SimmonsPHI16.372.20.0Frank NtilikinaNYK16.240.042.9De’Aaron FoxSAC14.841.70.0Kyle KuzmaLAL14.733.329.4* Among rookies with at least30 clutch time minutes
Mitchell is probably more proud that his assists average has increased from 2.3 in October to 3.6 this month. He said it was embarrassing watching the film of his first big scoring night — a 22-point, two-assist outing in an Oct. 28 win over the Los Angeles Lakers — because of all the open teammates he missed. Mitchell cringes when he mentions his awful outing in a Nov. 7 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, when he was 3-of-21 from the floor and had only one assist.
Mitchell and Snyder have daily film sessions focused on reads, teaching him how to see the whole floor instead of focusing solely on getting a shot.
"Stuff like that, that’s who I am," Mitchell says. "Scoring has just started. I’ve never been a scorer in my life. Maybe last year a little, but I was just a great teammate who played defense and made the right plays. I realized that’s who I need to get back to. That’s who I’ve always strived to be."
That’s an attitude that endears Mitchell to his teammates.
"We’re happy he’s learning, and he wants to make the right play at the right time," said center Rudy Gobert, the Jazz’s franchise player, who it currently sidelined with a PCL sprain. "He doesn’t think the world revolves around him. He’s trying to win, and he’s also trying to fit on the team. He’s a good kid. He’s listening, and he’s learning."
And Mitchell is starring, much to his surprise.
"I didn’t expect any of this at all," Mitchell said. "There’s so many things that are like taking me by surprise. I’m honored to have this opportunity. I think that’s the biggest thing — staying humble, because the story you hear a lot of times is that guys who have success let it get to their head.
"I just try to be the same kid from New York and Greenwich, Connecticut, who is just lame and watches TV and Netflix."