Few teams in NBA history have handed the basketball to rookies down the stretch of close games, letting them determine the outcome.
Donovan Mitchell is one of those rarities, a player the Jazz have entrusted with the basketball often with the game on the line. As great as he’s been at times, Mitchell also has not always succeeded.
“He’s certainly had his struggles along the way,” Jazz television analyst Matt Harpring said in an interview on 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone.
Yet, Mitchell is right on schedule to achieve greatness.
In strong contention to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, Mitchell long ago this season far exceeded expectations. Starting as a relative unknown commodity, he has become the team’s leading scorer and the focal point of the offense.
In recent games, with each having serious playoff implications, coach Quin Snyder rested the team’s fate on Mitchell. Against the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, which both ended in Jazz losses, Mitchell decided to create his own shot and missed it in the final minute of each game. He also buried tough three-point shots near the end of a game the Jazz lost in overtime to the San Antonio Spurs, the team’s only defeat in its last 15 road games.
It is all part of the process that most every great player has gone through. Longtime Jazz fans no doubt can vividly recall the home playoff game in which future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant shot multiple air-balls in a Jazz win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Over time, the short-term pain likely will result in long-term gain for the Jazz. Any struggles Mitchell has now, to go with all the success, will pay off as he matures into an NBA star.
“He’s got to get to that level when it comes down to the fourth quarter or crunch time of games in the second half, you’ve got to have the mentality of ‘I can take over this game I can do what I need to do on the court to help my team win.’ It just doesn’t happen. It happens over time,” Harpring said.
“It’s going to have to happen for Donovan. You can just see it on the court. He’s going to be that guy.”
Even if they don’t make the playoffs, as much as it would be a major disappointment, the Jazz and Mitchell have made great strides. Not many could have thought the team or the individual player would be in this situation entering the final week of the regular season.
After Gordon Hayward and George Hill left via free agency in the offseason, the Jazz really did not know what to expect this season. But with Rudy Gobert and Mitchell providing the foundation, they have rebounded from a 19-28 start to make a strong push for the postseason.
Perhaps Mitchell’s best asset is the willingness to take the pressure shot.
“You’ve got to want to have that shot. There’s a lot of players that think they want that shot, but then they get in that situation and they clam up,” Harpring said.
“It doesn’t seem right now that he has a conscience. He’s ready to roll and he’s thinking the next one is going in.”
For a franchise that often short on national attention, Mitchell’s story extends far beyond the Wasatch Front. National media has jumped on the story, with many believing the 21-year-old out of Louisville deserves to be named rookie of the year.
The insiders who count the most also have noticed.
“He plays a complete game,” said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, after Mitchell was sensational down the stretch in the overtime game. “He’s really something else.”
And he’s only going to get better.