How Jazz star Donovan Mitchell overcame the dreaded sophomore slump

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell drops his shoulder, sneaks under Portland Trail Blazers swingman Evan Turner’s arm and explodes upward, attempting to float the ball over Jusuf Nurkic, catching the big man on the arm and drawing a foul while trying to erase an 11-point deficit with just under five minutes remaining in a recent game.

The second-year player coming off a sensational rookie year later drives left, gets Turner on his back again, tilts to the middle and nails a leaning floater off his right hand. Mitchell rubs shoulders with teammate Rudy Gobert, whose screen leaves CJ McCollum in the dust, and commandeers the tight runway between Nurkic and the rim with a series of berserk movements — tiny yet convincing — in opposite directions. Mitchell’s forays to the rim amount to an oddly fluid amalgamation of herky-jerky explosions. Mitchell crosses to his left, the ball still spinning in his palm, then Eurosteps to the right, a move he learned in mere days in his rookie season, only this time he finishes with another floater and draws another foul.

Since the offseason, Mitchell has been picking 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade’s brain, trying to squeeze every ounce of knowledge he can from the 6-foot-4 guard who leveraged a frame similar to Mitchell’s into a Hall of Fame career. “I wanna talk to him eventually about every possible thing that I can find,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports. For now, his questions center around how to get to the free-throw line.

“You gotta give the pump fake. Sometimes, you gotta even sell it,” Mitchell told Yahoo, laughing. “It’s an art. I think it’s something I’ve really put my time and effort into working on.” Prime Wade exploded into the lane like a pole-vaulter, powering the Miami Heat’s 2006 championship from the charity stripe. But the knack for crashing into help defenders hasn’t come easy to Mitchell. He’s more likely to avoid contact with acrobatic up-and-under lay-ins, off-hand faders and dump-off passes. Until the new year, Mitchell was averaging just four free-throw attempts per game.

Soon, the same principle that put his sophomore slump — 20.1 points on 18.3 shots, with just 3.4 assists — on hold would cause his free-throw attempts to leap to six per game in January: a realization that the answer to every challenge isn’t a trickier shot or a longer double-clutch.

“It took me a while to understand that every game, teams are going to find a way to make it hard for me to score,” Mitchell said. “And I think becoming a better playmaker helped me. That’s one of the things I took to heart: just trying to find ways to become a better playmaker, making the game easier on myself as opposed to making it tough.”

Donovan Mitchell throws one down against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 18, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell throws one down against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 18, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

Mitchell has the mental acuity to learn new moves quickly, encouraging him to make tough plays on the fly, like the banking wrong-footed floater that bails the Jazz out of hordes of dead offensive possessions when opponents sag off Ricky Rubio and Gobert to force Mitchell into the corner. It’s an important tool. He could also stand to use it a little less. Over time, Mitchell realized that scorers such as Kevin Durant, whose easy command he always admired, didn’t exude an aura of effortlessness because of the tough shot as much as the simple pass. In 2019, Mitchell is averaging 27 points on 46 percent shooting while dishing 4.8 assists.

In the final minute against Portland, Mitchell sinks two more free throws and hopscotches through the middle for another layup. Damian Lillard misses a put-back attempt, so with seventeen seconds remaining, Utah’s deficit has been cut to four and Mitchell is racing up the court. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder doesn’t call a timeout — he couldn’t ask for a better setup — and Mitchell, all eyes on him, swings the ball to Royce O’Neal, who makes the extra pass to Joe Ingles, one of the league’s best 3-pointer shooters. He shoots from the corner pocket, but the three rims out and the Jazz lose.

Ingles is staring at the rim, moping backward before shaking his head, turning around and trotting to the bench. Mitchell chases behind him, clapping his hands. “I told him that was the shot we wanted. Take that shot 10 times out of 10.”

“He’d be right there for me and have my back, so it was only right that I have his. I think that’s just the staple of our team. He’s been there for me when I shot the ball 35 times and had no assists,” said Mitchell, referencing a season-low performance against Philadelphia in November.

After that game, Ingles told reporters of Mitchell, “If he’s 1-for-20 or 20-for-20, it doesn’t matter for us. He’s our guy. That’s what he does. He’s aggressive. He doesn’t need to overthink it. He doesn’t need to think that it’s his fault that we lost. I think the last thing he needs to do is be worrying about it.” It was the same impassioned defense teammates have given Mitchell all season. They understand the burdens of Mitchell’s gifts, that they’re asking a 22-year-old to match the impact of seasoned All-Stars and carry a playoff-acceptable offense for the second season in a row. With Mitchell’s development comes an acknowledgment that he will make errors of commission.

Mitchell credits his teammates for understanding the importance of picking up each other’s confidence — not that it’s something that’s lacking. His spatial awareness and information-processing ability floored the Jazz coaching staff last year. The more they gave him, the more he picked up, planting him in a season-long, positive-feedback loop. In the face of a challenge, he is likelier than most — and we’re grading on a high curve here — to master it.

There were times this season when it looked as if information processing gave way to overprocessing. He looked tentative driving on pick and rolls, overanalyzing his options until they dissipated. “You can sulk or you can find a way to fix it. You can find a way to push through it,” Mitchell said. “That’s been the story of my life. When I hit adversity, it’s just a matter of making it or breaking it.”

He’s always made it, whether it was drumming intricate sets and pitching baseballs in high school or finishing moves in the NBA. It’s why he wasn’t too worried about his early-season slump. “I think it’s such familiar ground for me, just being told that I’m not as good last year, being told that all I am is a scorer. I think for me that was just,” he paused and laughed, “ … comforting. I find comfort in the hatred.” And why wouldn’t he? For Mitchell, failure has never marked the end. It signals the moment before inevitable improvement.

On New Year’s Eve, while the Jazz prepared to play the Raptors — the final hump in what had been the NBA’s hardest schedule to that point — Mitchell reflected on the tough nights that were behind him, channeled the spirit of the holiday and gave himself a mental reminder. “You had your struggles. It’s time to fix it.”

But that’s not why he pulled out his phone and tweeted “New year, new me.” He did that, he admits, “to be corny.”

In reality, most players save their resolutions for the offseason, and Mitchell knew the transition from Year 1 to Year 2 wouldn’t be easy. He overhauled his diet. He hired a chef. Red meat gave way to chicken, and he kicked a years-long gummy bear habit. On Wednesday, BodyArmor — a sports-drink company endorsed by Kobe Bryant, who’s also an investor, and last year’s MVP, James Harden — announced a partnership with Mitchell.

“Understanding my body, understanding how I feel after eating certain things, having certain drinks, I wanna have a better feel for my body and I think joining BodyArmor really helped me to do that in little ways that I didn’t even consider, so I think that’s what’s really special. It’s a better option because it’s healthier and it’s a better-fueled sports drink.”

The endorsements are piling up with his accolades. On Dec. 27, he became the first member of the Jazz since Karl Malone to get his own signature shoe. Last year, he nailed more 3-pointers than any rookie in NBA history. He scored more points in his first two playoff games than any rookie guard, breaking a record previously held by Michael Jordan.

There are times he plays like a loose cannon, either exploding to the basket or fizzling out. The winner of last year’s Slam Dunk Contest can certainly turn heads when he takes off into the air, but plenty of young studs can rack up highlight reels. What makes Mitchell promising are the blips of the game when he is ground-bound, with a subtle but all-consuming command of his surroundings, aware of the impact his every eye-fake and nudge have on opponents. He infiltrates and dribbles comfortably in the court’s tightest spots, forcing commitments from multiple defenders, keeping his options open before he makes a decision, replicating similar situations and trying never to make the same mistake twice.

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