After an early-season slump, Utah Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell completely turned around his play when the calendar flipped to 2019. “Lately, he’s been one of the best two-guards in the league,” teammate Rudy Gobert recently told HoopsHype, Over the last 29 games, the sophomore is averaging 27.5 points, 5.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 2.7 threes and 1.1 steals while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from deep.
HoopsHype caught up with Mitchell to discuss his turnaround, being mentored by one of his idols, whether he’ll compete in the NBA’s dunk contest again, his ability to recruit free agents to Utah, the craziest moments since his meteoric rise, his film study, his acting chops, his partnership with BodyArmor (the official drink of the NCAA and March Madness) and more.
You’ve had multiple dinners with Dwyane Wade throughout the last year. If I told 13-year-old Donovan that you’d one day be hanging out with Wade often and consider him a peer, what would your reaction have been? Also, what advice has he given you?
Donovan Mitchell: I would’ve thought that you were completely lying to me, to be honest with you. (Laughs) It’s been great. With the advice he’s given me, a lot of the on-court advice has been more technical stuff like improving my footwork, slowing down, getting to the free-throw line, using fakes and things like that, which have definitely helped me throughout this year. It took me a while to fully grasp what he was talking about this year, but I think I’m starting to get a lot of it now and use what he told me. As far as off-court advice, he’s been so successful in life. I’m trying to understand how to be a businessman. I’m 22 years old, but I’m partnered with BodyArmor and adidas and all of these different brands, so you have to understand how to be a businessman on top of just being an athlete. He’s helped with that. I’ve just enjoyed the experiences we’ve had together. He and I connected a while back and we’ve met up several times, and we talk all the time. It’s pretty special having him as a peer, for sure.
I read that you met Eddie Murphy at some point and I saw that Adam Sandler came by a Jazz practice. Over the last two years, you’ve had a lot of cool moments and crazy interactions. That’s one of the perks of becoming a star. What are some moments – basketball related or non-basketball related – that stand out the most where it almost felt surreal?
DM: I gotta say winning the dunk contest and then winning Game 6 in the playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder. I gotta say, those are definitely my top two – because I didn’t think either would ever happen, let alone in my first year. I think those really stand out. Like, if my career were to end today, those would be the two proudest moments of my career. For me, the dunk contest was always my favorite part of All-Star Weekend. You can ask anyone, I didn’t care about the All-Star Game. I didn’t care about the Skill Challenge. I always just wanted to watch the dunk contest. To be a part of that and win it? It was crazy. And I wasn’t even supposed to be in it; I was a replacement [for Aaron Gordon, who got injured] and so I only had two weeks to prepare for the dunk contest. There are times where I’ll think back and I still can’t believe that I actually won it.
Then, during Game 6, I’m going up against Russell [Westbrook], Paul George and Carmelo [Anthony]. Just walking out and being on the same floor as these guys, who I was watching on TV all the time before I got to the league [felt surreal]. Growing up, I was trying to sort of follow [in the footsteps] of Russ because we’re kind of similar in terms of our body, weight and height. To beat them, that was just huge for me – for sure.
I have to ask this because I know fans are curious: Will you compete in the dunk contest again? I know you didn’t enter it this year because you didn’t want to be tired for the second half of the season as you fight for playoff positioning. But will we ever see you in the dunk contest again?
DM: Yes. For sure. I don’t know if it’s going to be next year, I don’t know if it’s going to be the year after that, but I am going to do it again.
I recently interviewed Rudy Gobert and he said that after your successful rookie year and excellent series against OKC, there was a lot of pressure on you at the start of this year and teams were game-planning against you. He said you had to figure that out, and that now you’re playing like one of the best guards in the league again. Can you walk me through what those struggles were like earlier in the season? And did going through that ultimately make you a better player?
DM: What really took me by surprise was how much attention I was being paid on opposing teams’ scouting reports. It’s one thing to hear to it. Everyone says, “It’s going to be different! It’s going to be different!” But it’s one thing to hear it, it’s another thing to go through it. I think it’s just one of those things that you have to go through. For me, I hold myself to such a high standard so I was pretty upset; I was upset with my first three months of the season.
There were times where I looked back [at my life] and thought, “Man, I’ve never really been in this position.” I had always been the underdog, whether it was in high school or college or during my rookie year. I was always the one who nobody knows about. To come into this year and be the person who everybody is looking to attack, the person who everyone knows, it was a completely different feeling for me. It was a completely different place for me to be in. It’s something that I had to familiarize myself with and I had to do so quickly, otherwise we – the team and myself – wouldn’t be able to accomplish the things that we wanted to accomplish.
I remember on New Year’s Eve, I sent out a corny tweet saying, “New year, new me.” It was kind of half-joking, but I really did need a new beginning. I needed a restart – a refresh – and I needed to just let the game come to me. That’s when I started taking a different approach to the games. My teammates were amazing. They were so supportive throughout everything and stuck with me. They really helped me get through those toughest moments. With me being so new to this, I really didn’t know what to expect when I was struggling. I didn’t know [when the struggles would end]. They supported me and stressed that I just needed to continue to work and trust the work that I was putting in. I did that, focusing on the work and how I could further my development and [in recent months], it’s been paying off.
About two months ago, you started watching a lot more film than ever before. Are you still studying film at an increased rate? And, if you had to estimate, how much film do you watch each day?
DM: Oh yeah, definitely. Here’s the thing: When people think about studying film, they don’t understand that me watching basketball is considered “studying film.” I watch at least one or two basketball games every single night, so that’s at least three or four hours right there and that’s before any film [clips] I watch on top of that.
When I’m watching basketball games each night, I’m watching some of the teams that we’re playing next, I’m watching certain players to pick up on their specific tendencies and I’m also watching to find little things that I can add to my game – on both sides of the court, offensively and defensively. Those are the things that I really look for and pick at. And in addition to watching more film, I think I’m watching everything more in-depth now. Watching more film is something that has really helped me.
In 10th grade, you broke your wrist, which prevented you from playing AAU baseball in the summer. That’s when you shifted your focus full-time to basketball. I know your father is the Director of Player Relations for the New York Mets and I’ve heard you fully expected to be an MLB player when you were growing up. If you never broke your wrist, do you think you’d be playing major league baseball today?
DM: Yeah, I think so. I think my career path would’ve been baseball if I hadn’t broken my wrist. That really changed my entire life, to be completely honest with you. Not just from a sports standpoint, but from a work ethic standpoint too. That injury really showed me that the game – [baseball or basketball] – could be taken away in a matter of seconds. That made me realize that you have to give this your all every chance you get, otherwise you’re going to be upset that you had more to give but the opportunity is no longer there [to realize your full potential]. That changed my entire mindset and focus, and that’s when I started focusing on basketball. That injury definitely changed my entire life.
You’re really charismatic and a lot of players consider you a good friend. Because you have so many relationships with players around the league, do you think you could be a good free-agent recruiter for Utah in the years to come?
DM: For sure, I definitely think I can. It’s not just a single person [who I can recruit], it’s the fact that I know a lot of guys throughout the league. I think that will definitely help [our free-agency pitch]. I think we’re in a position where we can bring guys in. I think guys want to play with us. We have a lot of chemistry with this team, and it’s easy for everyone to see that. We’re not a typical NBA team when it comes to our chemistry. I think that’s something that will stand out to players. They’ll see it. You can see it from the outside; everybody sees it. I think people will want to play on a team like this because of the freedom and the joy and the fun we’re having.
I saw your BodyArmor commercial with James Harden and your Vivint Smart Home ad with Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio; they’re both funny and you did a good job. Has it been fun to show off your acting skills a bit and shoot these commercials?
DM: I think the best part is just being on the set and interacting with everybody at the shoot. When you go over there, you really feel like a real actor. It’s like taking on a different job for a bit and seeing what it’s like to be in an actor’s shoes, which I think is really cool. For me, when I watch commercials now, I look at everything differently – I see everything in a different light. I wonder how long it took to shoot a specific take, what they did differently on other takes and things like that. It’s been really cool to see what happens behind-the-scenes and it’s been so much fun to do it with my teammates and now, for the BodyArmor ad, with other athletes like James.
You and James Harden had pretty good chemistry. What was it like shooting with James?
DM: I’ve obviously known James for a while now. I’ve gotten to know him throughout my career, and working with him was a lot of fun. On the court, we’ve had our wars, but I know him and a lot of his boys so for us to all be able to be on set together was fun. They’re a lively bunch. He got some trash talking in before we started shooting anything. I had a lot of fun. I want to say it took about three hours to shoot the commercial. It wasn’t too bad, especially because we were having a lot of fun so the time flew by quickly.
What’s been your experience working with BodyArmor so far?
DM: My experience has been amazing. For one, I can say that they provide the most product of any company I’ve ever worked with in my entire life. (Laughs) That’s for sure. I don’t even need to go to the grocery store for drinks anymore; they just keep showing up!
But in all seriousness, I love working with BodyArmor. For me, as an athlete, I’m constantly trying to find ways to better myself and take care of my body. I drink it on the bench during our games and use it to hydrate myself. It’s high in potassium and low in sodium, which is great for your body. That was something that my mom was always telling me when I was growing up: “This has too much sodium, that has too much sodium!” This is a nice alternative [to the high-sodium drinks]. My favorite flavor is the fruit punch and I drink it all the time. It’s great to be part of BodyArmor, especially because there are so many other incredible athletes who are involved like Kobe Bryant and Klay Thompson and James and many others. They’ve welcomed me to the team.