Donovan Mitchell Is Paving His Own Path
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
ON JANUARY 19, the Utah Jazz are hosting the New Orleans Pelicans in a game that’s earned the NBA League Pass designation—seemingly not exciting enough to be broadcast on national television. With less than a minute remaining in the first half, the Jazz are up by three for a score of 52-49. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram pulls up for a deep midrange jumper from the left wing. A bit long off the rim, a waiting Bojan Bogdanovic collects the defensive rebound for the Jazz and immediately passes to Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell runs up the right sideline at a jog while surveying New Orleans’ suspect fastbreak defense. In about half a second, he makes Ingram pay for ever-so-slightly leaning right and rockets toward the basket.
Now, Mitchell has a choice to make. Lucky for New Orleans, Eric Bledsoe has been perched in the paint and is now the only thing standing between Mitchell and two points for the Jazz. Bledsoe plants both feet and clasps his hands together below his waist as if he’s a soccer player forming a wall before a free kick. Mitchell launches off one foot and begins to cock his arm back—a telltale sign of his signature tomahawk dunk. But this time he brings his arm parallel to the floor, and floating in the air like a shortstop, he fires a pass from under the basket to Bogdanovic, who’s been waiting patiently at the top of the 3-point arc. Swish. The Jazz bench goes wild, as they’ve just created a six-point lead.
Pretty impressive for someone who hasn’t played baseball since his sophomore year in high school.
THE LEGEND OF the multi-sport athlete is one that astounds most. To be a professional athlete is an extraordinary feat in itself, but succeeding in more than one sport is borderline mythical. Bo Jackson, simultaneously a Raider and a Royal, was inhuman both on the football and baseball field. He claimed he ran a 4.13 40-yard dash at his pro day—what would’ve been an all-time record. He floated in the air waiting for fly balls and ran along outfield padding like gravity didn’t exist. He struck fear into pitchers’ hearts, whether it was his monstrous quads bulging out of his extra-snug Royals uniform or the raw power with which he crushed baseballs into the stands.
More often than not, these fabled athletes look at baseball as their secondary sport. Deion Sanders was basically a professional base-stealer during his nine-year career in the MLB. In 2018, Kyler Murray was selected first overall in the NFL Draft as a quarterback and ninth overall in the MLB Draft as an outfielder. Even Patrick Mahomes quit baseball in his sophomore year at Texas Tech to solely pursue his football career.
Why, you may ask, is baseball the sport that’s always left behind? Professional sports are extremely selective, but baseball is perhaps the most extreme of them all. Millions of kids pick up a mitt annually hoping to make it to the big leagues one day. But just 5.6 percent of high school players go on to play NCAA baseball. Out of those collegiate athletes, 10.5 percent are drafted by an MLB team.
Do some quick math, and that’s a staggering 0.5% of high school baseball players that are even drafted by a major league team. Most are stuck in the minor leagues for years, earning less than minimum wage in hopes that they’re called up one day.
In terms of simply making it to the pros, sports like football and basketball are much more financially rewarding. Tyrone Swoopes, a tight end for the Seattle Seahawks and holder of the NFL’s lowest annual salary, brings in a cool $378,000 each year. Meanwhile, the minimum salary for a rookie in the NBA is $898,310, nothing to feel bad about either.
At first glance, the 24-year-old Donovan Mitchell is no different than these other multi-sport athletes. He’s a professional athlete who ditched baseball in pursuit of a more lucrative career in the NBA. But moments like the mid-air pass against the Pelicans paint a contrasting image—he never really left baseball behind.
BASEBALL WAS MITCHELL'S first love growing up. His father, Donovan Sr., played in the minor leagues for the Houston Astros for seven seasons before becoming the director of player relations and community engagement for the New York Mets. Mitchell wanted nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps. So, he played AAU baseball until his sophomore year of high school when he collided with his team’s catcher on a seemingly routine fly ball. The catcher broke his jaw and Mitchell broke his wrist, effectively ending his baseball career.
For his junior year in high school, Mitchell’s mother Nicole transferred him from Canterbury School in Connecticut to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. Basketball quickly became his primary focus, as the Brewster program—notorious for its NBA pipeline—attracted many college scouts. Yet for someone who drove down to Rucker Park each weekend to play streetball with his friends, Mitchell always kept an open mind thanks to Nicole. She valued education more than anything and instilled those values into her son.
“My biggest thing is basketball comes and goes, you know. It’s not your life,” Mitchell commented in 2019. “I mean, it is for about max 20, 21 years maybe. Not too many guys have done that.”
Mitchell blossomed both as a scholar and an athlete within months of enrolling at Brewster. Off the court, he played the drums. He acted in school musicals. He became class prefect as a senior after quickly gaining popularity among his peers. On the court, he and the Bobcats won two prep school national championships. Mitchell was invited to the Jordan Brand Classic to play in the Regional Game where he gained even more buzz in the college basketball world.
Overall, 22 schools extended offers to Mitchell, including Villanova, Florida State, Providence, and Boston College, all of which were finalists in the recruiting process. But the four-star recruit chose the University of Louisville—he cited head coach Rick Pitino’s ability to create defensive pressure and the anticipation of playing in front of 22,000 fans at the KFC Yum! Center as the primary pull factors.
He started just five games for the Cardinals as a freshman, but by his sophomore year, Mitchell was the offense’s focal point. He flew above rims and shook defenders with his crafty handles, but he showed glimpses of impressive playmaking for a shooting guard. After averaging a solid 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game in year two, Mitchell declared for the 2017 draft. The kid who grew up in MLB locker rooms was about to become an NBA player.
Despite his flashes of stardom at Louisville (and that 6’10” wingspan!), teams had concerns about Mitchell’s potential in the pros. He measured at just over 6’1” without shoes at the combine—undersized, even for a guard. They wondered about his inconsistency in the box score. Sandwiched in between 25- and 20-point performances right before March Madness was a 7-point stinker on 2-for-9 from the field.
Still, Mitchell thought his pre-draft workouts went well enough to cement his status as a lottery selection. But Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey had seen enough. He had found his man.
“One of the guys [Lindsey] works with came over and literally was like, ‘Dennis wants to make it clear, if any word about this workout gets out, you’re fired. Everyone. You’re fired,” The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps reported.
Utah made their move for Mitchell, trading Trey Lyles and the 24th overall pick in the draft to nab him from the Denver Nuggets. The return on their investment was immediate—Mitchell won the Slam Dunk Contest. He set a rookie record for most three-pointers made in a season. He became the first rookie since Carmelo Anthony to lead his team in playoff scoring. Oh, and he was named to the All-Rookie First Team.
Since then, Mitchell’s efficiency has been slightly up and down as he’s settled into a combo guard role with the Jazz. But improvement is not a linear process. He’s currently averaging career-highs in points (24.5), assists (5.2), 3-point attempts (8.7), and 3-point percentage (38.9) in his fourth year in the league.
WHAT MAKES MITCHELL so special lies beneath the box score—he plays with the swagger of a shortstop and the charisma that defines an NBA superstar. He took the reins of the Jazz offense as a rookie and never let go, proving to doubtful scouts that he was in fact capable of making an impact every time they took the floor. Now a veteran of sorts, Mitchell and the Jazz have seemed to figure out what works this season.
Mike Conley, the 14-year NBA veteran in his second season with the Jazz, missed six games with hamstring tightness. Mitchell slotted in at point guard beautifully in his absence and averaged seven assists—Utah didn’t lose once during that six-game span. They haven’t been losing much at all this season, as a matter of fact (their record of 25-6 is best in the league by a hefty margin).
Mitchell and big man Rudy Gobert are another pairing that make the Jazz so dominant. They represent dual superstardom on an egalitarian NBA team—Mitchell is the offensive spark and Gobert is the “Stifle Tower” (he’s a Frenchman with a 7’8” wingspan). Though they’re both keystones of the Jazz roster, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in their relationship off the court.
On March 9 last year, Gobert sought to poke fun at the COVID-19 pandemic and “liven the mood,” he told ESPN. He touched all of the microphones on his way out of an interview session as well as players and belongings in the locker room. Two days later, he tested positive and the NBA season was suspended. On March 12, Mitchell tested positive as well.
Mitchell admitted on a Good Morning America interview that “it took [him] a while to cool off” and sources report that he blamed Gobert for contracting the virus. Both parties kept quiet until the NBA resumed play in the Orlando bubble. They likely won’t go fishing together once the virus is controlled, but on the court, the two stars share the mutual desire to win.
PERHAPS THE MOST impressive accomplishment of Donovan Mitchell’s young career has been his community involvement. He’s only 24, but he has already established himself as a voice for social justice in the NBA. Mitchell was one of the many players that marched in Black Lives Matter protests before the season restart last July. One month later, he donated $45,000 toward a scholarship fund for the children of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot by police and left paralyzed from the waist down.
After signing a max contract extension in December, Mitchell also donated $12 million to Greenwich Country Day School, the middle school that he and his sister attended. He has sought to “champion the causes of equity, social justice, and equal opportunity, especially in education” since coming into the league at the age of 21.
Mitchell’s mission for equal opportunity in education is rooted in SPIDACARES, his non-profit foundation launched in 2019. He was also named to the inaugural board of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition. Mitchell and the Coalition have actively worked to expand the social justice efforts made by the NBA and NBPA during their time in the Orlando bubble last summer. For his service, he received the NBA Cares Community Assist Award last month that commemorated his fight for both social justice and education.
This all-encompassing engagement—both in Utah and nationwide—is what makes Donovan Mitchell who he is. He fights for both social justice and education. He’s a combo guard with the creativity and reflexes of a baseball player. But most importantly, he wants to be remembered as the basketball player who made an even larger impact than his accomplishments on the court. That’s what drives Mitchell to always strive for something more. His legacy as a man comes before anything else.