Donovan Mitchell is a player who makes bravery seem like an athletic skill. What that means in practice is he’s a decent three-point shooter whom you believe, down the stretch of a close game, is about 50/50 to hit a pull-up 25-footer he has no business taking. He drives into the packed paint and you know he’ll figure it out. The Jazz offense is a brutal, steadily whirring mechanism; they work hard for their open looks. Donovan Mitchell is their only player who doesn’t need to. Give him the ball, maybe set him a screen. He’ll end up trying something difficult, but there’s a good chance it’ll work. He’s immensely talented, but there’s something else, a strength of will you can feel through the television screen. It’s like he’s glowing in crunchtime. Maybe it’s tangible, explicable if you take a microscope to it—an unusual ability to focus and keep his mechanics sharp in the moments when most other players are too tired to be perfect—but it’s definitely a phenomenon. Bent light, trembling air, loop-de-looping maneuvers to nowhere that nevertheless end in points.
Mitchell was heroic against a dazed-looking Thunder team in last year’s playoffs. He straight up outplayed Russell Westbrook and closed the series with a 38-point, 14-for-26 game, including a pair of free throws to ice it at the end. And then in the next round he lunged and sputtered, tried to do too much and got knocked out by a significantly better Houston team, because that’s what happens to great young players in the playoffs. But in the process he built himself a fandom—no small thing for a 21-year-old in a far-flung NBA market.
He’s such a valiant player on the court that it’s extra discouraging that he can be a bit of a dweeb away from it. The whole Rookie of the Year back-and-forth he had with Ben Simmons was particularly irksome. He claimed that Simmons had more time to prepare for playing in the NBA than he did, even though Mitchell is the same age and wasn’t coming off a foot injury like Simmons. He wore a hoodie that displayed the dictionary definition of the word rookie, which Simmons laughed at and the social media folks at Dictionary.com helpfully pointed out was mildly argument-undermining. Mitchell had a point—sure, being with the Sixers probably helped prep Simmons for the NBA better than playing at Louisville did for Mitchell—but his broader case was bunk. Mitchell ventured to win an award with pedantry, and smarmily doubled down on the tactic after losing. There’s some corn syrup running through those veins.
We come to sports, on a basic level, to be amazed. We’re well-schooled in the finer points: we stump for calls from our couches, appreciate a nice bit of foul-drawing deception. But it’s much less satisfying for, say, your team to win on an iffy five-second violation than with a buzzer-beating jumper. We want to see the ridiculous: behind-the-back passes, chasedown blocks, lay-ins that filter improbably through the trees. Everything else is an acquired taste, or worse than that, outright aggravating. The reason James Harden is inarguably one of the best five players alive but isn’t widely beloved is that, among other talents, he’s an expert at navigating the rules. There are games where he makes numerous moves for the sole purpose of getting fouled—as opposed to, y’know, hitting a floater or disappearing a defender. He hops all over the place on step-back jumpers, knowing he won’t get whistled for it. Craftiness has its limits, in terms of its capacity to thrill us. At some point it begins to feel like cheap manipulation.
Mitchell understands this frustration first-hand. He complained about Harden’s ref-dependent game as the Jazz were getting overwhelmed by the Rockets in the Western Conference Semis. And he obviously grasps it implicitly, because he plays so lionheartedly, testing the limits of his creativity around the rim and testing his form from deep. He’s beautifully unsubtle, recalling a young Dame Lillard or Kyrie Irving, in his certainty that he can get the job done. I don’t care that I’m young. Get out of my way. This killer instinct is one he should follow, because he has the tools to do special things with it. He could also grow into an annoying ombudsman of a player: a Chris Paul or C.J. McCollum type, somebody who’s fun to watch but entirely exhausting in all other respects.
One thing that stood out during Mitchell’s Rookie of the Year campaign was that he put so much effort into disputing Ben Simmons’s eligibility that he mostly neglected to make the only argument that matters in sports: I’m better. We see this sort of thing all the time, where athletes’ estimations of themselves far outpace their actual standing within the game. Russ Westbrook thinks he’s the best player in the world, and he’s not particularly close to being that. Marcus Smart shoots three-pointers like he’s confusing himself with Steph Curry. But that delusion is charming, in its way, and it’s understandable. You don’t even make it to the end of an NBA bench without some self-confidence, and if you’re out there on the court, you might as well try to prove that everybody is underestimating you. Russ’s approach is worthy of criticism, but also a degree of respect.
Litigiousness, on the other hand, deserves only contempt. It’s not what we want from athletes. We want them to impress and surprise us, to be maybe more optimistic than is reasonable, and to deliver on it. Donovan Mitchell’s amply capable of that. He’s similarly capable of leaving last year’s wearying grievances behind and taking his game to new heights. There’s an outside chance he really will best Ben Simmons, in the long run, but he’s going to have to actually make it happen. Nobody’s going to grant him greatness on a technicality.
More 2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic