Donovan Mitchell may have left school to pursue his NBA dream last summer, but never has his education, his matriculation been more intense than it’s been over the past week. Especially since he started taking a class in Rockets science.
Every student, every postdoctoral fellow hits the wall in some period of some kind, sooner or later. It’s all part of the mind-stretching process, described crassly among the less erudite as, “No pain, no gain.”
This one’s taken Mitchell to the edge of his capabilities to comprehend, and that’s saying something for the Jazz’s valedictorian of 2017-18.
He’s been pushed by a host of professors, some of whom want him to succeed and some who want him to fail. The latter being pros — professors Paul and Harden — who may have acknowledged in the past how good Mitchell is and can be, even that he would get their vote for SCLOY, which as everyone knows stands for Summa Cum Laude of the Year, but who at this juncture are throwing up as much flak and resistance as possible. (Insert joke here about how Ben Simmons never attended class at LSU.)
And Mitchell is fully aware.
He’s alternately talked about his troubles, after Game 3 calling his shot selection and his decision-making “terrible,” saying it would have been better if he hadn’t shown up at all, and acknowledged having to explore his own limitations, scarce though they normally are.
There have been terrific moments, too, such as his memorable and rousing put-back dunk that helped the Jazz win Game 2 in Houston, a signature, singular play. And times when his spin moves to the basket have provided the Jazz with scoring over stretches where points were tough to come by.
But his initial report card does have some glaring marks on it. In the four games since the Houston series started, Mitchell is shooting 32.5 percent, and just 24 percent from deep. More than a few of those attempts, as he pointed out, being bad ones. He’s also fumbled the ball (13 turnovers) and missed passes (21 assists) a player of his quality should have made.
After the Jazz’s loss in Game 4, Mitchell seemed more patient with himself and his learning curve, having made just 8 of 24 shots, but also having provided his team with 25 points and direction that it otherwise would have lacked.
“I’m definitely getting better,” he said.
All of which was complimented by the instructor — Quin Snyder — who has played a larger role in Mitchell’s development than anyone. Snyder noted the steepness of the climb his 21-year-old rookie has faced in the Rockets’ series, given that Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio has been unable to go, vexed by a hamstring injury suffered against Oklahoma City in the playoffs’ first round.
Not only has Rubio’s absence robbed Mitchell of his primary setup man, it’s caused him to have to, on many possessions, run the Jazz attack. Not only run that attack, but run it against one of the NBA’s all-time greats in Chris Paul.
“What Donovan’s trying to do right now is, he’s a rookie that’s led us in scoring, he’s been our primary offensive option the entire year,” Snyder said. “And now he’s being asked to play point guard against the best team in the league. After the last game, Donovan had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He felt like he let the team down and didn’t play well and this is part of his growth as a player. It’s happening in the playoffs.”
Snyder praised Mitchell’s performance in Game 4.
“I could not be more satisfied with the way he responded from his game the other night. And it didn’t come easy. It’s not like at the beginning of the game, everything just opened up for him. It wasn’t easy. The fact that he kept going at it, kept competing. The thing about the other night, we felt, and that I talked to him about, is it’s OK. There are going to be times when you don’t have good offensive games, when you’re going to miss or somebody’s going to guard you a certain way or it’s not going to be your night. That’s when you can continue to do other things that will help your team. We saw that from him [in Game 4], whether it was an assist or a steal or going after a defensive rebound. You could feel him in different aspects of the game.”
As for the difficulty of the class in which Mitchell finds himself, Snyder, a man with his own advanced degrees, matter-of-factly said: “Houston’s just that good.”
When Mitchell left the floor with 52 seconds to play on Sunday night, the Jazz possibly having played their final home game of the season, facing elimination in Houston on Tuesday, the fans gave him a standing O. They have seen enough of the terrific, not the terrible, to know the student is well on his way to mastering whatever it is that comes next.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.