MANILA, Philippines – After blowing away virtually everyone's expectations as a first-year player, Utah's Donovan Mitchell is ready to leave behind his exceptional rookie season and focus on what comes next for him and his team.
Selected 13th by the Denver Nuggets before getting traded to the Jazz, Mitchell averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game as a rookie. He led the Jazz to the playoffs, where he elevated his performance, norming 24.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game.
With him leading the charge, the Jazz claimed an upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. They went on to lose in five games to the Houston Rockets in the semifinals.
The 21-year-old Mitchell holds many fond memories from his rookie season. He particularly remembers how Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook went out of his way to talk to him following a playoff game.
"Growing up, Russell was my favorite player," he said Sunday during an appearance for Adidas at the Bonifacio Global City. "He stopped me and spoke to me, so that really went a long way for me, because he doesn't do that for everybody."
"So that was pretty special," said Mitchell, who was named to the All-Rookie First Team and is currently a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award.
Yet Mitchell knows that in order to move forward in his basketball career, he cannot dwell too much on the praise and the accolades that he received as a rookie. Indeed, when asked what his next step will be, he quickly answered: "Just forget about what happened last year, to be honest."
"Act like it never happened," said Mitchell, who starred for Louisville for two seasons before declaring for the 2017 NBA Rookie Draft. "Get back to the US, and my rookie season is over."
He intends to work on virtually every facet of his game during the offseason, but puts a premium on "getting better and better defensively."
"Taking less shots, for sure, better passes, less turnovers," said Mitchell, who averaged 2.7 turnovers per game last season. "Find ways to hit tougher shots, because now, you're at a point where there's no excuse."
Mitchell shot at a respectable rate last year, making 43.7% of his attempts, including 34% of his three-pointers. He is determined to be even better next season, however, especially as defenses begin to tighten up on him.
"I need to make the right reads, make the right plays," he stressed. "For me, I gotta be able to become 10 times better than I was last year."
As serious as he is about improving as a player, however, Mitchell is also not losing sight of what matters – his enjoyment and love of the game. In his brief visit to Manila, the Utah star repeatedly stressed the importance of having fun while playing the game.
"I had fun throughout the entire year, but we had a tight playoff race for about a month, and I probably slept for four hours per night for a month," he revealed. "I was so stressed."
This had an adverse effect on his performance, he said. "I stopped shooting well, and I forced a lot of things," he admitted.
But in rediscovering the fun in the game, Mitchell also returned to his explosive ways, culminating in a historic 38-point output in Game 6 of their series against the Thunder.
"Just have fun, and understand that mistakes are part of it," said Mitchell. "At the end of the day, it's just basketball. So go out there and have fun, and act like you belong."
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