At 32-25, the Utah Jazz entered the All-Star break sixth in the Western Conference, two games out of fourth and two games ahead of ninth in the tightly contested race for playoff position.
Being in a playoff position at the break is never a bad thing, but for the Jazz only finding themselves in sixth is a bit disappointing given the expectations coming off of last year’s second-round playoff appearance in which they were arguably the best defensive squad in the league. To this point of the season, Utah is third in defensive rating, coming on strong of late after a rocky start to the season that coincided with an explosion in scoring around the league and one of the toughest schedules in the NBA in the first half of the season.
Of late, they seem to have found their stride on both ends of the floor, in part thanks to the schedule lightening up and also thanks to improved play from their second-year star Donovan Mitchell. Last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up struggled at the beginning of the year, but has looked improved since the calendar flipped to 2019, unsurprisingly sparking the best offensive stretch of Utah’s season.
Mitchell has been tasked with being the offensive leader of the Jazz, and as such he is personally going through the same transition Utah as a team is in the West. The Jazz are now a known commodity and the opposition respects them as a contender, preparing for them as such. Likewise, Mitchell is known to be the key for the Jazz offense, and defenses are scheming for him and trying to make it harder for him to score, to force those around him to beat them.
Uproxx spoke with Mitchell at the adidas lounge in Charlotte over All-Star weekend about those adjustments, both as a team and an individual, as well as the confidence he gets from his teammates entrusting him as a young player to be the proverbial man offensively, his upcoming signature sneaker, and more.
What have been your thoughts on this season? Obviously, a bit of a slow start but team started coming on strong of late.
I think the biggest thing for us was just adjusting to going from being the surprise to having everybody come for you. And that’s an adjustment period. I think it took longer than we anticipated but you know, we’re trending upward and we’re going in the right direction. So I think that’s what we’re hoping for.
For you personally, you’re now the guy offensively that teams are scheming for defensively. What are the things that you’ve had to adjust to?
Just like you said, Blitzes, teams send doubles some times. Being able to make better reads as far as being a passer. It’s not easy but I think it’s to be expected after the year I had and I think if I just continue to work at it, I think I’m in I’m good shape.
Becoming that guy so quickly, the offensive leader of the team, what did you feel was the support you got from your teammates. It’s rare for a whole team to kind of embrace a young guy like they did you. I mean, how much does it mean that the veteran guys on the team-
Yeah, without that, you know, I don’t think any of this is possible. I think it’s easy to do what I do when my teammates are encouraging me to do it. You know, whether I have a night where I shoot poorly, the next night my teammates saying for me to shoot it, you know? Any time I pass up an open shot, I’m hearing, “Shoot the ball.” You know and I think that gives me the confidence to go out there and make plays and as a young guy, you need that, you know? As far as ’cause last year especially, you know you’re coming in not really knowing what to expect and you hear your guys telling you like, “Look, shoot the ball. We need that.” So I think that’s one thing that really gives you that confidence to keep going.
Obviously scoring is going up around the league this year and there are the new freedom of movement rules. As a team that has such a strong defensive identity, what were the adjustments you had to make to that because it was kind of it seemed like it took some time for y’all to figure out how to defend at that level again?
Yeah, you go from the playoffs where you can grab and hold a little bit to kind of coming right in and it’s like you touching the wrong way and impede his progress, it’s a foul. It’s tough to get used to but I think as the season went on we started to adjust to it and not really overthink it too much. But I think we’re doing well defensively as a whole. I think we’ve gotten much better than we were at the beginning of the year.
For you personally, being a second year guy, I mean getting a signature sneaker is huge. What was that process like? The discussions you had with adidas about it and just what did it mean to you when they came to you?
It was a complete shock for me to have this happen. I think, for me, it was more so like they believe in me. My teammates and my coaches believe in my and my adidas family believes in me and I think that’s one thing that like really resonated in my head. That like, “Wow, this is special.”
You know, I don’t think many guys have really had [a signature sneaker], like there’s LeBron, in their second year. So for me, it just shows that I’ve got a lot of work to put in, and a lot more work to put in. And you know, I’ve got a lot to do. But I’m blessed to have the shoe and the process was amazing. When they come out, I’m really excited.
How much fun was it kind of going back and forth in the design process and the involvement that you had?
I’m not at that point yet where I’m like, “All right, the base has to be like this or …” So I kind of let them design it and I told them at the finished product like, “I don’t like this. I like this. This looks nice. This doesn’t look nice.” You know, that’s pretty much how I prefer doing things.
And they were perfectly OK with that. I think that was the easier approach. But you know, I think that was really … The shoe came out amazing. You know? And my guy, Jimmy, who was the one who created the shoe, I think it was really, really awesome and he did a great job.
What were the shoes that you wore last year and how much did you kind of ask for performance things-
I wore Dames last year. They were kind of similar in how they feel, comfort wise. I like shoes that you can just put on once and you feel comfortable, like you’ve been wearing them for a while. So it really made it easy for me.