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Overlooked no more, Donovan Mitchell ready for his time in All-Star spotlight

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Donovan Mitchell has been getting plenty of advice from teammates since he was named to the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest.

Problem is most of it was sarcastic.

“A lot of sarcastic advice, especially from Joe Ingles, telling me what he thinks I should do,” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “I watched his highlights from Australia. I don’t think he could jump over a phone book.”

Can Ingles even dunk?

“He can, he’s got one on the season,” Mitchel said, sarcastically defending his teammate. “We all pretty much jumped out of our seats like we were celebrating winning the Finals.”

Donovan Mitchell loves being one of the guys, joking around with teammates, but things are about to change for him. His star is about to get a lot brighter — Mitchell is going to be in the NBA’s spotlight during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles this Friday and Saturday.

Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to the leader in the Rookie of the Year race averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a night for Utah. That doesn’t mean casual fans know who he is. Not a lot of people tune in to see the Jazz play — they don’t get on national television much. Much like his team, Mitchell has flown a bit under the radar.

Not anymore. The Jazz are on an 11-game win streak led by Mitchell, who will be showcased All-Star Weekend in Saturday’s Dunk Contest and Friday’s Mountain Dew Kickstarter Rising Stars challenge. The high-flying dunks he was throwing down when not many were tuned in will be in Saturday’s brightest spotlight.

One year ago he remembers watching the Rising Stars and Dunk Contest in his dorm room at Louisville.

“So it’s kind of cool to be part of this game,” Mitchell said.

He’s also partnered with Mountain Dew Kickstarter to do a number of events around Los Angeles that weekend — raising his profile even further. Letting people see the funny, relatable guy behind the numbers and Utah hype. He felt it was a natural fit.

“One thing I don’t tell a lot of people, I used to drink Mountain Dew at Louisville, every day before practice,” Mitchell confessed. “It was my ritual… I used to drink it with a bacon and egg bagel. That was my morning, every morning at Louisville.”

The Utah Jazz training staff put a stop to that habit, but he still loves the drink.

Last June’s draft has turned out to be loaded and deep, but Mitchell’s breakout season has fans of 12 other teams saying “how did we pass on this guy?” Mitchell kind of expected it.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell said. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino, it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell mostly played the two-guard at Louisville, but last season when Cardinal point guard Quentin Snider got hurt, Pitino handed Mitchell the keys to the offense — and he turned heads by dominating.

“I think the biggest thing was just having confidence in myself,” Mitchell said of the stretch that turned the heads of some scouts — particularly the ones in Utah. “Obviously, when our starting point guard got hurt I played a lot of minutes at the one for nine to 10 games. Being 6’3”, you’re going to have to be a one in this league, and you have to defend ones.

“When NBA teams were looking at me, I don’t think the problem was the defensive end, they wondered if I could handle one, running the team, getting guys in the right spot. There was a point in time where, for myself, I didn’t know if I could do that in the NBA. The fact that (Jazz) Coach (Quin) Snyder has put the ball in my hands, and having a guy like Ricky Rubio, who is right next to me in the locker room, helping me every day has helped this transition. We watch film relentlessly, we work out relentlessly, I think that really helped me.”

Mitchell has proven he can be the guy in the spotlight — but again it was an injury that gave him a chance. When Rubio was injured earlier this season, Snyder gave him the keys to the offense. Mitchell had worked to get his efficiency up, and when given a chance he was ready and never looked back.

Back in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. Like a lot of rookies he looked overwhelmed. However, no rookie has made the leaps in efficiency that Mitchell has this season — by December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1. Those numbers have come back to earth a little, but when the game is on the line during Utah’s current 11-game win streak that has vaulted them back into the playoff picture in the West, the ball is in Mitchell’s hands. He owned the end of a recent game against the Spurs.

Mitchell credits his teammates and a lot of hard work — from the film room to the weight room — for his quickly improved efficiency.

“I can watch (video of) Kyrie (Irving) finish off one foot. Obviously, I’m a two-foot jumper, I think that’s why my efficiency was a little bit down in college,” Mitchell said of changing how he left the floor on jumps. “Being able to finish off one foot — same foot, same hand, like non-traditional finishes — has helped me a lot. Finishing through contact, getting on a lifting regimen — I didn’t really lift much in college, I was more focused on losing weight — and just being able to work on my balance. There’s so many little things off the court, in training and in the weight room, that have helped me, and working on finishing around the rim.”

Mitchell watches film with and works out with Rubio a lot. Rodney Hood — traded at the deadline to Cleveland — also was a confidant.

“Rodney Hood’s been instrumental in kind of mentoring me throughout this entire season,” Mitchell said. “We play the same position, obviously, and he’s been really, really helpful. It’s his career, and he has he has a really big, big role in Cleveland, and I’m really excited for him.”

Mitchell is going to get noticed this weekend, and he wants people to get to know him the person — not just as a guy who dunks.

“Outside of basketball, I’m a relatable guy, and I think partnering with Mountain Dew will allow people to see that,” Mitchell said. “I think I’m funny, I think I’m liked by people. So I’m going out there to show people how I am, my character off the court, how I handle myself, I’m not a jerk or a wiseguy or anything. I’m just relatable. Every kid I see I sign the autographs. Anything like that to show people how I am off the court and not the guy they kind of hear about but don’t really see.”

They’re about to see him now.

 

Doc Rivers says Paul George will be out for the first 10 games

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We are expecting not to see Paul George on the court with Kawhi Leonard in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform until November. But until this week, we didn’t have a good idea about when George could return over the course of the next month.

Speaking to reporters this week, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers let it slip that George could miss up to the first 10 games of the regular season. That would put George at a tentative return date of Nov. 13 against the Houston Rockets.

Via Twitter:

The Clippers are still expected to be one of the best teams in the NBA, and the real question heading into the first several weeks of the season will be how much they allow Leonard to sit out due to load management if George is not on the floor.

The real question in Los Angeles — on both sides of the hall at Staples Center — will be about health, and the Clippers know that it’s not how you start the season but how you finish. It seems likely they will wait until George is fully ready to return to action rather than rushing him back from dual shoulder surgery.

Kyle Kuzma reportedly cancelled plans to announce Chinese sponsorships

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Tensions are still high between the NBA and China, and both sides are hoping that things return to normal soon. Whether that’s possible is another thing altogether, particularly with how raw the response to the NBA has been by domestic fans concerned with the NBA sticking to its stated principles with regard to social justice.

This has affected not just the league, but players too. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were involved in an incident where an official shut down a legitimate question by a CNN reporter. Now it’s being reported that Los Angeles Lakers big man that Kyle Kuzma decided not to announce sponsorship deals with Chinese companies during his team’s visit to the continent this month.

Via Bill Oram:

Kuzma’s plans to announce additional sponsorship deals with Chinese companies were scrapped once the Lakers arrived on Tuesday and found themselves caught in the middle of a stalemate between the NBA and the Chinese government.

The whole story of what it was like to cover the trip in China as an American is worth reading by Oram. It’s an interesting look at the collision of politics, business, and the perception of sports as separate from those spheres.

Meanwhile, players and their management teams will need to think more carefully about the social perception of business deals both at home and abroad.

Facilitator Kawhi Leonard in Clippers opener could be glimpse into season

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

LOS ANGELES — You could see the impact almost immediately.

In his first minutes in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform last Thursday against Denver, Kawhi Lenoard drained a 14-foot midrange shot, stole a Gary Harris pass and turned that into a step-back three-pointer. Five points and a steal, all in 21 seconds.

More importantly for the Clippers, you could hear the impact almost immediately, too.

Leonard was talking a lot on defense, directing players and making his presence heard. That has been the case in team practices as well, according to people with the Clippers.

“He’s more verbal than you would ever know,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s more demanding in a very positive way. You have to do it right. I love that for our team.”

Questions abound about how Leonard — and Paul George, when he returns at some point likely in November — will fit in with an established Clippers roster and culture this season. The Clippers on paper may be title favorites, but how all those pieces come together remains one of the potential turning points of this NBA season.

The cultural fit seems smooth.

Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell brought an intense, hard-working, tough-to-play-against ethos to Los Angeles — but Leonard and George are lunchpail guys at heart. The Clippers’ new editions may be top five (certainly top eight) NBA talents, but they came into the league seen as “3&D” guys with some potential. They worked their way to the top, and that works for the Clippers.

On the court — at least in the slightly more than 10 minutes he played against Denver — the roster fit also seemed smooth.

Leonard had seven points on 3-of-6 shooting, but what stood out were the six assists. Leonard played a facilitator role. The first bucket of the game was a Leonard drive-and-kick to JaMychal Green in the corner, who hit the three. Leonard’s other assists were mostly to bigs Ivica Zubac and Harrell cutting to the basket.

Doc Rivers’ plan is to let Leonard feel how other teams are going to guard him, them adapt.

“Some teams will try to guard him one-on-one and he’ll probably try to score,” Rivers said. “Some teams, like Denver today, was up doubling him a lot, and he’ll be a facilitator…

“That’s what Kawhi does, it’s not like we’re recreating anything here. He’s a smart player. We’re going to try and keep as much shooting out with him, so teams can’t help. We will try to keep one roller on the floor with him, so that guy’s going down the middle of the paint and he’s creating help. We don’t have to make it that difficult.”

“He found me every time I was open,” Zubac said. “I really like playing with him.”

This was not by direct design so much as Leonard taking what the defense gave him.

“It just happened naturally,” Leonard said. “For the most part I cause a lot of attention, and I’m going to pass it to the open man. They was knocking down the shots tonight.”

We will see more of “facilitator Leonard” this season, and facilitator George as well. That Rivers wants to keep shooters on the court around his stars speaks to what a vital role Green and second-year guard Landry Shamet will play in Los Angeles — they are going to get opportunities and have to make the defense pay. (Shamet had 11 points against Denver and was 2-of-5 from three.)

Then off the bench, Los Angeles rolls out the best pick-and-roll combo in the league right now, Lou Williams and Harrell. Those two drove the Clippers offense last season, which is why both finished in the top three in Sixth Man of the Year voting, but this season there will be less pressure on them. They may not even close games, even though Williams is one of the better end-game bucket getters in the league.

The Clippers are that deep with talent.

Leonard showed already how he just makes the game easier for that talent. Zubac setting picks for Leonard and rolling, with shooters on the floor, is not going to be easy to stop — and that’s without George in the mix yet.

It’s more than the Xs and Os, however, Leonard and his rings just bring a gravitas to the Clippers they needed.

“He has a presence about him when he is on the floor, just feels a little different, how he carries himself, how he plays,” Shamet said.

That presence could carry the Clippers franchise to places it has never been before. It’s the impact the Clippers are ultimately hoping to see.

Cavaliers visit owner Dan Gilbert, recovering from stroke

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cleveland Cavaliers visited team owner Dan Gilbert, who is recovering at home after suffering a stroke in May.

After playing an exhibition game in Detroit on Friday night, the Cavs delayed their trip to Boston so they could spend time Saturday with the 57-year-old Gilbert.

He recently returned to his home in Franklin, Michigan, after staying at a rehabilitation facility in Illinois. Gilbert suffered a stroke on May 26 after being taken to a hospital by a family friend following stroke-like experiencing symptoms.

All of Cleveland’s players, along with first-year coach John Beilein and his staff, held a film session and short walk-through on a replica basketball court Gilbert has at his home before having lunch. Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer, spoke with many of the players.

The Cavs play their third preseason game Sunday against the Celtics.

Gilbert has owned Cleveland’s franchise since 2005.=