Donovan Mitchell arrived on Louisville’s campus in 2015 as one of the top 30 prospects in his high school class, but knowing he needed to improve his jumper to make it to the NBA. He played hard. He was a great athlete. “But he had a line-drive shot,” former Louisville coach Rick Pitino says.
Mitchell hit 25 percent of his 3s and 75 percent of his free throws as a freshman. Even when he made shots, they rattled around the rim. Pitino told Mitchell that all great shooters have high arcs on their shots. It’s simple geometry: When the ball approaches the rim from a higher angle, there’s more room for it to fall through. With a flat shot, the ball comes in from a lower angle, creating a tighter area for the ball to go through. Pitino showed Mitchell side-by-side video comparing the trajectory of his shot to the trajectories of Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, both of whom shoot moon balls that fly toward the ceiling after leaving their fingertips.
“My base was good. I had good form. I had good mechanics,” Mitchell says. “But my shot was flat.”
Pitino put him on a practice plan using a basketball shooting machine that rebounds and passes the ball back to you. A large net surrounds the rim, which forces players to put arc on their shot. Pitino told him to start shooting 15 feet away from the rim before stepping out deeper. Every single night, after classes and practice, Mitchell took jumper after jumper after jumper. He’d focus on the angle of his arms, the flex of his wrist, and how the ball felt coming off his fingers. Slowly but surely, he began stepping farther away from the rim, eventually making his way behind the 3-point line.
“It took a while but he got it,” Pitino says. As a sophomore, Mitchell improved to 35.4 percent from 3 and 80.6 percent from the line. For the first time since he was an underclassman in high school, he led his team in points, averaging 15.6 per game. Mitchell progressed enough to declare for the 2017 NBA draft. He rose up the rankings during the predraft process and was selected 13th by the Utah Jazz.
Mitchell was thrown into a lead role following the sudden departure of Gordon Hayward, who left for the Boston Celtics in free agency weeks after the draft. Though he thrived early, finishing a close second for 2018 Rookie of the Year, Mitchell was dubbed inconsistent. But he was merely learning. This season, he averaged a career-high 26 points and shot 39 percent on nine attempts per game from 3. Over his past 15 playoff games, he’s been even better, averaging 35 points while making 47 percent of his 10 attempts a game from 3. At 24 years old, Mitchell has become one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers.
“It opens up the floor,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder says about Mitchell’s shooting ability. “We’ve had success being aggressive shooting the ball and getting to the rim. That’s who we are.”
Mitchell is unrecognizable compared to the player he was when Pitino recruited him at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire and the player he was when the Jazz scouted him at Louisville. It’s his recognition of his weaknesses and his desire to turn them into strengths that’s gotten him to this point, leading the Jazz to the NBA’s best record and their best chance at an NBA Finals in years. If the past is any indication of the future, this could be only the beginning of Mitchell’s emergence.
One of Mitchell’s focuses in preparation for this season was becoming even more like Steph and Dame. Mitchell had established himself as a threat from 3 over his first three seasons; now, he wanted to extend his range even farther.
“Where those guys shoot from way out, you gotta pick them up at half court,” Mitchell says. “It was just about creating a little bit of an advantage. It’s a longer closeout. It also creates more opportunities for my teammates to have driving lanes. If I’m farther out, they gotta come with me. And if they do that, I can get by them to get to the rim. It helps in different ways.”
Deep-range shooting strains a defense by forcing it to cover more ground away from the rim, and having to worry about a scorer every moment—whether they have the ball in their hands or not—can drain the defense’s energy.
So just like he did years ago to get a high arc, Mitchell practiced deeper 3s at multiple gyms over the offseason. “You could feel an All-Star mentality to his approach,” says Andrew Moran of Miami Hoop School, a training academy based in South Florida. “He knows what he’s great at. He knows where his best shots are. And he knew what he wanted to work on.”
Regardless of where Mitchell trained and who he was with, there was a heavy emphasis on the pick-and-roll. Trainers would use sticks to make themselves longer than they were to simulate what an NBA defense might feel like. They’d pressure and trap him in pick-and-rolls, forcing him to pass or make a shot under duress. It paid dividends.
Mitchell is attempting 2.8 shots per game from 3 feet behind the line and he’s hit 39 percent of them. That’s up from 1.3 shots and 27.7 percent over his first three seasons, including the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum. Though he doesn’t take as many deep 3s as Lillard (5.7 per game) or Curry (4.7), he now attempts the eighth most in the league from 27-plus feet.
Beyond any drills or tweaks to his form, Mitchell says the key to improving his range has been working on his body. “Building confidence is always a big thing,” Mitchell says. “But on top of that, it’s building the base. I’ve continued to strengthen my lower half.”
Mitchell didn’t start lifting seriously until his first season in the NBA. As his body improved, so did his game. But he’d still find himself tired by the end of the season. Last year, he asked mentors Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, future Hall of Famers who have played over 30 seasons between them, for guidance on how to take his training as seriously as possible. Wade and Paul recommended David Alexander, who runs a gym called DBC Fitness in Miami.
The staff at DBC Fitness conducts a full orthopedic assessment, with about 50 separate measurements, to find weaker areas in the body. Then they put a plan in place. Tests revealed Mitchell could improve the curvature of his spine, his dorsiflexion (bending the ankle to move the foot toward the shin), and his knee flexion. The latter was the big one: He was overusing his quads, leading to fatigue as the season wore on. Mitchell focused on a series of exercises to strengthen his hamstrings and glutes while improving the biomechanics of his steps to alleviate the load on his quads, instead balancing it with his hips. “He was basically driving a car with bald tires,” Alexander says. “Putting brand-new wheels can make every part function the way it’s supposed to.”
No matter what you do, a check engine light can pop up, though. Mitchell turned his ankle in April and was out until the second game of Utah’s first-round series against the Grizzlies. Alexander began working full time again with Mitchell while he was sidelined, rehabbing to get him back to optimal shape before his return, in coordination with a Jazz strength and conditioning program led by Isaiah Wright and Jasper Bibbs.
“People have forgotten the power of rest. That’s our secret recipe,” Alexander says. When determining what a day’s work might look like for Mitchell, they factor in everything from the amount of minutes he logged in the prior game to whether it’s a travel day to the amount of sleep he receives. Mitchell works as hard as he always has; every day is just different now. No longer does he wear himself out by overdoing physical work. On some days, he’ll spend hours on the court. Others are spent entirely on recovery, chilling at home playing Call of Duty: Warzone or undertaking a long film session. He might get in a long gym session, focusing on hamstring curls, leg presses, or squats to keep his lower body in prime condition. It all depends on what the day demands, but he’s more calculated about when he does what.
“Being the best player that I can be each day sometimes requires doing a lot physically and sometimes it’s doing nothing,” Mitchell says. “It’s working hard and working smart at the same time.”
All of the work Mitchell has put into his game and his body has culminated in his best postseason yet. With Mike Conley sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Mitchell has been forced to put the top-seeded Jazz on his back. He’s the team’s focal point, frequently coming off screens and handoffs to score while running the majority of their pick-and-rolls.
Teams will drop into the paint in the pick-and-roll to prevent a pass inside to Rudy Gobert, who broke the dunk record during the 2018-19 season. It’s a risk, though, since players like Mitchell can just shoot. If he drives into the paint, he’s surrounded by teammates who can also launch 3s. “We want to try 50 3s in a game. We want to be able to be that team,” Mitchell says. The Jazz came close, averaging 43 attempts per game from 3 and 16.7 made 3s per game, a league record.
“Every game, it’s a conundrum,” Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen says. “Defenses have to decide if they’re gonna stay back and take away a lob, or do they take away a 3 off the pick-and-roll.”
Teams will also switch screens against Mitchell so that Gobert, or whoever sets the screen, doesn’t have an easy opportunity. But in the second round the Jazz have scored an outstanding 1.3 points per chance when the Clippers switch. On the season, Mitchell has scored 1.1 points per isolation, one of the highest marks in the league, according to Second Spectrum. He has the ability to attack the paint, where he can finish with crafty layups, toss up a floater, or kick out a pass to a teammate. He can get into an elbow pull-up jumper. Or he can launch from deep.
Being able to launch deep 3s like the league’s best stars is a cheat code against any defense. It’s also an invitation for defenses to be as aggressive as possible to get the ball out of your hands.
The Clippers have begun pressuring Mitchell to force him to pass. Through four games, the Clippers have blitzed Mitchell’s pick-and-rolls with Gobert as the screener 13 times. During the regular season, opponents did it just 14 times, according to Second Spectrum. The Clippers are trying to stop both of them by sending two players toward Mitchell, then rotating into the paint to contain Gobert.
The Jazz have countered by setting screens for Mitchell from about 1.5 feet deeper than they did during the season, according to Second Spectrum. Setting the screen from higher gives Mitchell more space to operate and find teammates with a pass. The defense has no answer for him, because he can beat any scheme. So the goal is to get the ball out of his hands.
Having a secondary shot creator like Conley on the court is important for Mitchell since he’s also so potent off the catch. The Jazz have him run off screens and handoffs, providing him other avenues to score. But with Conley out for every game against the Clippers so far, Mitchell has been presented with a new challenge, and another opportunity to find ways to improve.
“You have to embrace the uncertainty. You have to go out there and try to be the best person you can be. But at times, it will be uncomfortable,” Mitchell says. “Going into every day trying to be the best player I can be for my team will allow us to achieve our goals.”
Mitchell works hard to make his goals a reality, and with team success, individual success often follows. He made the All-Star team for the second year in a row, though an All-NBA selection has so far eluded him. But he doesn’t let himself look ahead, whether it be to the next series or the MVP trophy.
“When you start to look so far into the future, you lose what’s right in front of you,” Mitchell says. “To be honest with you, losing to the Nuggets really, really showed me that. You kinda look ahead, thinking you have it in the bag, and you look past an opponent. It’s not necessarily intentional, but your mind does wander. The loss taught me to stay straight and narrow, locked in on what’s in front of me.”
The Jazz have collectively matched his focus all season, producing consistent results. Starting on January 27, Utah held the best record in the league for 104 of 109 days. But after going up 2-0 in the second round, with Mitchell reeling off games of 45 and 37 points, the Jazz now find themselves tied with the Clippers heading into Game 5. It’ll be Mitchell’s biggest test to date.
Whatever happens, Mitchell won’t stop looking for ways to get better. He’ll continue extending his range, so he can start taking logo 3s with ease. He’ll focus on his playmaking, so he can shred defenses that force him to pass. He’ll display a curiosity and an openness, working with his coaches and trainers, to find ways to get better.
Mitchell’s game has changed, but his motor has not. “Donovan is one of the most intelligent athletes I’ve ever coached,” Pitino says. “He’s just a young man who’s got it together and puts in the work.”
All the unseen hours of toil have helped him propel the Jazz into the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, and now has the team on the precipice of the franchise’s second Western Conference finals since the days of Stockton and Malone. But he wants more. “The end goal is being a champion,” Mitchell says. “But there’s a lot of work to be done.”