SALT LAKE CITY — When USA Basketball announced its 20-man training camp roster in June, Donovan Mitchell looked like he’d have a tough path to making the World Cup team.
The roster was full of experienced guards in James Harden, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum, Eric Gordon, Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry. Mitchell, it seemed, would have to wait his turn.
That turn now appears to be coming sooner than many expected.
The USA began training camp Monday with Mitchell not just looking like a near-lock to make the roster, but as a player that could potentially be one of the team’s stars at next month’s tournament in China.
Harden, Beal, Lillard, McCollum and Gordon all decided to decline an invitation, with most giving the reason of wanting to focus on the upcoming NBA season and get some rest. And with the Olympics happening next summer, some players weren’t ready to commit, understandably so, to two consecutive busy offseasons.
That all meant that entering Monday’s first day of camp in Las Vegas, the USA guard line consisted of Lowry, who is recovering from a thumb injury, Walker, Mitchell and Marcus Smart, with De’Aaron Fox and Trae Young possibly challenging for a roster spot from the USA Select Team.
Of the 11 Americans who were named to All-NBA teams last season, only Walker is in camp. That means there is an opportunity for plenty of young players to not only make the team, to not only play, but to be a key piece for the United States in China.
Mitchell may be the likeliest young player to break through as an American star.
Last offseason was tough for the young Jazz guard. Mitchell injured his foot late in Utah’s final playoff game in 2018, which set him back months. He had to use a walking boot to begin the offseason and couldn’t start working out again until July. The Jazz even attributed his early-season struggles last year to both the short offseason and the lingering effects of the injury.
“If I had to say myself, I only had a really good few months,” Mitchell said during his end-of-season media availability in April. “That’s me talking to myself, but I think there’s a lot that I can improve on; and I appreciate this season in so many ways because through all the struggles I went through, through all the struggles we went through as a team, we had 50 wins and were in the fifth seed. … This summer is a big summer for not just me, but for all of us.”
Mitchell averaged 23.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 43.2% from the field and 36.2% from beyond the arc last season. But, as he pointed out, he didn’t really get going until January.
He’s not a finished product; he knows that. So while the risk of injury playing internationally is real, so is the chance to improve playing for USA head coach Gregg Popovich and along some of the bright young talent in the game.
One of the first pictures to come out of Monday's practice was of players surrounding and listening to Popovich. In the center was Mitchell, his eyes staring studiously at Popovich. It was a face of pure focus.
Mitchell is no longer itching to get back on the court — he’s on it, and will likely soon be on a world stage. It’s a stark contrast to last summer.
“Happy to be here,” Mitchell said in a video posted by USA Basketball. “Happy to be a part of this. This is my first USA experience. I’m excited, excited to see where it takes me.”
China? A world title? A world star?
Success at the international level is largely dictated on guard play. The more dynamic your guards are, the better your chances will be at going deep in the tournament. And while this projects to be one of the weaker USA teams in years, the Americans will still have Walker, Lowry and Mitchell.
Mitchell is a dynamic guard, capable of playing both backcourt positions and putting immense pressure on defenses with his scoring ability.
He’s not lacking confidence, either.
Mitchell debuted a special red, white and blue colorway of his DON Issue #1 shoes on Monday at the first practice. You don’t create a special version of a shoe if you don’t think you’re gonna play a large part.