SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell was trapped.
Two defenders had swarmed around him, and it looked like he had nowhere to go. But there was no panic. He calmly pivoted to his right, searching for an opening, and threw a wrap-around, look-away pass to Rudy Gobert under the basket. Gobert finished the play as Mitchell walked away with a bit of pep in his step.
Sometimes All-Stars can even impress themselves.
Mitchell isn’t afraid to admit that it’s been a long few months. He had to go into isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus in March; he then faced reports of tension between he and fellow Jazz star Gobert; and he took a stand for social justice, drawing ire from a portion of the fan base who once shouted his praises.
"I think the biggest thing, it's allowed me a sense of maturity; it's allowed you to grow," Mitchell said of the break.
A chance to grow and a chance to breathe. Since joining the NBA, Mitchell has been going nonstop. If it wasn’t the season full of games, interviews and appearances, it was the summer with shoe tours, playing for the United States at the World Cup and reaching out to fans.
Mitchell is young, marketable and accommodating. He moves from one opportunity to the next with his bright smile on his face. The hiatus forced him to finally slow down.
He spent much of the time away at his mother’s home in Connecticut. He lifted the limited weights that he had and took shots on the concrete slab in his backyard. For conditioning, he did bike exercises and ran sprints at the park down the street. He worked with what he had, but the modest accommodations gave him a chance to take a step back — discovering a new part of himself in the process.
"I think it's been a time for me to really just find myself in a way that I never really found because I've been on the move for so long," Mitchell said.
During the break, it was rare that a day went by without Jazz coach Quin Snyder speaking with Mitchell. The third-year All-Star has a curious and tireless mind. He leaps out of his comfort zone like performing one of his high-flying dunks. That’s something the Jazz found out quickly. In his rookie year, he’d learn a new technique — a goofy-foot finish or a type of Euro step — and the next day he was putting it into games; it's a rare ability.
So, yes, Mitchell was talking to Snyder about the game, about his play, about the team; but that wasn’t all. The two chatted about life, about society, about the problems facing the world.
"Donovan's a very thoughtful person," Snyder said.
On June 19, to honor the Juneteenth holiday, Mitchell made a post on Instagram that he likely didn’t think was too controversial. It was an image that said, "free-ish; since 1865" — the "ish" referencing how many Black people still experience inequality. Through seas of comments, the negative ones always seem to pop out more. And, unfortunately, there were plenty that stood out. Mitchell was called delusional and foolish, while others pointed to his fame and riches as reasons to call the post irrelevant and untruthful.
In that, Mitchell found more reasons to stand up for what he believed was right. He called out the portions of the fan base and wanted Utah — a state he has repeatedly said he loves living and playing in — to be a better, more understanding place.
"I spoke out on it because I play here and I live here. And I want it to be known that I’m going to continue to use my platform and use my voice that I have because I feel like that’s what’s necessary," Mitchell said.
Mitchell, the kid — the fun-loving prankster Jazz fans have come to know over the last three years — is still there. But the thoughtful person that Snyder has come to know is now being seen by more people.
"You're seeing a young man who isn't as young as he was last year and is growing and will continue to do that," Snyder said. "And I'm just excited that he's on my team and I get a chance to coach him."
Especially because Mitchell didn't just grow as a person over the break. He grew as a basketball player, too.
In a recent scrimmage, Mitchell hesitates at the free-throw line. With a defender back-peddling, he has an open look at a floater — a shot he’s been known to take — but he had no intention to shoot. His tiny delay is to wait for Gobert to come running down the lane. Mitchell keeps the dribble drawing the defender away from the basket and then lobbing it up for Gobert to slam home an easy dunk.
Later, he does the same thing, coming around a Gobert screen, freeing himself up for what would be an open mid-range look. But he bypasses that, dribbling to the rim before lofting it up for another easy Gobert bucket.
These were the plays that Mitchell didn't always make — choosing to look for his own shot instead of the best play. He had three assists to Gobert during Saturday's scrimmage (a number the duo has hit just once during the regular season), and then he added four more on Monday.
Mitchell didn’t have access to a court for much of the forced break in the season, but he had access to a video. He watched, he examined and put a real emphasis on the reads he was missing. He used the break as a quasi-offseason — he wanted to become a more willing passer and he had figured out how to do just that.
The solution? Slow down.
"I think the fact that he can both get the three, get in the lane, he's got a mid-range game and is able to pass the ball to guys on the perimeter, and also make interior passes," Snyder said. “I think his patience just continues to let him make reads, and he's able to do that he can make a lot of plays. He's a creator and a playmaker."