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SALT LAKE CITY — Sooner than expected, due to unusual circumstances, the rapid progression of Donovan Mitchell is right on schedule.
Since the NBA resumed competition known as the bubble in Orlando, Florida, the burgeoning Utah Jazz star’s play has been nothing short of sensational. The zenith for Mitchell individually was on full display during the first game of the playoffs, when he scored 57 points in the overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets to rank third behind Michael Jordan (63) and Elgin Baylor (61) for highest total points in a postseason game.
Mitchell followed up his incredible performance by scoring 30 points in Utah’s 19-point win over Denver in the second game. After posting only 6 points in the first half, Mitchell poured in 21 points when the Jazz pulled away in a 43-point third quarter.
Finding his way with a willingness to take on social issues, Mitchell has turned off some fans with his activism. Those refusing to follow the team due to Mitchell’s and the NBA’s political stances are missing the best Jazz player since John Stockton and Karl Malone were in their respective primes.
"He’s a hell of a player," Denver coach Mike Malone said after witnessing Mitchell’s Game 1 explosion.
Technically, declaring for the draft in 2017 after two seasons at Louisville, Mitchell is finishing his third year in the league. But Kenny Smith, former NBA champion with the Houston Rockets and longtime broadcaster on TNT, believes the four-month interruption to the season due to the coronavirus has hastened the development of several younger players.
Think of the break, Smith said during an interview with The Zone Sports Network, as the traditional offseason during the summer, which is a time most players work on all aspects of their games. In addition, they also have time to study more film and work on the mental parts.
"You have been off for three or four months, so the guys come back with knowledge of what they needed to work on," Smith said. "It’s like being off for the summer and you’re coming into the next year of your career."
If Mitchell’s recent performance is any indication, anticipation for the 2020-21 season will be riding high for the Jazz. In the seven games he’s played at least 30 minutes since the restart, Mitchell has scored at least 30 points in four of them.
Besides the prolific scoring, Mitchell clearly assumed the role of team leader. High praise is coming his way.
"This is Donovan’s fourth year. Think of it as that," Smith said. "This is how he would have come back in 2020-21. I’m surprised, but not, because he is the new Dwayne Wade. He is the 2020-21 version of Dwayne Wade."
For those short on memory, any comparison to Wade is welcome news. The retired Hall of Fame lock won three NBA championships with the Miami Heat, averaging 22 points, 5.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds over 15 seasons.
Wade entered the league at age 22, one year older than when Mitchell was a rookie, and by his third season averaged 27.2 points a game. He topped out at a league-leading 30.2 points a game at age 27.
Mitchell burst on the scene as a rookie, averaging 20.5 points a game. This past season his scoring average increased to 24 points, setting the stage for a phenomenal run two games into the postseason.
Knowing that he would be the focus of Denver’s attention in the second game, Mitchell allowed his teammates to flourish in the first half, which ended with the Jazz enjoying a 13-point lead. He then took over in the third quarter to bury the Nuggets as the Jazz set a franchise record for most points in a quarter in the playoffs.
Afterward, he took any personal accolades in stride, preferring to highlight the contributions of his teammates in building the lead at halftime. Coach Quin Snyder credited Mitchell for his willingness to make the right play.
"He cares about his teammates," Snyder said. "That, for him, trumps any individual performance."