SALT LAKE CITY — You’ve heard all the stats by now: the two 50-point playoff games, leading the first round in scoring, joining lists that only include greats.
Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell had an all-time individual playoff series performance against the Denver Nuggets. That just made the Game 7 loss all the more painful.
Moments after a somber walk away from the court, Mitchell sat in front of a camera. With red, tear-stained eyes, he made a proclamation: “This is just the beginning, man. This is just the beginning. And I'm ready to go hoop again right now. I think we all are. This is just the beginning.”
The beginning for him, and the beginning for his team.
Utah is expected to sign Mitchell to a maximum contract extension as soon as free agency begins in October (a report from Yahoo Sports on Wednesday confirmed as much). If there were any doubts about his ability to be a max player, he answered them in the first-round series.
You don’t drop 36.3 points per game in the playoffs by accident, and you don’t score 14 straight in a Game 7 if you’re not up for the moment. There will be no debate, no squabbling: Mitchell will get every dime the Jazz can throw at him.
He’s worth it at his current level. But there’s a strong belief in the Jazz organization — from the executives to the coaches to the players — that Mitchell will only continue to improve.
It's likely Tuesday’s defeat will only help in that process.
See, Mitchell allows failure to marinate and to sink in. His playoff explosion this season can be traced back to April 2019. That’s when Mitchell shot 4 for 22 from the field and 0 for 9 from 3 in an elimination game as the Jazz bowed out in Game 5 to the Houston Rockets. He recalled that performance time and time again through both the offseason and the season as he worked and studied to get better. That game, as Mitchell said, “fueled everything."
Tuesday’s Game 7 will be his new motivating force. It’ll drive his conditioning in the offseason (Mitchell tired late on Tuesday); it’ll drive his defensive work (he wants to be just as dominant on that end); it’ll be the thing driving everything. Because after his first-round series, he knows the work pays off.
“I can't lie to you, I kind of was surprised a little of the things that I've done and accomplished,” Mitchell said of his performance in the series. “But there's nothing I haven't worked on. There were criticisms of what I could do on the offensive and defensive end, and I feel like I've took a step in that right direction. This isn't the last of it. This is me scratching the surface.
“I know what I can do; I know what I worked for. I know how hard I work, and I know how hard this team has worked, And this won't be the end of it, and that's really what's fueling me — because this ain't the end.”
Mitchell was already on his way to becoming a household name when he first met future Jazz teammate Jordan Clarkson. It was during his rookie year and he had won the Slam Dunk contest and was leading the Jazz on a tear toward the postseason. That had caught Clarkson’s eye.
“I ran into him, I think it was in L.A., and I just told him that I respect him for everything, how he’s led the team,” Clarkson said.
That was from afar. Clarkson had no idea how impressed he’d be seeing everything from up close.
“Being on the court with him, talking to him, it’s just amazing,” Clarkson said. “Especially how young he is. The league’s in great hands. That’s a star player right there, a star guard that I’m going to love watching. I love playing alongside him as well, being a friend, a teammate. Being able to be around him, it was a great experience. I’m happy to see his career and how it’s all filling out for him.”
To Clarkson, this series will just be a small part of the story of Donovan Mitchell. There will be more Game 7s, more big games, and more elite playoff performances. This is just part of Mitchell's growth; just a step in his journey — a journey Clarkson sees including extreme heights.
“He’s going to go on and lead a team to hopefully a championship one day,” Clarkson said. “He’s just done a great job as a leader; and him being emotional and seeing all that, that’s because you have big games, you put it all out there on the line, laid it out there every time we played. He stuck with us and stayed with us and it’s the best sign I’ve seen as a leader.”