SALT LAKE CITY — In high school, Donovan Mitchell broke his wrist at the worst time. Just as basketball players around him were getting ranked and hyped up in the AAU circuit, he was constrained to the sideline. He didn't get mixtapes of his high school highlights, he wasn't invited to the McDonald's All-American game, and he wasn't put on top prospect lists.
"Sitting around, watching everyone else get college offers just ignited a little fire inside that continued to build, that continued to grow, and when I got my cast off at the end of the summer, we went right back to it," the Utah Jazz star said during a prerecorded commencement speech for the University of Utah on Thursday.
The COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell said, has "put us all on the sideline," and he encouraged the 2021 graduating class to celebrate the fact that they had the "fire" to get back into school through unprecedented circumstances.
"Celebrate that you kept at it — that you did the work to come back stronger than ever," Mitchell said. "Keep that fire. Let it carry you forward. Let it remind you not to waste a moment on things that aren't important to you. Let it remind you to bring purpose and focus to whatever you do next — especially when you face obstacles."
Because, Mitchell said, more obstacles will certainly come.
As Mitchell's success has grown, so has the criticism. He told the graduates to be mindful of the negative noise, and learn how to accept the good feedback and block out the bad.
"The bigger you make your life, the more people will have an opinion on what you do," Mitchell said. "And those opinions can be loud."
He said it is important to choose which voices to listen to in order to best shape your own life. For Mitchell, those voices included his teammates, his family and his coaches. He said graduates should find trusted voices in their own circles that they can rely on.
One such voice that Mitchell found was NBA legend and now part-owner of the Jazz, Dwyane Wade. During his rookie season, Mitchell reached out to Wade looking for some guidance, and a fast friendship developed.
"I asked him a million questions," Mitchell said. "Just on how to become a better player, and just to be a better Donovan as a whole, and help me achieve the things I want to achieve, similar to what he did in his career."
That mentorship helped Mitchell not only get through his first NBA season, but helped him continually improve.
"Next year is your rookie year," he said.
He encouraged the graduates to connect with people that can help guide them and encourage them on their journey.
"For you, it may be your family, maybe your business partner, maybe your idol, maybe even your colleague," Mitchell said. "But be inspired by the journeys of others, but don't let comparison or criticism on social media discourage you or rush you on your own path."
He warned extensively against letting the negative talk seep in. Mitchell said he's heard a lot of criticism from the time he's been in high school to even now in the NBA. During his prep days, he heard the claims that he was too short and couldn't shoot well enough. In the NBA, he hears national pundits argue about if he is good enough to lead the Jazz to a championship.
He told the graduates that they will face similar criticisms and similar doubts, no matter what career they've chosen.
"When you're reaching for the top level in your field, there will probably be someone that says you're not good enough, that you don't have what it takes, or says that you're a not 'star' in what you do. Don't let that stop you," Mitchell said.
As he began to conclude his remarks, Mitchell pointed to the phrase on the homepage of the U.'s website that says, "You belong here!" He explained that the steps we take to understand and respect each other are essential so that everyone does feel they belong.
"What would be possible if as a country, we watched the game tape and learned from history?" Mitchell said. "What would be possible if we brought the same curiosity and open-minded interest that we bring to studying chemistry or computer science or business and applied it to listening to one another with respect and learning from viewpoints that are different from our own?
"As you go forward, you have the opportunity to make so much possible — for yourself, for your family and for the country."