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Back to his roots: Will Donovan Mitchell take a step forward defensively this season?

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) blocks a shot by New Orleans Pelicans forward Herbert Jones, left, in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) blocks a shot by New Orleans Pelicans forward Herbert Jones, left, in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — An excited buzz came over the crowd as the shot went up.

It wasn't because of what that shot meant to the game — it was the first half of a preseason game after all. It was because good plays are better when they end in points, and Donovan Mitchell had just made a special play.

Mitchell chased down a three-on-one break and blocked a shot at the rim. In almost immediate succession, he slapped the ball away after there was an offensive rebound and then dove out of bounds and flipped the ball behind him past midcourt and into the hands of Rudy Gobert.

It would have been a special defensive effort in a high-stakes playoff game; that type of effort in a meaningless exhibition was pretty spectacular. It would have been that much better if the shot that was created from his play went in.

But, alas, a humorous groan came from the stands as Royce O'Neale's 3-point attempt crashed off the rim.

That may have hurt Monday's highlight package, but the play still showed Mitchell's new focus this season — or at least a revived one. It's been over four years since Mitchell was taken in the late lottery as a potential perimeter stopper. His combination of strength, quickness and wingspan had many smart basketball minds projecting him as an elite defensive player.

What's more was he already had a nickname — "Spida" — that came from how he supposedly stuck on opposing players.

Flash forward to now: Mitchell is entering his fifth NBA season and has become one of the most lethal scorers in the game. His deep bag of tricks has him two All-Star Game appearances and even earned him a spot in a commercial celebrating the 75th season of the league.

But even as his offensive prowess continues to grow, Mitchell has been steadfast in saying that he wants to be that staunch defender that so many thought he would be coming out of college. It's been good for a sound bite or a quick story, but, ultimately that narrative falls away pretty quickly once the season gets into swing.

Is this year going to be different?

With the obvious disclaimer that it is still preseason, Mitchell's play on Monday backed up his oft-repeated claims. He had four steals and three blocks in his 29 minutes. And more important than those numbers, he looked to be trying to set a tone on that end.

"It's important to him," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "I think he knows that that's another way that he can really impact the game,"

He hustled back into a play after letting Kira Lewis Jr. slip by into the paint and intercepted a pass. Later, he closed out on Nickeil Alexander-Walker, stayed with him on the ensuing drive and then stripped the ball at the basket.

Mitchell consistently used his explosiveness, not just to finish offensive moves but to create havoc defensively.

"He's a monster physically," Gobert said. "The things that he's able to do offensively are amazing, but I think he doesn't realize what he can do defensively if he puts his mind to it."

On Monday, he put his mind to it, even denying the ball on the first play of the half and keeping that same energy throughout his minutes.

"Granted, it is just preseason but that's been my mindset all summer," Mitchell said. "Yeah, I was on one leg last year, but I can be better. I've been vocal about that, so for me, just being able to do it consistently. It's one game. I did it in a preseason game; now I've got to continue to do it throughout the year."

And that's the big question: Can Mitchell sustain that type of effort for an entire season? And the follow-up: Will that impact his effectiveness on the offensive end?

Mitchell said he didn't do anything necessarily different to prepare for this season, but he did more of it — a couple hours turned into a few hours, five reps turned into 10. The skills, the explosiveness, the athleticism are all there, he just needed to make sure his legs were ready to sustain that level of energy on both ends of the court.

"The challenge is to continue to replicate it," Snyder said of Mitchell's defensive energy. "To replicate it when you're tired, to replicate it when you're ahead, to replicate it on a back to back. Continue to do it all the time so it just becomes who you are."

Is that who Mitchell will be? Only time will tell.

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