After leading the Utah Jazz to a first-round upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs last season, it was inevitable Donovan Mitchell would return this season with a target on his back.
But after struggling for much of the early season, Mitchell is now outperforming his rookie year and has led the Jazz back to the brink of a playoff berth.
Mitchell, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, said he was initially caught off guard to begin his sophomore season and credited his turnaround to teammates and the sage advice of some of the NBA’s best, most-seasoned players.
“Coach Snyder stressed to me that this year was going to be a lot different, and it was one thing for me to hear, and another thing for me to go through it,” Mitchell said. “It’s one of those things you really have to go through, to experience. They kind of anticipated this happening, I didn’t.
“But to have the support of my teammates through the early part of the season was really special, and really helped get us back to where we need to be.”
Much of the struggle was a reflection of the competition — the Jazz have played the second-toughest schedule this season, with an opponents winning percentage of .517 (Utah has the easiest remaining schedule with an opponents winning percentage of .396).
The low point for Mitchell’s season may have come in mid-November, in a game in which he scored 31 points. His assists were a more accurate barometer of his performance in the 113-107 loss at Philadelphia. It stood as only the third zero-assist, 35-shot outing in past 20 years in the NBA. Nobody had taken so many shots with zero assists and scored fewer points since 1969.
“This year, it’s different. I have to be locked in for every moment, they make it so tough on every possession,” Mitchell told SI.com. “But the words I’ve received from James [Harden], from Kobe [Bryant], Chris Paul, it’s helped me understand that. I think in my rookie year, I was really taken aback. This year I came seeking advice.”
Mitchell hit his high-water mark on March 2 when he scored a career-high 46 points, which included two clutch 3-pointers down the stretch and a pair of free throws late in the fourth quarter that solidified the Jazz’s 115-111 win over the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
That performance punctuated a second-half surge in which he has averaged 26.9 points — the seventh-highest scoring average in the NBA since Jan. 1. It stands as a vast improvement over the first three months of the season, in which he averaged 20.1 points.
Mitchell’s uptick from 3-point range has also helped. He shot 29 percent in 3-pointers for the first half of the season; he has shot 39 percent since Jan. 1.
“Changing my pace and making an effort to get to the free-throw line, that’s something James [Harden] is great at and Dwyane Wade talked to me about as well,” Mitchell said. “To hear that from them and then trying to follow their advice really helped me get back on track.”
“It’s been a crazy past two years, trying to absorb everything I’ve learned,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got a healthy lineup, and one that can be pretty special. Now we’ve got to prove it each and every night.”
Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this report.