Having won over the hearts of fans, Mitchell turned his attention to the players he was a fan of growing up. He’d already stunted on fellow rookies like Jayson Tatum with his on-court moves. But with veterans like Chris Paul and Paul George, he was deferential. Whereas some rookies try to prove they belong by going right at veterans, Mitchell approached them politely after games, greeting the players he knew and asking for advice from the ones he didn’t. “I always think about what I can work on,” he said. “Anytime someone said I was doing well, I was like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ That stuck with me.”
As late as the middle of December 2017, Mitchell was still relatively anonymous. When he and I met for lunch at a crowded restaurant in Salt Lake City, we were uninterrupted for more than an hour. But a week later, LeBron crowned Mitchell a “young king” in an Instagram comment. A week after that, the mobs began forming, like at the Fashion Place mall for a signing. By the time the All-Star break came along, he was showing off custom-designed Louis Vuitton Supremes and channeling his inner Vince Carter to win the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. (Before the event, his NBA 2K dunk rating had been an unfathomable 50. It’s now 97.)
In December, hardly anyone noticed Mitchell at a reference. By February, he was reviving Vince Carter’s magic at the dunk contest. (Photograph by Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
As the regular season came to a close, Adidas helped him poke fun at the Rookie of the Year race with clothing that questioned front-runner Ben Simmons’ standing for the award. (Simmons was technically a second-year player.) He solidified his status as a Utah hero by leading the Jazz past Oklahoma City’s Big Three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the first round of the playoffs. And he gave everything he could against the Rockets—outscoring the entire Houston roster in his final full rookie quarter—before ultimately being sent home.
This offseason, he’s hopscotched from Spain to Los Angeles and met adoring crowds at every stop along the way. But he’s remembered to stay true to the hometown fans as well, splashing into a Fourth of July cookout in Salt Lake City.
Even with all the attention, he has kept the humble attitude that made him so beloved. In early July, Mitchell made a surprise appearance in Salt Lake City for the Utah Jazz 3-on-3 Tournament. Hundreds of local players participate in the tournament, but on the sidelines Mitchell quickly became the main attraction. Before leaving, he stopped to say hello to several of the kids in attendance. “I just wanted to come by,” he told reporters. “I saw that it was here, and I thought it was pretty cool. If I was a kid, I would die if my hero came to this. I kind of wanted to be able to do that.”
He wanted to do something good, and he did it. The only question for NBA fans now is: What does Donovan Mitchell want to do next?