SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell hasn’t just surprised executives from the 12 teams that passed on him in last June’s NBA draft — 14 franchises if you include the Denver Nuggets, who sent their pick to Utah, and the Sacramento Kings, who traded down from the 10th spot.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we master-planned this,” Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey said last week. “To say that he could be a leading scorer, what, seven games in a row or whatever it was, making history as a first-year player, we didn’t see that coming. It’s kind of just grown to this point. We’re certainly enjoying the ride, I’ll say that.”
That’s why May 27, 2017 — the day Mitchell officially sold the Jazz on his potential — could wind up becoming one of the most important dates in franchise history.
Less than three weeks earlier, Utah’s season had abruptly ended, as the team was swept by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs.
Hayward’s impending free agency loomed over the franchise: If the homegrown all-star chose to leave, it could send the team back to square one after Lindsey’s methodical rebuild over the previous few years.
Amid that environment, Mitchell walked into a workout with the Jazz at the team’s practice facility. The Louisville product was one of six players from blue-blood collegiate programs who took part that day, alongside Frank Mason (Kansas), Josh Hart (Villanova), Amile Jefferson (Duke), Devin Robinson (Florida) and London Perrantes (Virginia).
Mitchell, however, was the star attraction — in fact, having him come in for a workout with the Jazz at all was unusual. Players are typically judicious in selecting which teams they’ll visit, and Utah’s first-round picks — slotted for 24th and 30th — were far below where Mitchell, a projected lottery pick, was expected to go.
But Mitchell didn’t see things that way.
“My biggest thing was I wanted to work out for every team in the first round,” Mitchell said. “That was my goal, just because I’m not one of those guys who looks for a promise, or a guarantee, you know?”
That was music to the ears of the Jazz staff members, as it gave them an opportunity to get a closer look at a player they had been monitoring for some time. Lindsey’s son played at Baylor, and when the school faced off with Louisville in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas in November 2016, the Jazz GM sat in on the coaches’ meeting in preparation for the game.
“Obviously I was taking notes,” he said.
While Baylor made a dramatic comeback from a 20-point deficit to win the game, Mitchell made an impression on Lindsey with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists. The team kept tabs on his progress throughout the season, before eventually convincing Mitchell and his agent to come to Salt Lake City for the workout.
And, as time has passed and his star has risen, his performance during the session continues to amaze those who witnessed it.
“He was going up against Josh Hart, and he’s really good,” said David Locke, the Jazz’s radio play-by-play man, who was in attendance. “So that was the first thing. You were watching Josh Hart and thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, this kid’s good.’ And then, ‘Holy smokes, [Donovan] was great.’
“His energy, his balance, his strength . . . there’s just an aura to him.”
Lindsey and his staff had a similar reaction.
“I’m not even sure the kid knew that he was performing to the degree that he was performing,” Lindsey said with a smile. “Look, workouts are workouts. Three-on-three is not the same basketball as five-on-five . . . [but] I think as much as anything it gave us some confirmation that a few things that we were picking up live and on video and statistically, you know he showed that not only was he a good player but that he was almost growing by the day.”
After the workout finished, Lindsey had a message for everyone in the building: how Mitchell had performed better not leave that room. Or else.
“One of the guys [Lindsey] works with came over,” Locke said, “and literally was like, ‘Dennis wants to make it clear, if any word about this workout gets out, you’re fired. Everyone. You’re fired.’
“That was it. . . . I didn’t hear any gray area in that message.”
In response to a recollection of those events, Lindsey sheepishly smiled.
“So, I’m not sure if that’s one of my finer moments in leadership,” he said.
But he didn’t deny it. In issuing that keep-it-in-house demand, Lindsey made it clear that the Jazz was going to do its best to try to draft Mitchell.
That’s where Utah got creative. The Nuggets, picking 13th, liked Indiana forward OG Anunoby, who was slipping into the later part of the first round after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the season. Denver had also had a previous interest in Trey Lyles, whom the Jazz had taken with the 12th pick in the 2015 draft.
Utah was able to swing a deal with Denver for Lyles and the 24th pick to move up to the 13th pick where — after the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons considered taking Mitchell before selecting Malik Monk and Luke Kennard, respectively — the Jazz got its man.
“There was a little bit of desperation in trying to secure his rights,” Lindsey said.
But the desperation paid off, and now when it comes to Mitchell, the secret’s out.