Over the course of Donovan Mitchell’s outstanding rookie season with Utah, Portland star Damian Lillard has become something of a mentor, regularly sending texts of encouragement.
So Lillard really didn’t mind when Mitchell was the one who broke his rookie 3-point record.
“He’s had a great season, not just for a rookie but for a guard in the NBA. I’m really happy for him,” Lillard said. “We’ve had some communication throughout the season. I like to see a guy that’s humble, a guy that works hard. Not many people were talking about him coming out of the draft. He wasn’t the talk of the draft.
“But he just came out and he just showed. That’s what makes me a fan of him.”
Mitchell surpassed Lillard’s mark of 185 3-pointers on Tuesday night in Utah’s 119-79 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
The next night, the two players were face-to-face in the final regular-season game. Portland claimed a 102-93 win on its home court, sending the Trail Blazers into a first-round playoff series against the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Jazz to a postseason matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Mitchell, 21, described the end of the season as fun, with both the record and Utah’s push for the playoffs. The Jazz strung together an 11-game winning streak starting in late January to begin a run in which they lost just twice in a 23-game span.
“The kid inside me has really enjoyed it,” Mitchell said. “I got the Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year on my team and we’re the No. 5 seed and nobody thought we’d even be in the playoffs. So I’m excited to get this thing going.”
Utah coach Quin Snyder said he was always confident in Mitchell’s ability, even back in early November when the rookie went 3 for 21 from the floor in a 104-97 loss to Philadelphia.
“As much as anything, it wasn’t Donovan’s play. I mean it was — coupled with his mental makeup. You could tell this was a guy who was fearless, who was not afraid of the moment. And I think the Philly game, what he did the next game, how he moved the ball, his decisions were better.”
Snyder said the Jazz staff focused on Mitchell’s progress and knew the results would come for the 6-foot-3 shooting guard out of Louisville.
“He wasn’t worried about starting. He just wanted to play, and he wanted to play well,” the coach said.
Overall, Mitchell led Utah during the regular season with an average of 20.5 points a game, and he led all NBA rookies with an average of 23 points in March (ninth overall). He’s the first rookie to lead his team in scoring and into the playoffs since Carmelo Anthony with Denver.
On Thursday, Mitchell was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Month for March and the first part of April. It was the fourth time he’d earned the award this season.
He has 187 3-pointers heading into the postseason, which starts for the Jazz on Sunday in Oklahoma City.
Mitchell and Ben Simmons are the top candidates for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award (which Lillard won in 2013). The two have gotten into something of a war of words lately, with Simmons telling ESPN that he’d vote for himself: “If you look at the numbers, you’ll see. People who know the game know.”
Mitchell responded by trolling Simmons with a pair of sweatshirts. The first one — worn before Tuesday’s game against the Warriors — was emblazoned with the definition of the word rookie. The second, which he wore into the Moda Center on Wednesday, exclaimed simply, “Rookie?”
Simmons was the first overall pick by Philadelphia in the 2016 draft but broke his foot and missed his entire first season. So technically he counts as a rookie this season.
Back in February, Lillard made his endorsement of Mitchell clear: “I think he should be Rookie of the Year, for sure. Not just because of his numbers, but his impact on their team. He’s basically leading them. It’s special to see a rookie be able to do what he’s doing out there.”
Utah teammate Rudy Gobert said Mitchell has already proven his worth to the Jazz.
“Whether he wins it or not, I don’t think it really matters. In five years, we won’t care if he won it or not. He showed that he’s poised to be a superstar in this league and he will be,” Gobert said.