Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell against the Phoenix Suns. ESPN Cleveland/Rob Lorenzo
Donovan Mitchell has had a lot of firsts this year in Cleveland, and they've prepared him for his return to Utah
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH --- Donovan Mitchell was in his home in Connecticut when he found out the Utah Jazz traded his former co-star Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves this past summer.
That move meant not only that he and Gobert weren’t going to play together anymore, but also that he likely would be moved before playing another game for the Jazz. After five seasons in Utah, a change of scenery was the next logical move for Mitchell. It also meant that a series of firsts would happen to Mitchell: His first game playing for another team, his first home game in a new city, and his first time facing his former team when the Jazz were in Cleveland in mid-December.
There are still a few more firsts to get out of the way for Mitchell, but none may be more significant than his return to Utah to play in front of his old home city for the first time.
Throughout the season, Mitchell has discussed how being on the Cavs hasn’t completely set in. Not by choice, but more so the need to experience certain milestones for it to feel real.
“I think it will have to happen, but I think, yeah. I think more so when we go to Utah,” Mitchell said of whether or not it’s hit him that he’s on the Cavs after the Jazz were in Cleveland in December. “I think that'll be the, ‘alright, that's official’ type thing. It's already sunk in that I'm here, but I think it's just, like you said, those moments in the season, the different moments, you're like, OK, whether it's playing against the Knicks, going back home for the first time, playing against Utah, going back to Utah, All-Star if that happens. There's going to be so many different things.”
Mitchell has been asked about grasping the reality that he’s on the Cavaliers a number of times throughout this season, typically around the time that different firsts have happened. His response has been pretty consistent.
Now, Mitchell’s reality as a member of the Cavaliers has set in. It’s not something that feels like a fantasy or a dream anymore.
Mitchell has been asked about grasping the reality that he’s on the Cavaliers a number of times throughout this season, typically around the time that different firsts have happened. His response hasn’t varied much until this week. It was always going to be something that took time. Now, the Cavaliers are halfway through the season, sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 26-15, and continuing to grow as a group.
“It’s definitely fully hit me. It’s crazy,” Mitchell said.
He has, however, learned from the other firsts he’s experienced with the Cavs as a way to prepare for Tuesday night in Utah.
“I mean, to be honest, what really helped me was going back home (to New York) after the summer I had,” Mitchell said Sunday night in Phoenix. “So, then I kinda was like emotional, and being able to, you know, I didn't play my best because I was all over the place, with all that stuff. So now, coming back to Utah, I've had time to understand, like, OK, you know, I may get booed, I may get cheered.”
That game Mitchell mentioned in New York wasn’t one that went well for he or the Cavs. They lost to the Knicks 92-81 and never really got things going offensively. It was something that moved Mitchell out of his usual routine. He took a trip back to where he grew up in nearby Connecticut to be with his family and had a multitude of people in attendance at the game at Madison Square Garden.
“To stay on your routine,” Mitchell said is the biggest lesson he learned from that night. “Just keeping everything consistent and not getting out of it. Because that’s when you start to feel it and everything starts to become bigger than the game of basketball and then you start to lose sight of what’s really in front of you.
“The job is the job. You can worry about everything else after. That was the one thing I learned. Sometimes you have to have learning experiences. Like I said, there’s no blueprint on how to handle those things. You have to go through them and it prepared me for this game. Just staying in my routine and going out there and playing my game. Whatever the result is, the result is. As long as we go out there and get the win, that’s all I care about.”
How Mitchell is received in Utah by the fans will be interesting, given how things ended. No two situations are the same, but it is worth noting that former Jazz and current Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert received an ovation and a tribute video when Minnesota visited earlier this season. Of course, the circumstances of his trade away from the Jazz aren’t exactly the same as Mitchell’s. The breakup between Gobert and the Jazz was smoother than that of Mitchell and the Jazz. There may also be something to the success Mitchell is having in Cleveland compared to Gobert’s with the Wolves.
“I don't know what the response will be, I hope it's cheers,” Mitchell said. “Like I said, I had a lot of positives despite not winning a championship, that's not, it's not easy. Only one team that does it. We had five cracks at it, and we missed.”
Despite being able to reminisce, Mitchell is having the best season of his career as a member of the Cavaliers. Through all those firsts he’s experienced, he’s helped the team off to a 26-15 record while averaging a career-high in points per game at 28.9 entering the game in Utah. His spirits seem to be in as good of a place as his game is, too. Mitchell was last asked if he was happy when the Jazz were in Cleveland last month and he said he was. That may not have always been the case in past seasons. It doesn’t mean it will always be the case moving forward, either. Right now, that’s the truth, though.
“I haven't. I think that's the growth from playing back in New York for the first time after the whole stuff,” Mitchell said when asked if he’s allowed his mind to envision what the return to Utah will look like. “I haven't really put it in my head, but it'll come. It'll definitely come. When it does, just let the emotions ride and enjoy it and very appreciative of it.”