What does Donovan Mitchell expect in return to Utah for first time since offseason trade?

Lunes 09 de Enero del 2023

What does Donovan Mitchell expect in return to Utah for first time since offseason trade?

On Tuesday night, for the first time since an early-September trade that marked new eras in Utah and Cleveland, Mitchell will return to where his brilliant NBA career got started -- as the enemy.

On Tuesday night, for the first time since an early-September trade that marked new eras in Utah and Cleveland, Mitchell will return to where his brilliant NBA career got started -- as the enemy.

PHOENIX -- Darius Garland hasn’t talked about it with Donovan Mitchell. Yet.

But with the Cleveland Cavaliers dispatching the Phoenix Suns and soon en route to Salt Lake City -- their next stop on this five-game road trip and Mitchell’s old basketball home -- the focus can finally turn to the most momentous game on the regular-season schedule:

Mitchell’s homecoming.

“I don’t know what the response will be. I hope it’s cheers,” Mitchell said in the locker room when asked about returning to Utah following Cleveland’s 112-98 win over Phoenix on Sunday night. “We did a lot of great things there. Obviously, we didn’t accomplish our end goal. But I had a lot of positives despite not winning a championship. That’s not easy. Only one team does it. We had five cracks at it, and we missed.”

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On Tuesday night, for the first time since an early-September trade that marked new eras in Utah and Cleveland, Mitchell will return to where his brilliant NBA career got started -- as the enemy.

Originally selected by the Denver Nuggets with No. 13 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and then sent to the Jazz in a draft-night deal, Mitchell helped deliver the franchise some of its best years in nearly two decades. Mitchell became a three-time All-Star and led the Jazz to the playoffs in each of his five seasons, finishing with the Western Conference’s best record twice. He ranks top 10 in points, field goals and 3-pointers. He made NBA All-Rookie. Was the Slam Dunk Contest champion. One of Utah’s most talented players ever.

That on-court resume would typically demand a celebratory welcome.

“It’s hard to find the words but he was a lot for the organization,” said Cavaliers guard Raul Neto, who played with Mitchell in Utah for two seasons. “He always held himself to a star standard ever since his rookie year. He was open to learning and he grew so much during his time there. Listening to our coaches. Ricky (Rubio) was there at the same time. The years I was there, Donovan was already becoming a star. I think everybody knows how big he was for that team. I hope everybody there cheers for him and respects what he did for the team. What he did for the organization was huge. But you never know what to expect. Never know what people’s feelings are going to be. I think it’s going to be fun.”

“It should be a standing ovation,” Garland told cleveland.com. “All the work he put in out there and all the things he did for the city -- playoff appearances, All-Star appearances, many wins -- I expect the best ovation. Hopefully.”

It’s hard to know what awaits. On one hand, Mitchell was the franchise face for a half-decade, and it wasn’t his choice to leave. There was no official trade demand. No made-for-TV special to announce his free agency departure like one of Mitchell’s idols, LeBron James. The Utah front office felt the core group had already reached its zenith and it was time to build a new foundation, leading to Royce O’Neale, Rudy Gobert and Mitchell being traded during a transformative offseason.

Even though Mitchell also left his mark on the community with an abundance of charitable work, some of his recent inflammatory comments about the city and fan base makes predicting the reaction a bit thornier.

During a sit-down with Andscape ahead of Cleveland’s home game versus the Jazz on Dec. 19, Mitchell opened up about some of the racial issues he experienced while living in predominantly white Salt Lake City. He used the term “draining” and said he was “hurt” by the response after speaking out on social injustice. Mitchell has also said multiple times that while there are no hard feelings toward the organization, he’s never been happier in his career.

Could those comments be interpreted as a dig at Utah? Will that fuel a boisterous crowd?

“What really helped me was going back home after the summer I had,” Mitchell said. “So then I kind of 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. Coming back to Utah, I’ve had time to understand I may get booed, I may get cheered. I had been there for five years. Gonna see a lot of familiar faces and people that you know and see but understanding that it’s a lot of great memories.”

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Mitchell said he hasn’t yet thought deeply about the emotions going back to Utah. He’s been focused on the first two games of this difficult road trip, especially given how Cleveland has played away from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse this season. Everything for Mitchell has been about building, growing and evolving as team. The Cavs have big goals this season and Mitchell’s arrival sparked them. He also learned a harsh lesson about looking ahead and getting caught up in the moment when he played in New York for the first time as a member of the Cavs. It was Cleveland’s worst performance to date. One of Mitchell’s worst as well.

But at some point -- perhaps Monday when the Cavs leave Phoenix or when he walks back into Vivint Arena -- the full magnitude of Tuesday night is going to hit him.

“I haven’t really put it in my head, but it’ll come, it’ll definitely come,” Mitchell said. “When it does, just let the emotions ride, enjoy it and be very appreciative of it.”

Each time a question came about playing in Utah, Mitchell eventually tried to shift the focus back to the matchup with the Jazz instead of the expected hoopla that awaits.

“At the end of the day, they’re playing well, Lauri (Markkanen) is playing out of his mind, they have a great group over there, great group of coaches too. We just gotta get another win on the road. It’s a tough place to play. Understanding that obviously it’s gonna be a lot of stuff going on, but we just gotta get another win on the road as a group.”

During the first game against the Jazz in Cleveland, teammates admitted how important it was to win for Mitchell. They wouldn’t let his old team get the best of his new one. The Cavs topped the Jazz, 122-99, with Mitchell pouring in a team-high 23 points in the same number of minutes.

They’re taking that same mentality with them into Salt Lake City.

“Just knowing the matchup, knowing the team we’re playing against, knowing it’s his old team, I think it just lights a fire under us,” Garland told cleveland.com. “We can make sure he’s good and he can get that win, so he gets to brag about it if he wants to.”

There will be moments of reflection. It will be an emotional night. Maybe even some tears. A video tribute is almost a certainty, which will get Mitchell in his feelings even more. He will embrace former teammates Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley and a handful of Jazz coaches -- Alex Jensen, Irv Roland and Chris Jones -- just as he did last month in Cleveland. He will likely greet some of the arena workers he got to know so well. He learned a lot in Utah. The city helped mold him into the player he is today.

Tuesday is bigger than basketball.

Even though Mitchell doesn’t know exactly what to expect, Garland thinks he has a pretty good idea.

“Aggressive Don. Seventy-one Don,” Garland told cleveland.com. “That’s all I expect.”

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