Donovan Mitchell is getting his picture taken in front of the Jam Master Jay mural on 205th St. and Hollis Ave.—officially “Run-DMC JMJ Way”—in Queens, NY. It’s midday on a Tuesday in July and a group of men on the corner are trying to put two and two together as to who the 20-year-old rookie is. After huddling briefly, one of them figures it out. He yells, “Ayo, Donovan! You gotta put on next year!”
Mitchell stops and chats with the guys about the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, Rick Pitino’s coaching style and Jamal Mashburn’s Kentucky career before we head across the street to the Hollis Playground to get a few shots up. Suddenly, a day camp invades the park. At first, none of the kids pay much mind to Mitchell, who at this point is playing one-on-one against his teenage sister, Jordan. One camper, appropriately dressed in a Jr. NBA shirt, walks up to Mitchell and sheepishly asks him if he plays in the NBA. Once he responds yes, kids begin to mob the rookie with selfie and autograph requests.
By this point, Donovan is used to people taking some time to recognize who he is, but that won’t last much longer. This past summer, Mitchell was drafted No. 13 overall by the Utah Jazz, inked a sneaker deal with adidas and blew up at the Las Vegas Summer League with a 37-point, 8-steal performance against the Grizzlies. Funny thing is, four months ago, the former Louisville Cardinal guard wasn’t really sure it was the right time for him to make the jump to the L.
Following a sophomore season in which he averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 boards, 2.7 assists and 2.1 steals for Pitino at Louisville, Mitchell threw his name into the draft, but didn’t hire an agent right away. Still undecided about his next move, Mitchell had a workout with Chris Paul and Paul George in Los Angeles that changed everything.
“It’s been surreal, to be honest,” he says. “I know it’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to describe. I worked out this past summer with Paul George and Chris Paul and they were really the ones who convinced me to keep my name in the draft. We had talks and they said, Look, you’re good enough. Just go out there and show it. [The NBA] was a thought, but I didn’t think it would happen this fast. It’s crazy to me that I’m here now.”
If things had gone a little differently, Mitchell probably wouldn’t be riding in the back of a suburban en route to the next photo shoot location as he tells us this. Instead, he’d be riding on the back of a sweaty bus, grinding it out for a Major League Baseball team’s minor league affiliate. Mitchell’s father, Donovan Mitchell Sr, has spent his adult life working in baseball. Sr was drafted by the Houston Astros in 1992 and spent years in the minor leagues both as a player and a manager and now works for the New York Mets as the Director of Player Relations and Community Engagement. A standout player himself, Jr—who wears the number 45 because that was Michael Jordan’s number when he played baseball—suffered an injury on the diamond as a sophomore in high school, causing him to miss the AAU season.
“Baseball was really it,” he says. “I had my mind made up—I wanted to make the Major Leagues. But then I broke my wrist and that kind of went out the window right then.”
Once he transferred to powerhouse Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, the bouncy guard’s main focus became hoops. With his attention shifted to ball full-time, the Elmsford, NY native’s tenacity and competitiveness started to come through.
“Being ranked in high school is a big deal and I really got upset that I was ranked 43rd [by ESPN]. So I’m watching guys who I think I’m better than being ranked in higher spots and I’m like, Damn, why is that not me? I need to be out there. And that’s where that hunger and that fire and that determination and being under the radar, but still being a killer, really transpired from.”
Coming from a tight-knit family, Donovan’s exposure to professional athletes through his father has helped prepare him for the big change from college kid to NBA baller.
“When you grow up watching guys like David Wright, Jose Reyes and Pedro Martinez, you definitely have a sense of professionalism about yourself and you see how guys who are making millions of dollars stay humble and stay grounded,” he says. “I’ve also seen athletes who are not humbled and not grounded and are jerks in that way. I try to go out there and treat people right. My mother is big on that. She tells me, ‘The way you treat people is the way they’ll treat you.’ I’ve grown up with that same philosophy and that outlook doesn’t change whether I’m in the NBA or not.”
With his adidas deal, Mitchell joins a growing stable of very young, very cool players like Brandon Ingram, Jamal Murray, Kris Dunn, Jaylen Brown, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, James Harden and Damian Lillard. Considering he didn’t even think he would be in the NBA at this point, the fact that he’s got a sneaker deal is another milestone that came way quicker than anticipated.
“When my agents and I were talking about the sneaker deal, I thought it was going to be the typical agent meeting where they promise you a shoe deal and you’re like, Alright, I’m not that good, this is for guys who are big-time,” says Mitchell. “So when it happened, I was like, Wow, you were right, it did happen! It was a no-brainer going with adidas and I’m blessed and happy to be in this position and hope to keep representing them for a long period of time.”
Given Mitchell’s age, I have to ask if he’s familiar with the history of Run-DMC, considering the location of our shoot. Somewhat to my surprise, he’s not only aware of the legendary group, but also of how much it means for him to share something in common with them.
“I knew about Run-DMC from the song ‘My adidas,’ obviously, and being from New York, you hear about them,” he says. “But it’s not something you think about in the way like, Damn, I’m a part of this now. You don’t think about it in that way. You think, Oh, it’s a cool song, and about the legacy of Run-DMC. Now I’m a part of it. I didn’t think anything like this would be coming so fast. I think that’s the part that really got to me.”
Peter Walsh is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @Peter_M_Walsh.
Portraits by Joseph L. Sherman.