Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell tried crossing over Kings rookie Davion Mitchell in the second quarter of Friday night’s game. The veteran got down to the right block on his drive from the wing, and the rookie patiently beat him to the spot.
No reaching, no fouling. It was about fundamentals and timing.
When Donovan, the two-time All-Star, gathered and tried to go up for a layup, the recent No. 9 pick, Mitchell, stymied him and stole the ball. Donovan stopped as though he expected a whistle. It led to a fast-break basket the other way.
It was an example of the defensive force the Kings’ rookie has become just two games into his career.
“He’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA already,” second-year guard Tyrese Haliburton said afterward. “When he’s on an island with somebody, I’m taking him every time.”
Later in the second quarter, reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson also tried going into the paint on Sacramento’s rookie. It came late in the shot clock, and by the time he tried getting rid of the clamps Mitchell put on him, the shot clock expired.
To that point, it was the loudest the crowd at Golden 1 Center got in the first half of Friday night’s home opener. Fans who suffered through one of the worst defensive seasons in memory in 2020-21 christened a new crowd favorite, who embodies the team’s renewed emphasis on keeping the other team from scoring.
It was a different kind of roar, highlighting Mitchell’s debut in front of his new admirers in downtown Sacramento.
“The fans were amazing. I’ve never seen nothing like it,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, I’ve only played in two arenas. The fans did a really good job of giving us energy throughout that whole game, even though we didn’t pull it out.”
Indeed, Mitchell’s defensive effort came in a loss. Sacramento fell to 1-1 following a season-opening win in Portland, falling to the Jazz 110-101 in a game they led throughout.
If there’s a takeaway for the Kings, it’s that this is a different defensive team. There are no moral victories in a loss, but this team is clearly more capable at slowing opponents. Mitchell’s on-ball defending is key and already making a tangible difference.
The crowd went crazy again, late in the third quarter, when Mitchell stopped a three-on-one fast break, taking the ball away from center Rudy Gobert after Clarkson tried to dish it off once he saw Mitchell in his path.
In the fourth quarter, veteran point guard Mike Conley tried driving on Mitchell to the left side of the key with his strong hand. The result: a layup off the glass that didn’t even hit the rim. Inside two minutes remaining, Mitchell forced an air ball from Mitchell on a 3-pointer.
Davion Mitchell is a rookie, playing his second NBA game, and he’s already forcing some of the top-scoring guards into these types of shots. That defense is even better than advertised. pic.twitter.com/mnAGmr6Ieb
— Alex Kramers (@alexkramers) October 23, 2021
Mitchell’s stat line was modest. He didn’t make a field goal until the 2-minute mark in the third quarter. He was only credited with two steals through his first 15 minutes on the floor.
But it was clear Mitchell was a serious asset for the home team against last season’s top seed in the Western Conference. It was the second game in a row Mitchell played in crunch time. He finished with three points, four assists and four steals.
The Jazz, who ranked fourth in the NBA in scoring last season, hovered around the 40% mark on field goals throughout the game. Both teams struggled offensively in a slog. It was the type of game that was rare of the Kings last season.
Mitchell, of course, was compared to Utah’s Mitchell during his run in last season’s NCAA Tournament, which resulted in Mitchell playing a key role in Baylor’s run to the national championship. He wore jersey No. 45, like Utah’s star. And given their similar builds, stature and defensive playing style, many wondered if they are related. They are not.
After the final buzzer, the two met at half court, with the Jazz star shaking his head as though he was exasperated by the type of defense he just went against.
“He’s kind of a big brother to me,” Davion Mitchell said.
If there’s an area of concern, it’s Mitchell’s offense. Mitchell through two games has made just 2 of 14 shots. He made 51% of his shots in 30 college games last season, including an impressive 45% clip beyond the arc. So he’s proven he can be a capable scorer. For now, he’s still feeling it out while his coaches will encourage him to remain aggressive.
“I know that offensively he was only 1 of 8,” Kings coach Luke Walton said. “But those are good shots for him. And he’s proven that by the way he’s worked in some of the games he’s had for us. He’s going to be a really good offensive player too. So I loved that he’s continuing to take those shots.”
Walton said Mitchell is doing the right things in the way he prepares for opponents. He said Mitchell asked him for pointers on guarding Clarkson, a player Walton coached with the Lakers in the 2016-2017 season, after Mitchell had already broken down film on his own.
That will only work to an extent, of course. Mitchell won’t get the experience he needs to lock down the best guards in the NBA with an iPad. And that certainly won’t be enough with Stephen Curry and the Warriors coming to town Sunday. Curry, of course, is another player Walton used to coach when he was an assistant at Golden State.
“Whatever I tell him about Steph, until you actually guard Steph, you just got to go through that,” Walton said. “So like I’ve said every day, even from the Portland game to tonight, to Sunday, this is great experience for him — but more importantly for our team, to continue to go through these battles together.”
Added Mitchell on his match up with Curry: “He’s always off the ball and there’s things I need to work on off-the-ball defense, so I’m going to be chasing him all night. I just can’t fall asleep on him.”