Donovan Mitchell ecstatic to bring experience to young, 'fun' Cavaliers

Donovan Mitchell ecstatic to bring experience to young, 'fun' Cavaliers

Just like everybody else, Donovan Mitchell thought he would be on his way home this summer.

After all, for months and months, the former Utah Jazz superstar had been included in countless trade rumors and hypothetical scenarios landing him in the Big Apple with the New York Knicks.

That is, until the Cleveland Cavaliers stealthily snuck into the mix and interrupted his golf round with some wild news. President Koby Altman, general manager Mike Gansey and Co. executed a blockbuster trade to bring Mitchell to The Land, which made waves throughout the NBA and Eastern Conference in particular.

“I was running around crazy, mainly when I figured out who we kept in the deal because I didn't know who was in the trade. I just knew I was traded, and when I found out we kept DG (Darius Garland) and JA (Jarrett Allen) and Evan [Mobley] and Caris [LeVert], and all these guys and I was like, ‘Wow.’ We’ve got a talented group that was third in the East and then obviously injuries came about, and that's before I got here,” Mitchell said at his introductory press conference at Rocket Mortage FieldHouse.

“Now, we can only look to do more and better and just continue to win and build. And I'm truly excited just to be a part of this organization, to be here in the city, to have fun playing basketball with a group of guys who really want to win and really want to continue to build.”

From the moment Mitchell touched down in his new city, he noticed the love that “blew him away.” Expecting a handful of people to say hello, Mitchell was greeted by “a sea of people” who were lined up at Burke Lakefront Airport at 9 a.m. He’s also friends with a couple of Cleveland Guardians, Amed Rosario and Triston McKenzie, as well as Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow — all of whom reached out when they heard the news.

The Cavs proceeded to roll out the red carpet for their new All-Star, bringing a bunch of those fans to their downtown arena to greet him before the press conference. Cleveland hosted his family in the front row, as well as his agent Austin Brown.

And sitting next to them were Garland and LeVert, who were all smiles.

“I love the cold, to be honest. I think I dress better in the cold,” Mitchell quipped when asked about going to another small market, non-destination city.

Of the aspects that appeal to Mitchell, the answer above all else was the team's joy and chemistry.

“We're young, but we're hungry. We're ready,” Mitchell said. “It's weird saying I'm probably one of the older guys on the team. But like I said we're really excited. I spoke with J.B. [Bickerstaff], spoke with Koby, and we're all excited, spoke with the guys and we're ready to go.

“Honestly, experience, I think, is the one thing I could definitely provide off the jump. Being able to use my scoring and find my ways to create plays and get guys open shots and then let Darius do what he does, Caris do what he does, and be able to be a decoy as well over there in the corner and let them get open lanes, and [with] Ev and JA finding the roll man. And then defensively, when you got two 7-footers down there, I've played against them and they both got me a few times last year. So it'll be good to be on the same team as them. But I think from that standpoint that we can accomplish a lot.”

Mitchell already senses the Cavs’ camaraderie, and he’s gotten a head start on interacting with the guys thanks to Garland’s efforts to get the team together in Nashville last week for some pickup games. Even before that, Mitchell has trained with Cleveland’s fourth-year All-Star a number of times, and has liked what he’s seen.

“In the times we worked out, I consider myself a pretty good shooter and I’m trying to keep up with him and I’m like, ‘Jesus,’" Mitchell said. “That had me have to even raise my level in a workout. If he can bring that out on a night in and night out basis... and we’re now on the same team, you know it could be special.”

Altman is thankful that he was able to strike a deal with his close friend in Jazz general manager Justin Zanik, and he spoke about how Mitchell “enhances our acceleration” with his 39-game playoff resume.

“It’s a 25-year-old, three-time All-Star. It becomes pretty simple, right? At the core, my job is to bring the very best talent to Cleveland, and I’m sitting next to one of the very best players in the world,” Altman said. “When you simplify that, is Donovan Mitchell going to make us a better basketball team? Yes. How do we get that done? You go through the pain points of it, but I think we’re all really happy and excited about what we can do.

“I think we've earned the opportunity to try to compete against the best in the world. And it's an exciting group that has great character, great work ethic, and most importantly guys that really want to be in Cleveland. I think that's really important. We’re super young and the timeline fits to bring in this caliber of player with this group. And let's rock. I mean, let's rock out! I'm excited to see what it looks like. But there's a runway here and I don't want anyone to think that this year, we have to be contention or bust. That's not what this is. This is a real runway here for these guys to grow together, learn how to play together, and get better each year and grow to hopefully some really exciting basketball.”

Bickerstaff shared his initial thoughts on the move to follow up.

“It doesn't change what we want to do and how we play. We live our lives every single day by trying to do two things: We want to be the most competitive team and the most selfless team. So he'll come in and he'll fit right away with that,” the Cavs head coach said of Mitchell. “As a coaching staff, we sit back and we have all these grand ideas, and it just goes to another level when you think about the dynamic offense that we can put on the floor and the threats that we have on the floor.

“To be able to add talent and character, we were extremely excited and we think about where we needed to go. You think about some of the games that we had last year, we just didn’t have that level of experience. To be able to add somebody who brings that experience of playing in those moments, we felt like that would help push us over the hump. You add a player of his caliber, he’s going to make other guys better because he’s going to push them. These guys are competitive. He’s talking about [competing with Darius] in a drill in a summer workout, imagine our practices now. So now our practices are going to go to another level and the game play is going to go up to another level because we’re pushing each other and we’re competing at that level. We were extremely excited about it. It was kind of a curveball when it happened. We had had our coaches' retreat and put a plan in place, so we had to make some changes. But we’ll make it work (laughs).”

Speaking to the trio of Garland, Mitchell and LeVert, Bickerstaff is eager to put together different combinations on the floor.

“If you're an opposing coach, what decision are you going to make? Who are you going to stay home on? Who are you going to leave? And then, you throw in Kevin Love popping on the perimeter, JA and Evan rolling or now they get the ball in the pocket. So these guys can present some problems for people,” Bickerstaff said. “But again, it's going to start about us being unselfish. But I told Donovan and I've told Darius and Caris this as well, it's like, 'You’ve got to be the best version of yourself. Don't come in on your heels trying to figure it out.' We want all of you guys to be aggressive with the mindset that we're going to share the game and then make defenses have to make tough decisions.

“If you think about, whatever, your three-man game, your two-man game, you can go out every single night and you can find the weak link on the defensive end of the floor and defenses, most of them, don't have enough strong defenders that they can just put one guy on each of these guys. So, again, we can go out and manipulate the game. We play an unselfish, uptempo ball-movement type of game. The fourth quarter is where it's really gonna get fun, where you get to slow the game down a little bit and then you get to play that chess match, but there's so many threats on the floor that our guys have and how they present themselves. And a lot of times it's just going to be take what the defense gives you because we know that guy can make you pay.”

Asked about the defensive side of the ball, Mitchell acknowledges he needs to get better and wants Bickerstaff and the coaches to hold him accountable. However, like in Utah with Rudy Gobert, he’ll have a big man (or two) to cover for him if necessary...

“The more the merrier, right? Obviously, JA, Ev, they've gotten my shot a few times," Mitchell said. "Rudy's one of the best bigs in the league on the defensive end. Ev, who's a phenomenal 21-year-old kid who made a play for Rookie of the Year, his offensive game is unique, but his defensive game, his instincts — it's up there. 

“And then you have JA, who blocks everything, runs the floor — like, sprints the floor — and keeps up with DG, which is impressive, being able to switch, able to guard the perimeter, able to protect the paint. So I'm excited to play with both of those guys. They've got a lot of talent in the frontcourt, and I think that's something that I'm truly excited about.”

In addition to the fresh faces, Mitchell has some established relationships in Cleveland as it is. (Bickerstaff knows Donovan through one of his former assistant coaches, for example.) Yet no bond compares to the one he has with Ricky Rubio, who returned to the Cavs this summer.

“That's my guy, man. I call him Jesus; he cut his hair now, but back when he was in Utah, he had the hair and the whole bit. He really helped me lock-in on the little details as far as my work, as far as my craft, as far as the possession game. Just being able to watch him lead our team from the point guard position, allowing me to kinda take the reins as a young guy, which I didn't even expect coming into the league, and just kinda teaching me the little things throughout the game,” Mitchell said. 

“I'm forever grateful for Ricky Rubio, and to be back here with him — he's a little bit older now, but he's still [the] light-hearted, fun guy that I've always known. I've gone to Spain to see him and hung out with him, so to be back here with him is truly special.”

Mitchell delved further into the kind of leadership he’s hoping to bring to Cleveland’s locker room, which he said was influenced by Rubio.

“It comes with a lot of comfortability. There’s going to be habits and the little things. Because at the end of the day, we were a three seed for a good part of the year and obviously losing in the Play-In [Tournament] is not what the team wanted, but there’s a lot to take in from that, from losses and from situations like that. Come in and use my leadership and skills,” Mitchell said. 

“But Ricky was the one who helped me too. He helped Darius. He has a good track record with helping the guards become All-Stars and different things (laughs). Being able to piggyback off Ricky and use my voice and also listen to understand guys. Sometimes guys need to be uncomfortable, like myself. Going to have to push through that day when you don’t feel like it, be ready on that back-to-back, show up early for a film session, whatever it may be. That’s the stuff that ultimately builds championship habits and that starts with days like today. It doesn’t start in December or January. It’s not all going to come to fruition on Day 1, but if you start early enough and continue to build throughout the season, by the time you get to the postseason, you’re ready to go.”

In his playoff career, Mitchell has averaged a whopping 28.3 points to go along with nearly 5 assists and 5 rebounds per contest. Altman pointed to his postseason success as a major reason for striking the deal. 

“I think the experience to get there was huge for us. I think we had some solutions in-house as well. We were excited about the team coming back already. If we weren’t able to get this transaction done, we were excited about what we had coming back. But when the opportunity presented itself, absolutely Donovan takes us to another level,” Altman said. 

“It makes Caris more dangerous, it makes Darius more dangerous. It helps Evan. I can’t wait to see what that looks like. It gives us an entirely different dynamic. Of course, you’re thinking about, ‘What if we had Donovan in that Atlanta Hawks game?’ Hopefully, it won’t be that this year. We’ll see though.”

When Basketball News asked Mitchell what he learned from those tight situations and close games that he could share with his new, young teammates, he actually took it in a different direction with a long-winded response.

“First and foremost, I think it's not even just about the playoffs. I think it's about the games leading up to it,” Mitchell said. “Coach [J.B.] and I were just talking about that. If you're in a series with a division rival and it's 2-0, how important is it to get that 3-0 [lead] and not make it 2-2 so now you're fighting for a 4/5/6/7 [seed], whatever it may be. Those little games that kinda matter, those should-win games that you need to win to take care of business, I think that's first off where it starts.

“Then, you ultimately get to the playoffs and understand that the game, the pace slows down. It's a possession game. Stops, rebounds, those extra efforts, those little things, diving on a loose ball, diving into a crowd, taking the charge, being able to make the right play, not turning the ball over —  that goes a long way in those playoff games 'cause it's a 48-minute game, but it sure doesn't feel like it in the playoffs. It feels like every possession is like the fourth quarter with five seconds left. You've got to make sure that everything's on-point. And that's ultimately what I want to bring in, is understanding the relevance and the importance of each possession... Just prepping yourself throughout the entire season, throughout workouts, prepping your mind. That way when you get there, it's not a complete shock. It'll be different 'cause guys have never been [there], but it's still not a complete shock when you get there.”

In just a short 12 days, NBA Media Day will be here across the league, which means training camp is around the bend. Both Mitchell and the Cavs will have all eyes on them following such a booming shakeup. Posed a question of if there’s any reason Cleveland can’t compete for a championship right now, he couldn’t think of one.

“There’s no reason. I think for us, we have to go out there and do the work. On paper, we look scary. But at the end of the day, it comes down to what we do in the gym,” Mitchell said. “It starts... like we had a good run today and we’ve got to continue to have good work, so I can’t sit here and tell you, ‘Yes, we’re a championship team.’ We have to go out there and prove it every night. I know we’re going to have good months and good weeks and good days and we’re going to have bad weeks and bad days. But for us, if we continue to put the work in night-in and night-out and continue to put that effort in with the right plays, we might do something.”

Noticing Cavs public address announcer Ahmaad Crump in the background, Mitchell noted his famed “Cleveland Cavaliers!” intro before games. Having been a LeBron James fan his whole life, Spida wore the wine-and-gold when he was only a kid. Seeing The King come back to Northeast Ohio and deliver the title he promised is a moment Mitchell said he’ll never forget when he was in his dorm room at Louisville.

Cleveland hasn’t won a championship since that fateful day on June 19, 2016. Hopes for the Cavs, in particular, haven’t been this high since LeBron was still donning the organization’s colors. But Mitchell pays no mind to the outside perception of things.

He’ll just put his head down and get to business.

“At the end of the day, it starts with my work,” Mitchell said. “Someone asked how I handled being at the center of the summer. At the end of the day, I had to go into the gym and all that. I had to be the best Donovan I could be every day. That’s what I would tell the team. There are going to be expectations, there’s going to be noise, but how can we be the best team we can be? 

“It’s 5-on-5 basketball. Doesn’t matter how many cameras or how many people are watching. It’s 5-on-5 basketball and just do the little things — continue to grind, continue to get better. There’s always going to be expectations. Losses are going to feel a little bit harder and the wins are going to be celebrated just as high. Continue to stay level throughout the entire thing. Ricky taught me that. Never too high, never too low. Everything else will take care of itself.”

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