Mitchell reaching new heights is a slam dunk

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LOS ANGELES—When he was a kid, Donovan Mitchell floated, elevated above the floor and levitated as he flew to the basket outside a park in Harlem. He was only a seventh grader when he dunked for the first time. On an action-packed night at Staples Center on Saturday, the slam-dunk kid glided toward the rim and slammed it with authority.

All he needed was practice on lower rims until he mastered the art of the dunk. For the fun of it, Mitchell showed off his incredible dunking abilities on the street courts all day until nightfall and tried amazing things. It began for him on the playground, where he fell in love with the game and started his own dunk contest during a time at which kids his age would come out to play a game of pick-up basketball.

“I always used to lower the rim,” Mitchell said. “Everybody used to go low rims and try to do crazy stuff on it.”

An adjustable, junior-size backboard is no longer a necessity when he’s got mad hops on the court. The lightbulbs went off and the crowd went nuts over his air show. After witnessing Donovan make a special delivery, an amazed crowd held their breath in excitement, and then showed their admiration for the newest slam dunk king.

No, this event isn’t newsworthy, but since the beginning of the season, believe it or not, Utah’s newcomer Mitchell has shown early signs of emerging into the new face of the Jazz franchise. The loss of Gordon Hayward in free agency was a stab to the heart, but with Utah’s lone major sports franchise receiving a heart transplant, it’s Mitchell, a superstar in the making, who has been a cure.

And though he won the 2018 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, presented by Verizon, Mitchell is an unheralded rookie, or he’s just not thought of much because he dons a jersey for a low-market franchise. This weekend, the world saw a glimpse of new young talent. This weekend, Mitchell’s athleticism embodied the wonderful tradition of a coming-out party for those who’ve been utterly disrespected up until now.

And sometimes, in most cases, it especially takes a great deed, a moment like this one for a disregarded player to garner high praise from the causal fans. He’s not known for his perception, but with his individual achievements this season, Mitchell has appeared on the basketball radar screen, and his efforts were met with a newfound cult status. So he quickly climbed the peak during a nationally televised event and it was undeniably enjoyable to watch him perform in the air.

With his dynamic dunks and high-flying intensity, Mitchell is indeed a charismatic figure around the league; he’s rising to the challenge in a far-flung city, where folks there take great pleasure in basketball. Incredibly humbled and dedicated, he behaves with such prudence, especially after he was perceived as the unlikely rookie messiah in a town where he’s worshiped.

Mitchell, a man of sagacity and exquisite maturity at age 21, hijacked the show and electrified fans by performing an array of flashy dunks. The crowd soon found itself immersed to such an extent that folks ooohed and ahhhed, amazed by his ability to defy the laws of gravity.

After much dialogue in recent weeks, Mitchell is the obvious choice to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. It very much fits the profile of a player of his stature, although his propitious career is still fresh and young. In case you’ve missed, he was by far the best stuntman in the bunch and performed in the air, twisting  his body and coming up with creative dunks at the rim.

It’s amazing how Mitchell successfully pulled off a ridiculous circus act, one that probably blew away the Harlem Globetrotters. The floor — perhaps the biggest stage to be on for the All-Star Weekend—was lit as he was left alone on the Staples Center hardwood and enjoyed it all by being able to do what he does best.

Ready or not, butterflies in his stomach or not, Mitchell did four dunks and had practiced days before this event. It’s something he has disciplined himself for since he was a kid, having the skills to fly high and finish at the basket and those watching recognized it. If this was their first time seeing him display his mad hops, they were surely dropping their jaws and they were impressed by Mitchell’s tricks and creativity.

The slam dunk trophy, the judges were certain, was awarded to Mitchell by the time it was over. It was his final dunk which won him the honors of being crowned the new king of the dunk competition. First, he voluntarily paid tribute to the number of Darrell Griffith, a former Louisville Cardinal, on his second slam and brought a massive crowd to its feet. He put on a Jazz throwback jersey bearing No. 35 and paid homage to Griffith, also known as Dr. Dunkenstein.

On his monumental night, Mitchell wanted his sister, Jordan Mitchell to participate, so he brought onto her the court, then invited Kevin Hart and called his son onto the floor as well. All three of them crouched under the basket as he threw an alley-oop off the side glass, then soared over everybody below and earned a perfect 50. Afterwards, at the press conference, he felt overwhelmed while he talked about his little sister.

“She’s done a lot, and I’m getting kind of emotional just saying all this,” Mitchell said. “But, yeah—she’s a trooper. She’s been there. She’s driven in the car 14 hours with my mom to Louisville and watched the game and then drove back the same night.”

But the final dunk, as the celebrity judges DJ Khaled, Mark Wahlberg and Julius Erving considered it, may not have been as special as Vince Carter’s cookie jar slam but it was indeed a memorable one for Mitchell. His victory over Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr., and especially his prowess to emulate those before him, only humbled him rather than it exhilarated him.

“I wasn’t much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, it’s incredible. I figured at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk. It would finish it.”

The judges spoke when they awarded Mitchell with a perfect score of 48 points. He did a 360 windmill jam while wearing a throwback Toronto Raptors jersey as a extraordinary tribute to Carter, the 2000 dunk champion, finishing off Nance to come away with an astonishing win.

The probability of winning the Rookie of the Year award is a slam dunk for Mitchell. Although he’s in a tight race with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, he’s dunking over everybody and no one comes close.

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