Mitchell's rise could reach new heights after Dunk Contest Global on Feb 18, 2018 08:29 AM
Mitchell's rise could reach new heights after Dunk Contest
U.S. Team's Donovan Mitchell, of the Utah Jazz, goes up for a dunk as Bogdan Bogdanovic, of the Sacramento Kings, watches during the NBA All-Star Rising Stars basketball game, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in Los Angeles. The World Team won 155-124. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

By Sekou Smith,

LOS ANGELES -- Making it here, to the epicenter of the basketball universe on All-Star Saturday night, was the dream but not necessarily the plan for Utah Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell.

And yet here he is, against seemingly all odds, Mitchell finds himself in a position to continue his stunning and meteoric rise from surprise lottery pick out of Louisville to legitimate challenger for Rookie of the Year to a prime spot in the Verizon Slam Dunk contest tonight at Staples Center.

It’s a space where NBA stars have been born over the years, a place where a guy like Mitchell could see his steady climb to prominence explode into global acknowledgement of what’s been obvious to many of his NBA brethren for a while now: the kid from Louisville could be the true breakout star of a showcase night that also features star-studded fields for the JBL 3-point Contest and the Taco Bell Skills Challenge.

Mitchell is one of the stars of a stacked rookie class that has outperformed expectations in a lot of respects — from high lottery picks like Jayson Tatum and Lauri Markkanen all the way down to the bottom of the first round in the form of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, who like Mitchell wasn’t necessarily forecasted as an impact player on Draft night last summer.

“I tell people all the time this wasn't my plan after two years of college,” Mitchell said Friday (Saturday, PHL time) before his spin in the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars. “Being here for All-Star, even being in the NBA, wasn't entirely in my plan.”

Mitchell arrived here having authored a splendid rewrite of the plan in Utah this season. He wasn’t a burger chain all-american coming out of high school or a one-and-done college star. But now he’s Utah’s biggest star. That’s why this surreal moment, this opportunity on this stage, gets him going.

“When I had the dunk contest practice. Walked me into Staples. I've been to Staples before. But with the All-Star on the court, just kind of seeing all that has been pretty crazy for me,” he said. “Just being here and being part of this weekend … as a kid, you dreamed about watching it. When I was a kid, my favorite event was the Slam Dunk Contest.

“So just being here now and playing in it, being in the event where there are no teammates in the Slam Dunk Contest. It's all on you. I've never been in a position like that where millions of people are watching just me. So it will be interesting and fun.”

It will be if Mitchell’s performance during tonight’s competition is handled the the way he has handled himself throughout his rookie season. He’s leading the Jazz, and all rookies, in scoring and earning the praise and respect of former players and his veteran colleagues around the league with each and every spectacular outing.

Even Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers’ All-Star center and professional troll, showed Mitchell some love while he stumped for his point guard and teammate Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year honors.

“Yeah, he's [Mitchell] really good. I like his game,” said Embiid, who does not dole out straight-faced praise for opponents often, if at all. “He's athletic, he can score the ball, defense. I like his game a lot."

There’s so much to like.

Mitchell’s been the best and most electrifying player, a viral sensation, on the hottest team in the league heading into this weekend. The Jazz own a league-best 11-game win streak, one better than the first place in the Western Conference standings Houston Rockets, and have climbed into the Western Conference playoff chase on the strength of Mitchell’s work as their catalyst.

But if he can prevail in a dunk contest against a monster field that also includes Dallas rookie jumping jack Dennis Smith Jr., high-flying Cleveland forward Larry Nance Jr. and Indiana All-Star Victor Oladipo, Mitchell will be introduced into an entirely new audience.

With the global spotlight shining bright, Mitchell, an injury replacement in the competition for injured Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, has a chance to continue rewriting the narrative of his own career.

So he refuses to take anything for granted, not a single second of the joyride he’s on right now.

“Nope, not at all,” he said. “Like I said, this whole thing has been a whirlwind for me. Just enjoying the process. And there are games that I'm like, wow, this happened, or wow, that happened. It's a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and organization for believing in me. Without them none of this would be possible. So I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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