How Donovan Mitchell stepped into a leadership role early in his Cavaliers tenure

DETROIT — Donovan Mitchell has always been a dynamic scorer — for his size, for his position, for his pedigree.

And while his experience was a necessary addition to a young and surprising Cleveland Cavaliers team, he took some self-evaluation in the time between last season ending in Utah and his arrival in the Eastern Conference.

The question, “How can I be better?” has been asked and answered as Mitchell has gotten off to a hot start in his first 19 games.

“I wanted to be a better defender,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports recently. “Outside of that, I know what I can do on the offensive end. Being a better defensive player.”

He’s still bringing it on offense, playing remarkably efficient despite the adjustment to new surroundings. Mitchell’s averaging nearly 29 points on 48% shooting, and along with Stephen Curry, he’s the only other high-volume scorer (25 ppg or better) with 48-40-85 splits, according to Stathead.

Now, to the defense. After years of playing alongside Rudy Gobert, a vortex in the paint, Mitchell has two high-level defenders in the interior with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.

He’s vocal on defense and most of all, he’s putting forth the effort to keep things on a string. The 13-8 Cavaliers are fourth in defensive rating and third in points per game against.

Mitchell is listed at 6-foot-1, so there’s only so much he can do against high-level wings. But he’s enormously athletic and stocky, which means activity counts for a lot — and can do wonders when a team already has an established defensive culture.

“Defensively, he talks and communicates, and anticipates plays are happening in front of him,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff told Yahoo Sports. “So there’s more to him than, you know, just the easy offense stuff that you see.”

Bickerstaff called around the league, just to do his own intel on Mitchell when the Cavaliers acquired him weeks before training camp, as is custom for this very small ecosystem. But Bickerstaff admitted there’s nothing like bringing a guy into your own building.

“Understanding what type of person he is, what kind of teammate that he is,” Bickerstaff said. “The type of leader he is, he communicates with his teammates. All those things have been very impressive.”

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell dribbles against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 28, 2022, in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell dribbles against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 28, 2022, in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

Mitchell implores Cedi Osman to “keep shooting” open threes, even the ones early in the shot clock, because it might be the best and only shot available before things get to 911 territory. Ditto for second-year big man Mobley. The more Mobley feels comfortable in extending his range, the better it is for Mitchell and Darius Garland to navigate through the crowded lanes.

The way Mitchell talked about Mobley, given Mobley’s enormous potential, one would think Mitchell would take Mobley under his wing as a pet project.

“With Ev, it’s a mindset. Understanding on a nightly basis what you have to do,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports. “I want him to be aggressive, be decisive. If you’re gonna f*** up, f*** up the right way, f*** up hard. Sometimes the message is stronger, sometimes it’s softer.”

But he’s really taken to Garland, the backcourt mate with whom he shares the ball. Garland struggled last season in late-game situations, not a surprise given his relative inexperience despite the All-Star status. Mitchell alleviates that.

But because Mitchell is coming in as a high-volume piece and will control so many possessions late in games, it’s imperative he doesn’t separate himself or insulate himself from teammates.

Mitchell openly criticized his own shot selection against the Pistons, where the Cavaliers struggled early before coming back to take control in the fourth quarter. Mitchell was 9 for 23, while Garland was 4 of 19.

They both had to work themselves into the game, and against a better opponent, it could’ve cost them. It didn’t, though, and it’s better to learn through the process of winning than leaving with an L.

Taking accountability sounds obvious considering everything is so public, but it means more for a player like Mitchell to do it in the early stages of a relationship with the locker room.

“I didn’t start the game out the way I wanted to. I didn’t set that tone, took some bad ones [shots],” Mitchell said in the interview room. “I missed a lot of guys who were open. I gotta be better at finding guys. But we didn’t hang our head, that’s the testament of a team that’s mentally growing.”

It’s not exactly a secret that premier players often operate as a proxy for management. That can create an uncomfortable living space in a locker room, especially considering the salary disparity from the top player to, perhaps, someone on a rookie deal.

But Bickerstaff and Mitchell have had numerous conversations so far, and Mitchell operates like he’s just one of the guys — even if by pedigree, he isn’t.

“One of the things that has impressed me most is, Donovan doesn’t want to be different from his teammates. Donovan wants to be a part of it,” Bickerstaff told Yahoo Sports. “And because he’s embraced that mentality, like the guys see him as their peer, right, and it’s easy for him to say things because he’s not on the outside looking in with the group.

“You know, he’s just as tight a member of the group as anybody we’ve had here, so that makes his job easier. And people listen to him because of what he’s accomplished.”

Mitchell said it wasn’t necessarily a conscious effort, but no one would fault him if it was. If Cleveland is going to crack the seal on the middle class of the Eastern Conference, it’ll be because Mitchell evolves into an inspiring leader who galvanizes younger teammates against more seasoned competitors in Milwaukee and Boston.

“I’ve always been that way. No one’s above the team,” Mitchell said. “Understanding I have a role, I have a job. If you can make everybody feel better, as a group you can go farther.

“Yeah I may score X amount of points, but at the end of the day, I can’t do my job unless I have great support from my teammates and my teammates can’t do their job unless they have great support from me.”