Jazz fans have reason to be excited in the midst of big-name, NBA stars pulling out of USA basketball’s FIBA World Cup team. To date eight of the 24 selected practice participants have withdrawn their names from consideration for the final team. Kemba Walker is the sole remaining all-NBA player and of the 20 eligible all-star candidates to join the team only three all-stars remain: Walker, Khris Middleton and Kyle Lowry. Of note, many expect Kyle Lowry to eventually withdraw his name as well, citing his recent thumb surgery that he may want to fully rehab from before the start of the NBA season.
While there is certainly room for criticism regarding the rationale for some players’ withdrawal, it is a conversation Jazz fans should probably sit out. Why? Third-year Utah guard, Donovan Mitchell, has seen his chances of making the final roster skyrocket recently to the point that he is now almost certainly a lock to make the team. Prior to the mass exodus of players, Mitchell was up against the likes of James Harden, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, DeMar Derozan, and more if he wanted to make the team. All of those players are NBA veterans with much more experience than Mitchell, and many have prior USA basketball experience, meaning the likelihood of their making the team was likely far greater than Mitchell’s. At present, Walker, Mitchell, Lowry, and the recently named replacements Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, are the only remaining guards to fill the roster. Mitchell is arguably the second-best player among the remaining field.
Utah Jazz emerging star Donovan Mitchell is keeping his commitment to USA Basketball this summer, league sources tell Yahoo Sports.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) July 23, 2019
Still, as many stars have pulled out I have seen some wishing Mitchell would follow suit. He will not be withdrawing, according to Yahoo NBA insider, Chris Haynes, however, many Jazz fans seem to want Mitchell to avoid injury and stay home to work on his game for the upcoming season in which Utah figures to be a title contender. The concerns are perhaps valid, but there are at least three reasons Jazz fans ought to silence those concerns and be grateful and excited for Mitchell’s presence at the FIBA World Cup.
By all accounts, Mitchell would still be playing basketball even if he chose not to play for Team USA. This reality should assuage some of the injury concerns, as he would be just as likely to be injured in scrimmages and pick-up games as he will be competing for Team USA. The difference between the two? Competition.
By participating for Team USA Mitchell has the opportunity to make his court time count. He has something tangible and recognizable to play for rather than the vague idea of getting ready for the season. There will be no opportunity to take things easy, to let up and not go 100 percent. That sense of competition and the hunger to win is also going to be accentuated by all of the skepticism that the presently constructed team is facing. Having lost all of the team’s so-called ‘star power’, it seems reasonable to believe that Mitchell would see this as an opportunity to prove his own star power to all of his doubters. Not only will he be competing for the trophy, he’ll be competing for proper recognition on an international stage. The fire that this competition will stoke in Mitchell should have Jazz fans enthused. He is going to hit the court running this fall, with more confidence than we could probably imagine.
But competition will do even more for Mitchell. Competition brings out the best of our abilities and having the opportunity to implement the things he’s been working on in a real, high stakes situation will do infinitely more for his game improvement than scrimmaging would. I am speaking somewhat anecdotally here, but in my experience playing basketball, I know that I always got a lot more from trying to do things in a real game.
Something changes when the stakes are raised. The blood flows differently, dribbles are not as tight or fluid, shot mechanics are altered slightly by excitement or anxiety, even breathing becomes a whole new task. Everything is different when the ante is upped and the possibility for reward rises exponentially.
Rather than take the path of least resistance in the offseason and complain about the challenge of a double team because that’s the sort of “ish” that you have to deal with throughout the entire regular season (I’m looking at you, Devin Booker), Mitchell has the opportunity to be challenged and to learn to adapt in the midst of fierce competition.
Do I need to give context on coach Gregg Popovich? He’s is a five-time NBA champion and three-time coach of the year during his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs. He is currently the third all-time winningest coach in NBA history, surpassing Jazz legend Jerry Sloan just last season. He is also highly regarded as the best coach in the NBA at present.
Mitchell stands to learn a great deal as he works alongside Pop for Team USA. That’s no knock on Quin Snyder or the rest of the Utah Jazz coaching staff, who many Jazz fans argue Mitchell should stay and train with. But the opportunity to work with one of the greatest coaches of all time is an opportunity you simply do not pass up. Working with Pop is an opportunity to have a new and wise set of eyes look over Mitchell’s game and offer coaching advice that others might not have recognized. This is an opportunity for Mitchell to learn from one of the best to ever coach the game.
Now, to be fair, were another coach to run the team this year there might be greater cause for reticence. If it were a coach whose style differed radically from the team-based system that the Jazz run, for instance. But Popovich does not fit that mold. Much of the current Jazz system is based on Spurs principles instilled by Pop and learned by Snyder when he coached the Spurs D-League affiliate team, the Austin Toros. Sure, Team USA does not typically play the most team-oriented game in basketball, but the principles from Pop are still there.
Even if Mitchell does end up playing more 1-on-1 for Team USA than he would the Jazz, the opportunity to lead a team of high quality players, be the captain (Of note, New York Times reporter, Mark Stein, says there has been no formal captain named. Rather, Popovich is looking to Walker, Mitchell, and Marcus Smart to take on leadership roles.) of a system devised by one of basketball’s greatest coaches, and compete against some of the best talent in the world in high stakes games during the offseason can only serve to help Mitchell take his game to the next level.
Every Jazz fan ought to know by now that Mitchell received his first signature shoe made by Adidas, the DON Issue 1. He is the first Jazz player since Karl Malone to have his own signature shoe, proving himself to be one of the most (arguably the most) internationally recognized players of all time. He followed that release with an international promotional tour. Now, Mitchell has the opportunity to be the face of the favorite team to win the FIBA World Cup.
For Americans, the FIBA World Cup may not seem like the most exciting stage for Mitchell to show his talents. There has long been a stigma in the United States that the World Cup is worth less than the Olympics. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that so many star players would drop out of Team USA for the Olympics.
For the rest of the world, the World Cup holds tremendous value. All international competition is important to most other countries. Consider soccer. The FIFA World Cup is as big as the Olympics, arguably larger. For many of the athletes, any international competition offers the chance to compete against the world’s best, usually tied up with their NBA obligations. International competition offers the chance to prove their talents to scouts and to international audiences in environments typically not available to them.
This year, the international teams smell blood in the water. The United States is bleeding talent. Many of the big names that would have struck fear into opposing teams are gone. Team USA appears to be vulnerable and the other countries are eager to usurp and be able to claim that they were the ones to take out the United States.
Enter Donovan Mitchell. Now is the time for Mitchell to cement his name as one of the best players in the United States. Now is the time for Mitchell to beat back the excitement of these international teams and assert himself as the leader Popovich and Jazz fans know he can be. If he’s successful, if Mitchell can provide the same thrill on the international stage that he provides Jazz fans during the season, his notoriety is sure to grow on the international stage. Combine the show of talent with the tremendous human being Jazz fans know Mitchell to be, and Utah could have their first international superstar on their hands.
But it all starts with playing for Team USA. Rather than throw all of these opportunities out the window, Mitchell has chosen to make the best of opportunity. Opportunity breeds success, but only for those who choose to take advantage of the circumstances.