The story has been etched into Donovan Mitchell’s mythos: After a workout with then-Clippers guard Chris Paul, the nine-time All-Star told the young Louisville star that he should declare for the NBA Draft — he didn’t need to go back to school.
Nicole Mitchell, Donovan mother, was less easily swayed.
Even though she’s watched her son play in hundreds, if not thousands, of basketball games by now, she doesn’t claim to be an expert on the NBA Draft. But she is an expert on education, and she did painstaking research as Donovan weighed his decision. Even when she came to agree that going pro was the right move, she added conditions.
“It’s an ongoing conversation with us: You’re not going to give up on your degree,” she said. “You’re going to have time to come back to it. To me, that’s just something you do.”
Even as some of his teammates have snickered at his offseason ambitions, Mitchell is enrolling in online classes at the University of Louisville this summer. With just over two years’ worth of college credits, he’s going to chip away at his degree.
Maybe snickers are understandable. At 21, Mitchell is making $2.6 million this season as a rookie in the NBA — not just any rookie, but the kind of player that most basketball observers expect to sign a max contract within the next four years. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars. Real wealth.
What can a college degree get him that basketball cannot?
Part of it is that he expected to go back to school anyway last spring, and he liked it at Louisville. Part of it is that he wants to be a broadcaster someday, and formal training will help. Part of it is that he sees a degree as something permanent, once earned that never can be taken away.
“I’m the type of person that if I put it off, I’ll forget about it,” he says. “But I really am just focused on that and determined to get it. It’s a good thing to have, especially as a basketball player.”
But there’s at least one more thing that keeps him in this pursuit: He promised his mom he’d do it. With everything she’s done for him, with everything she’s pushed him to do, it’s a promise he has to keep.
The story really begins in a hallway — a hallway Nicole Mitchell didn’t really belong in.
Nicole worked in the New York public school system as an accounts payable clerk before Donovan was born. She always was good with numbers, and it had led her to college, a career in banking, then doing books for schools. But the more time she spent in the building, the more she was drawn to the corridors, buzzing with activity, electric with possibility and potential.
Doing the numbers was her job. But teaching — that was exciting.
“I spent more time in the hallways talking to the kids and the other teachers than I spent in my office,” she said. “And that’s how I became involved in education.”
Nicole’s parents were Panamanian immigrants, and they wanted the best for her and her two siblings when they moved from Brooklyn to Westchester, N.Y. It wasn’t really until college that Nicole realized that she was missing things she didn’t know she needed.
Other students were used to the structure of formal education, and they knew how to deal with professors, balance assignments and make the experience work more for them. Nicole felt she had to work twice as hard to get the same grades.
“School was always tricky for me,” she says. “If you don’t have that foundation, you’re always one step behind. My family was just kind of figuring themselves out. So I had a normal education, then I got to college and found out, ‘Wow, there’s some really smart people out there.’”
Nicole became determined through those experiences to give her children every possible advantage, no matter how extraordinary and no matter the cost.
If you look at the cost of where Donovan and his sister Jordan went to school, it’s undoubtedly steep. They both attended Greenwich Country Day, which carries a tuition of $37,000 or more per student. They both went to boarding school at Brewster Academy, which lists its tuition at $62,600 per student for the next school year. Scholarships helped mitigate some of that expense, but the Mitchells still wrote checks — and gladly.
“I believe education is the key to getting from one level to the next,” Nicole says. “It’s heavy. People say that, but I truly understand that.”
Throughout Donovan’s and Jordan’s time at Greenwich, Nicole, who teaches preschool there, kept a watchful eye on them. She conferenced with their teachers to check in on their grades. Back then, they didn’t understand how she had such a hawk-like sense of when they were coming home with a bad mark.
“In the house? School was a big importance. To me? Not so much,” Donovan says. “I just loved recess, gym and lunch. That was it. My mom was real adamant on me about it.”
When Donovan started showing signs that he was interested in following his father’s footsteps as a professional athlete (Donovan Mitchell Sr. was a minor league baseball player who still works for the New York Mets), Nicole doubled down.
She listed off questions. How will he manage his money? How will he know how to navigate contracts and business dealings? How will he know information people tell him can be trusted without doing his own research?
“All that comes from having a good education,” she says “Once you have that degree and people can see that on your business card or on your wall, they will view you in a different way. People will respect you once you respect yourself. You’re investing in yourself. That’s the biggest thing.”
It wasn’t easy to get Donovan to invest.
He doesn’t remember the assignment or the class. Donovan just remembers the anger.
He was in the eighth grade, already a budding star and a key player on his AAU team, The City. They were about to play a big tournament in Pittsburg, Pa. — they were, anyway, but Donovan was not.
Nicole remembers the assignment and the class, of course. Donovan had been assigned to memorize an address for public speaking. The deal was if he memorized it by Saturday morning, Nicole would drive him to the tournament. If not, he wasn’t going.
Nicole, at least, was as good as her word.
“I was piiiissssed,” Donovan still remembers. “I was mad.”
It wasn’t just Donovan lobbying to go to the basketball tournament. While her son tried to plead and bargain that he would memorize the speech on the trip, parents, coaches and even the owner of the AAU team called. They would help him with his homework, they said. The other kids needed Donovan for this tournament, they said, and they would lose without him.
Nicole would not be moved. She was stoic as she told every caller that her son was staying home that weekend. It was only afterward, sheltered in her bathroom, that she allowed herself to cry.
“It was awful,” she remembers. “But from that moment on, he realized, ‘This is what I have to do to play basketball.’”
There was a consistent message throughout Donovan’s childhood: Sports can be taken away. Education is the priority. Donovan wasn’t the only one Nicole had to convince.
When Nicole moved her children to private school in Connecticut, she heard endless criticism. Friends, family and basketball evaluators thought Donovan could be an athletic star, but Greenwich Country Day was an academic powerhouse where his talents would be wasted. They would’ve preferred he take the more accepted route of sending him to Catholic schools in Westchester, N.Y., closer to the city.
“I was ruining his sporting life. I’m hindering him. I’m holding him back — these were the words I heard for years on end,” Nicole says. “But he listened to me. I told him, ‘You’re going to play AAU in the city and go to school in Connecticut. You’re going to live in two different worlds. We’re going to make this work.’”
Through taxing nagging over homework and long commutes to basketball practices, Donovan got the private school education Nicole wanted, and he also starred on his AAU team. When Donovan transferred high schools again, Nicole again got what she wanted out of the deal, an education at prestigious prep school Brewster Academy, and Mitchell got to play for an elite basketball program, even though it was outside of New York. He suited up and studied at stuffy, predominantly white schools during the week, and he was allowed to cut loose with the friends he had grown up with on the weekends.
It was at Brewster where Donovan really began to find his footing. When he was home, he had his mom to get him on track. At boarding school, he was accountable to himself. Brewster would send Nicole updates on his grades every week, accompanied by reflective notes written by Donovan himself.
Nicole feared the worst, that without her watching over him, he would crash. But to her surprise, it started to click.
“I think that’s when it really shifted my mindset,” he says now. “That’s when I started getting As and Bs as opposed to Cs and borderline Ds. Just being able to be proactive and being away from home and having to study on your own allowed me to mature much faster.”
It’s true that Donovan was a star athlete, winning two prep national championships at Brewster. But he was also so much more. At Greenwich, he played drums in the school band and sang in the choir. He had a duet in a school production of Oliver!. He was class prefect as a senior, the Brewster equivalent to class president, and he gave campus tours.
“Usually the big time athletes stick to themselves, but he was very involved in the community,” Brewster athletic director Matt Lawlor said shortly after Mitchell was drafted last summer. “Everybody liked him whether they liked basketball or not.”
What Donovan began to understand was that not every one of the players he had grown up knowing could say the same. Some once-promising prospects he knew who had gone the more accepted route fell off — either for not making grades or diverging from school completely.
“The friends I had in private school and in AAU are still friends I have to this day,” Mitchell said. “Some of my friends I had when I was younger aren’t necessarily on the right path.”
From his 6-foot-10 wingspan to his 40-inch vertical leap, Donovan Mitchell has obvious physical gifts that set him apart from other NBA rookies in his class. But just as important as those traits — and arguably more important — is his mind.
When Mitchell first joined the Jazz at Summer League, coach Quin Snyder noticed he was over-reliant on a certain move: a left-side drive, followed by a right-side spin. In July, the Utah coaching staff assembled a 12-part video of different players finishing with different moves: jumping off the right foot and finishing with the left hand; jumping off the left foot and finishing with a floater; etc.
The video was intended to be something Mitchell worked on throughout his rookie season, something the staff would revisit when they had time to develop him. But he had one move down by August. Another by September. The pace at which he has added moves continues to surprise the rest of the NBA — his coaches included.
“He hasn’t gotten all of them yet, but you saw the work he put in,” Snyder said earlier this season. “Usually it takes a lot of time for people to master those things. And the situation he’s been in with our team, we’ve needed him to stretch his game like that. It’s the speed at which he’s developed which has been most impressive.”
Mitchell caught the NBA’s attention after a rugged first five games by increasing his scoring, assists and shooting percentage each of his first three months in the league. He has won Western Conference Rookie of the Month three times in a row while leading all rookies in scoring (20 point per game).
That development is not borne out of completely intuitive basketball feel, but rather diligent study. Snyder has said he has tried to not put too much on his star rookie’s plate, but Mitchell always seems to be ready to ask for more. Privately, he sometimes thinks of doing his personal film study in the way he used to think of homework back at Brewster.
“Going to boarding school allowed me to understand not to put things off — just to do it,” Mitchell says. “Now I have unlimited time now that I don’t have school work, so I think that really helps. But it is a way of studying, a way of learning and comprehending certain things.”
That comprehension has made talent evaluators all over the NBA question how they couldn’t have seen Mitchell coming. He was considered a defensive-first player out of Louisville with a raw offensive game. Now he’s being compared to the likes of Dwyane Wade and Damian Lillard, and he’s not even through his first season.
Even the Jazz acknowledge they didn’t quite envision the success Mitchell has had so far. But while many coaches have said this season that they thought he nailed his workouts and interviews with their teams, it’s possible the Jazz simply valued some of those traits more. As a franchise that stakes its reputation on player development, they saw a player they believed could get a lot better.
There’s something of an urban legend now about Mitchell’s Jazz workout last spring. Immediately afterward, general manager Dennis Lindsey told his staff (somewhat threateningly, according to more colorful accounts) to not say a word to anyone about what they had seen. Lindsey recently confirmed that he had sworn people in the organization to silence, in part because what they saw was that Mitchell had developed much faster than expected even since the end of his Louisville career two months earlier.
“It was obvious that whatever work he had put in since the season, he had gotten a lot better and was learning on the fly,” Lindsey said. “It was a hard day for me because I told [team president] Steve Starks when I came in, ‘Steve, I want to move up for Donovan,’ but I didn’t have anything. So while we knew the guy we wanted, there was a good chance we wouldn’t end up having.”
But the characteristic that has arguably most impressed the Jazz is what made Mitchell his class prefect back at Brewster. He has a charisma and a social adaptability that has allowed him to fit in seamlessly with the locker room and his teammates. He’s talkative, possesses a sharp wit and is outgoing. He knows when to crack jokes, but he also knows when to cede the floor to Utah’s veterans.
Even as players such as Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert tease that a massive rookie prank is on its way for Mitchell, it’s telling that they haven’t gotten around to it yet.
“That speaks to the level of his character, his maturity, his sincerity,” Lindsey says. “If he was not high-level in all of those areas, Ricky Rubio or Joe Ingles would sniff that out. … That’s pretty unique for a 21-year-old rookie. It may sound all intangible, but for us it’s so important, that it’s intangibly tangible. You can just feel it.”
No matter how quickly Mitchell finishes at Louisville, he’ll be playing catchup.
Nicole is living her own advice, finishing her master’s degree in education. She would’ve finished last spring, but Donovan’s decision to go pro didn’t just set his schoolwork back. So if postseason plans allow, he’ll be one of her proudest supporters at her graduation in May.
With her business and education backgrounds, Nicole wants to open her own school someday. She wants to help students who have the disadvantages she had to reach opportunities that her children did.
His athletic gifts aside, Nicole never will stop believing that in her push to give her son the best possible education, she also could help propel him toward the success he has found, both on the court and off. It helped him find that next level. And Donovan believes that, too.
But there’s something even more important he’s taken away from his education. He’s not just doing it so he can go to a tournament anymore. He’s not just doing it to make his mom happy.
“A lot of that is because of her, but a lot of that is because I’m starting to notice it myself,” he says. “And I think that’s been the biggest thing. Being able to do it on my own has been one of the bigger changes for me.”