ATLANTA, GA (WAVE) - No one saw this coming; Former UofL guard Donovan Mitchell is already an NBA star for the Utah Jazz.
"You know I'm just trying to take it game by game, you know I think that's the biggest thing, it's been a whirlwind of experiences for me.," Mitchell said.
Through his first 53 NBA games, Mitchell has started 45 and is averaging 19.4 points a game. Twice he has scored 40 or more.
"This wasn't in my head you know, at all, obviously as a little kid you picture these things, but I didn't think it would happen so fast," he said.
He's impressed NBA royalty like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
"It's pretty surreal, there are a bunch of times where I try my hardest not to smile or to show that I'm in awe," Mitchell admitted. "I think that's been the biggest thing, when LeBron first talked with me DWade, you see like me like covering my mouth, just because I was so excited. At the end of the day you want to beat those guys. After the first initial it was like, ok, now I'm coming for you."
His fast start has energized a Utah fan base that was spurned by Gordon Hayward in the offseason. He turned down a lucrative offer to stay with the Jazz, instead opting to sign with Boston.
"Fans embracing him because he embraced the city so much, he attends BYU games, he attends University of Utah games," Deseret News report Eric Woodyard said. "He's visible in the community and he wants to be in Utah, so I think that's why they love him in Utah."
Woodyard filmed an amazing scene as thousands lined up to meet Mitchell at an event at a sock store in a Salt Lake City mall.
"He originally thought it would be three or four hundred people there, and you look up and it's 1,300 or 1,400 people there," Woodyard remembers.
His head coach, Quin Snyder, was impressed by Mitchell during NBA Summer League action, but says his new star really never ceases to amaze him.
"There wasn't a light bulb that said 'Oh we have to change what we're doing,' it's just gradually more responsibility that we wanted to give to him, particularly at the offensive end and he was able to assume it and expand on it," Snyder said. "And when someone does something, it's like, he finished eating, let's put some more food on his plate,"
Mitchell figures to get even more attention this coming weekend when he is a participant in the Verizon Slam Dunk contest during NBA All-Star weekend in Los Angeles.
He's been working on some special dunks.
"A little bit, yeah, a few things," Mitchell said.
Mitchell has already impressed former Slam Dunk Champion Dominique Wilkins, who won it in 1985 and in 1990.
"Yeah he can get up a little bit, he got a little rise," Wilkins said. "But you know he reminds me, you said a guy a few minutes ago, Darrell Griffith, he's got that kind of jumping ability."
Wilkins finished third in the first dunk contest of the modern era in 1985. Larry Nance won it, Julius "Dr. J" Erving was second and former UofL star Darrell Griffith was fourth.
In 1981, Griffith won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. He played all 10 of his pro seasons with the Jazz and his #35 is retired by the franchise. Former UofL star Wes Unseld was also named NBA Rookie of the Year. He won in 1969.
Mitchell is considered a frontrunner, along with Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. Simmons averages 16.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists. He was the #1 in the 2016 NBA Draft, but sat out all of last season with an injury.
The awards are nice, but Mitchell has a clear goal in mind.
"Playoffs, I've got to make the playoffs," Mitchell said. "That's been my focus since the beginning of the year, just trying to make the playoffs, get to know that experience."
The Jazz currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference. The top eight teams make the playoffs. They are 28-28, but have won nine in a row and are just a game and a half behind eighth place New Orleans.
Based on what we've seen from Mitchell so far, is a playoff run really out of the question?