As the Knicks and Jazz go back and forth on Donovan Mitchell, as trade packages get bandied about in terms of the assets it would take for Leon Rose and Co. to land the All-Star guard from Elmsford, N.Y., what has gotten lost somewhat is the level of player being discussed.
A three-time All-Star at the age of 25. A player who has averaged 23.9 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds, along with shooting 36.1 percent from 3-point range, over his sterling, five-year career. A magnetic personality. The type of talent the Knicks haven’t employed since the days of Carmelo Anthony, and one who is just hitting his prime now.
“Listen, I don’t know what the expiration date is on saying he’s still young, but the guy’s still young. He still has room to grow, and I think he will,” Thurl Bailey, a former Jazz star and analyst on the team’s pre- and postgame shows, told The Post in a phone interview. “I think he’s a superstar already.”
As a Jazz employee, Bailey declined to address the trade talks or how Mitchell would handle playing back home in New York City. He was willing to break down the player he has known since he entered the league five years ago.
Bailey has had a courtside seat for Mitchell’s mostly brilliant NBA career. He saw the former Louisville star, as the 13th pick in the 2017 draft, make an unexpectedly immediate impact as a rookie and develop into one of the sport’s best small guards. He witnessed a selfless and personable star who didn’t change even as his bank account did, frequently giving his game-worn sneakers to young fans and chatting with people, from media members to fans, at the team hotel.
“He’s not a guy who walks straight to the elevator or straight to the training room,” Bailey said. “You can tell who the giving souls are, you can tell who the guys are that are selfish, and you can tell why guys do things, and Donovan isn’t one of those guys who does it for publicity. He does it because that’s the way he is. He was raised with that quality, and he hasn’t lost it. That says a lot about a player of his caliber to me.”
To Bailey, Mitchell is the entire package: an elite star who handles pressure well, just 25 years old and already one of the sport’s premier offensive players, a charismatic and outgoing guy who other stars gravitate toward.
Sure, there are a few issues. Mitchell is just 6-foot-1, and his defense has come under criticism on occasion. His career postseason record is 3-6, and he’s been a part of some very strong teams in Utah, particularly the 52-win team last year that blew a 2-0 lead to the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs.
It can be easy to forget, because Mitchell has basically been a star since entering the league, that he is just now approaching what should be his best basketball years. He doesn’t turn 26 until September. There remains room for growth.
“One of the things that Donovan can and will get better at is his on-court leadership. It’s OK to get into a guy on your team every now and then,” Bailey said. “There is a way to do it. One of the elements that I have been waiting to see [out of him] is that alpha dog attitude. I’d like to see a little bit more of that outwardly from Donovan, especially in difficult games, difficult parts of the season. I think he has it in him.
“Whoever is around him respects him in that way. This doesn’t mean yelling all the time. It just means not taking any crap, saying, ‘C’mon guys, this is the moment.’ I’ve seen a certain level of that, but I think at this stage of the game, that has to be a little louder.”
Perhaps the biggest question for Mitchell, if he does indeed find his way home to the Knicks, is what level of a star he’ll become. Can he be a No. 1 guy on a championship team? Does he fit better as a No. 2? Will his presence allow the Knicks to draw a big-time star down the road?
“I think he can be that guy in the right situation, with the right surroundings,” Bailey said. “Donovan is super-hungry to get there and to win it, and it’s not just up to him. He’s a big piece of it, but in today’s league you have to have a lot of different elements and ingredients.”