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How Donovan Mitchell and Pascal Siakam went from late bloomers to All-Stars

As the final moments dwindled in the Utah Jazz’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 4, 2019, Donovan Mitchell dwindled with them, missing 15 of his 25 shot attempts.

“It’s just one of those things, you know? It’s only my third year, so I’m still trying to figure things out as well,” Mitchell told reporters after the game, shrugging his shoulders and tilting his head, looking for answers to questions that have perplexed Utah. “I’m looking to my vets and sometimes we all go through things we don’t really have an answer for. The biggest thing is to stick with it and trust it.”

There was no other way to slice it. Mitchell and the Jazz were in a rut. He could have headed back to the arena or stopped by the practice facility for a late-night sparring session against the rim. He went with an off-court sanctuary instead: his drum set. For two and a half hours, Mitchell escaped into a series of different playlists, forgetting he shot 36 percent from the floor over the course of a five-game road trip with only one win. He got lost and found himself rejuvenated. Only his shot was broken. Not his drumsticks.

"I think it just helps clear your mind,” he said. “I think it allows you to just go out there and just play free and not really stress about the games prior and stuff that may have happened, a bad game you may have had individually. You can go out there and just hoop.”

Donovan Mitchell and Pascal Siakam followed their own paths to the NBA.(Associated Press)

The Jazz then went on a 18-2 run before hitting their current five-game losing streak. Next weekend, Mitchell will join Rudy Gobert at the All-Star Game, marking the first time two Jazz players have made it in the same year since the Vivint Smart Home Arena was called the Delta Center and it belonged to John Stockton and Karl Malone.

In 2012, when Mitchell was a high school sophomore, he never envisioned being an NBA All-Star. He dabbled in basketball. But he dabbled in drums and soccer, too. He aspired to play pro baseball until a broken wrist wiped out his AAU season and turned his attention toward basketball. At the same time, a 17-year-old Pascal Siakam was just starting to play organized ball. Now, they are both first-time All-Stars. Early specialization has set off a crisis in amateur basketball. Young athletes practice and play excessively, sometimes to their own detriment. Yet the top of the NBA is littered with late bloomers. Giannis Antetokounmpo discovered the game five years before he was drafted. Joel Embiid, a Cameroonian like Siakam, started playing when he was fifteen.

David Epstein’s new book, “Range”, is filled with stories of generalists who took the long and winding road to success, eventually finding a field of expertise that suited them. He suggests the seemingly uncanny improvement of late bloomers is actually not uncanny or unique, but instructive. "Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts,” he writes. "Instead, they undergo what researchers call a 'sampling period.' They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.” Epstein’s argument is convincing and well-researched, but it’s counter-intuitive and it runs against modern edicts. You almost have to have lived it to believe it. Siakam and Mitchell did.

Some of it is self-evident. Playing soccer gave Siakam an edge when it came to post footwork. “Being coordinated, being an athlete, being able to run, being able to move as a big, move my feet, things like that definitely translated to the game,” Siakam said. It’s likely that Mitchell’s ability to make music improved his aptitude. Developing multiple skill sets familiarizes people with the process of success, which requires failure. As a result, they’re less likely to get down on themselves during the valleys, which helps them find higher peaks.

In Siakam’s second year, he missed 78 percent of the threes he took, but in warmups, a smile would always rip through his frustrations. He says he inherited the positivity from his father, Tchamo, who was killed in a car accident during Siakam's sophomore season at New Mexico State. Devastated, he channeled his pain into a career college year that entrenched his faith in himself — and in the reps. “I had a bigger purpose,” he said. "I worked for something bigger than myself. It kinda showed in the play."

When he was clanking all those triples, Siakam told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, "I can’t wait until I’m a good shooter.” Not if. Until. “Because that’s always what I believed in,” Siakam said. "I always believed that if I put the work in, the result is gonna come. Time and time again, it happened, so I just have, like, a blind trust to that. I believe that, like, for real.” As of this moment, Siakam is shooting almost six threes per game at a 36.5 percent clip.

Mitchell opened the second and third quarters against the Thunder with missed pull-up threes. He looked fundamentally sound but mechanical, deliberate, not fluid. Later in the third, he pulled up again and missed again. On the next play, he drilled the staple the Jazz want him to shake: a pull-up two from 18 feet. “Having to fall back on the things that I have had success on, and how much work I’ve put into that, I think that definitely helps me for understanding that if I do put my reps in, if I do continue to play and work through it, that it will get better.”

Unlike Mitchell, whose talent demanded playing time, Siakam was once a rim-runner who got sent to the G League to polish his skills. In the NBA, his motor kept him on the floor just enough to develop the 360-degree spin move that fastened him to the court. From there, he added a counter hook, a corner three, a pull-up three. These days, he’s releasing Dirk-esque fadeaways from 12 feet.

Each slowly built out from his staples. With every made shot and post move acquired, hope transitioned to certainty and self-belief hardened into an unflinching worldview. "I wasn’t supposed to be here. I didn’t think I’d be here. But now that I am here, like, 'OK, how did I get here? How do I stay here?’ It’s the work that I put in on a daily basis, throughout the summer, throughout the season. I think that’s one thing that really helps, just continuing to find ways to remove all self-doubt, remove all self-questions.”

A brief overview of his career stats suggests Mitchell’s efficiency has not improved much. 

(NBA.com)

But the process of improvement, according to Epstein, can look like regression. “Learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress,” he writes. "That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”

Mitchell does take some bad shots. "We have a phrase, where I tell him: He can’t play angry, or he can’t shoot angry,” assistant coach Johnnie Bryant said. But not every tough shot is a bad shot. Over the last 15 games, Mitchell is taking 1.4 more pull-ups per game than he averaged in the last two years and only hitting 30 percent of them.  According to Bryant, Mitchell never shies away from a new suggestion. Why would he? Trying new things got him to where he is now.

Mistakes, in the social media era, are etched into permanence by way of gif, drudged up in the face of every failure. The more mistakes, the more schadenfreude, the more opportunities to get off jokes. But ask any NBA trainer and he or she will heap praise on players who try things. Mistakes, in the context of development, are a sign of progress, a chance taken.

Former Spurs assistant coach Chad Forcier considered it a distinguishing factor for Kawhi Leonard, telling Yahoo Sports in April, “There were a number of times where I’ve seen him be able to go to the game and try something he worked on [at shootaround] and actually execute. I don’t know how many of your fans or your readers understand that not a lot of guys can do that.” Siakam shares that practical but uncommon tendency to the extreme. It was in the middle of the NBA Finals that he started taking stepback jumpers.

Field-goal percentage won’t tell the full story of Mitchell or Siakam’s improvement. Siakam’s has dropped by 8 percent this year, but he is, by all reasonable accounts, a more dangerous player now. Consider these heat maps instead, pitting two lifelong ballers, Lauri Markkenen and Ben Simmons, against Mitchell and Siakam.

(NBA.com)
(NBA.com)

When Markkenen was 10, he tracked the hours he spent practicing in a diary. He turned himself into a sharpshooter with endless, documented repetition.

But now, Markkenen is struggling to create off the dribble or in the post, to diversity beyond hitting threes. Simmons has the opposite problem. Markkanen is back in his old bag these days, to greater success, and the early-season struggles may pay off down the line if he sticks to expanding. Every player has a ceiling, but it shouldn’t be set by his first failure.

"Being able to understand that it may not be great the first month, week, year, you know, season,” Mitchell said. “Whatever it may be, I think understanding that if you put your mind to it and continue to work, it’ll come around.”

Siakam is a textbook benefactor of anti-specialization. He was a directionless, rebellious, teenager who drifted between hobbies, flew by in the seminary school his dad sent him to without trying until he became so bored that he used open insubordination as a tactic to escape. 

Basketball scholarships pried three of his brothers out of Cameroon, but Siakam, in his words, “wanted to do something different. I hated following my brothers. I wanted to do something else. I always was that type of kid. If everyone did something, I wanted to do something different."

Until one day, he went with his friends to Luc Mbah a Moute’s basketball camp, where he started to fall in love with the game. In 2012, when he was invited to a Basketball Without Borders camp, he came to terms with his inheritance: Basketball was his calling, and it could get him out of Cameroon, too. "I always felt like I had to put the time in because I started late,” he said. “That was kinda the attitude I always carried. I felt like I had to catch up.” It hardly occurred to him that his late start was a gift. Despite the late start, Siakam became the best player in his family.

Siakam and Mitchell possess otherworldly athleticism and information-processing ability. They are also likely to be wired more optimistically than most. Those factors coalesced to fuel their hope, which in turn gave them the endurance to plow through failures until they became successful. Self-belief is powerful, somewhat inherent. It can, in part, be engineered. There’s a lesson there for everyone. 

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