This is Donovan Mitchell’s moment

SHANGHAI — Watching Gregg Popovich work is one of the joys of being around Team USA.

During the NBA season when he’s in San Antonio he builds walls, actual and figurative, that purposely shield nuance. It’s understandable because it’s a competitive game, and Popovich, while often gregarious, prefers privacy.

But it’s also unfortunate, because it’s in those moments when Popovich becomes “Pop.”

In this setting with the national team, though, there are fewer barriers. There’s less time and less attachment. These players aren’t bound by contract, and in this scenario Popovich needs short-term buy-in more than the players need to give it.

It opens some windows into the revelatory Popovich stuff, and it’s happening in China as the U.S. gets ready to start the FIBA World Cup on Sunday when it takes on Czech Republic (ESPN+, 8:30 am ET).

Over the last month, a beneficiary of this situation appears to be Donovan Mitchell. And because of that, these could end up being transformative weeks for the Utah Jazz star.

He’s getting some special attention from Popovich, who needs Mitchell to be great for Team USA to win gold. But there’s another reason, and this is what the whole point is.

“When you tap somebody that has leadership ability, it’s better to start it sooner,” Popovich explained this week. “The quicker you make them feel responsible that they can do that, the better. Then if that person grabs onto it then you know you chose the right guy.”

This is the Popovich sauce, in this case a pearl about how to cultivate a young player by giving more trust. It actually follows a Popovich method, which is to buck the norm. You can see it in those sideline interviews he’s famous for. Come at him soft and he’ll often come back hard. Come hard and he’ll often go soft, keeping everyone off-balance.

His teams play that way. Earlier this decade, the Spurs led the revolution to taking more 3-pointers. Now that it’s a full-blown trend, the Spurs take among the fewest as Popovich complains about the state of the game.

After higher-profile stars left Team USA, Donovan Mitchell seized the opportunity to learn from Gregg Popovich, improve his all-around game and possibly enhance his image. Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

It goes against conventional wisdom that on a Team USA squad with a number of established veterans like Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Harrison Barnes, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee, that Popovich would guide one of the youngest into a leading voice.

But here the old master is working, it’s the 22-year-old Mitchell who he’s entrusting to guide this important enterprise. Popovich seems to see the leadership qualities in Mitchell that Jazz leadership and his Utah teammates have talked about for the last two years.

“There’s a lot of learning going on here,” Mitchell said. “This last month has helped me in tremendous ways.”

Mitchell is savvy about his place and his goals. He wants to be a big star, and on an American team without many there’s no doubt he smells opportunity. He’s more aware than most of image. He’s active in social media, especially China-focused channels. He has a new signature shoe line with Adidas and has leveraged his “Spider” nickname in a co-branded campaign with Spider-Man. This is the second time this summer he’s been in China, he came over in July for an Adidas tour, and it’s already clear he’s got growing popularity in the world’s biggest shoe market.

When the U.S. practiced this week at an international school and students lined up to take videos of the players, Mitchell was happy to pose for selfies and greet them. And they were excited to see him. Being popular with Chinese teenagers is important in the chase for international superstardom. And after a minor social media flap with Chinese fans last month — an apparently old video of Mitchell talking about a small group of Chinese autograph seekers was posted online and presented as new, and it caused some offense — he’s been keen to embrace them.

All of this is to say Mitchell had a different viewpoint when a bunch of big-name players backed out of Team USA. Yes, it made the mission of winning the World Cup harder. But it sure did open some real estate for Mitchell to grab.

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“My initial thought was I could come into this team and (show leadership),” Mitchell said. “But with guys coming in and out my role shifted a little bit.”

As in it got way bigger. While Mitchell knows how important a big three weeks would be for his brand, this isn’t about marketing. Popovich wouldn’t tolerate such motivations anyway. Mitchell is serious about this. He’s impressed his Team USA teammates with his intensity in practice and his film study in the run-up to Sunday’s opener.

“You wouldn’t think he’s the age he is, he’s ahead of his years,” Walker said. “He a natural-born leader. His skill set is unbelievable. He’s a great player but he knows he has so much room for improvement. He wants to work.”

On the floor, Mitchell has been impressive at times. There have been moments during the intrasquad scrimmages where he’s been the best player, and that showed up early during training camp in Las Vegas.

“He was one of the few guys we thought could make a big jump here,” Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “And he has.”

He hasn’t been the leading scorer, that’s been Walker, but he has been a playmaker. You can see Mitchell working in other ways, too. Defense has been a sore spot for Mitchell during his time with the Jazz. He’s a gifted offensive player and he averaged 24 points a game last season. But on defense, where the Jazz like to hang their hat, he hasn’t come along.

Gregg Popovich has entrusted Donovan Mitchell with a leadership role on Team USA, and even the veterans have noticed the young Utah Jazz star embracing the responsibility. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Popovich has spent the last month urging him to be a defensive leader. Because the U.S. doesn’t have the offensive weaponry it’s had in years past, the coaching staff is hoping athletic defense will be this team’s calling card. There’s been mixed results in that area in the exhibition games, but Mitchell and the other guards are a focal point on this front.

“I feel like I lead a lot by using my voice, it’s natural for me, but I also think it’s been more by example,” he said. “I feel the need to really get after a guy defensively and showing that. I feel like I need to find ways to disrupt the other team and apply that pressure they might not be used to. I think being able to set that tone is something I’m priding myself on. You can feel how defensive energy sets the tone, even on that position, and how we build from there.”

Whether Mitchell and his teammates follow through on that desire is pretty critical during this tournament. But he seems earnest about it, he talks about the need to not just talk a good game or lead by example but also to listen. He’s tried to listen to teammates as much as anything. What is remarkable, though, is his veteran teammates seem to come to him.

“He’s wise beyond his years I feel like,” said Middleton, the team’s other All-Star besides Walker. “He wants to elevate the players around him.”

That’s what Popovich is banking on. Seeing him pull Mitchell aside for little talks, tease him while also testing him during practices and, most likely, giving him important moments in these upcoming games is a big part of how Popovich is electing to coach this team.

Ultimately it’s why Popovich is here and why Team USA always matters — both for the task at hand and for the bigger moments that are sure to come in the bigger league where these guys actually make their money.

“He has a propensity for leadership and that’s how I spent my time with him,” Popovich said. “I’m not going to teach him how to shoot better or jump better or dribble better. But he has the intelligence and the willingness to become a leader and I think that’d be great. Not just for our team but for his team.”

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