When Gordon Hayward, Utah’s lone All-Star since 2011, left to rejoin his college coach in Boston this summer, it looked like the Jazz’s road to championship contention had met an early end. After improving their regular season win total every season under head coach Quinn Snyder and making it to second round of the 2017 playoffs, the Jazz needed to find a new franchise cornerstone and fast.
They didn’t have to look far. He was already on the roster.
The 13th pick in last year’s draft, Donovan Mitchell, has been star of Utah’s magical season.
With the man who produced 21.9 points per game last season now wearing Celtic’s green, the Jazz were expected to be one of the worst offensive teams in the league. When center Rudy Gobert was on the shelf with a knee injury, Utah’s defense was expected to fall apart. Winner of 21 of their last 24 games, the Jazz rank 16th in the NBA in offensive rating and second in defense. As I’m writing, the Jazz are eighth in the conference standings, but the West is so tight that they might be back to fourth by the time I finish this sentence. The one constant in the Jazz lineup has been Mitchell and his high-flying antics.
The Jazz are unlikely to make a run to the Western Conference Finals but it’s clear that the franchise is still heading in the right direction despite losing three of their starters from last year.
Mitchell has been putting on nightly dunk contests all season long but the aspect of his game that Jazz fans should be most excited about is his versatility on offense.
He’ll likely miss out on the Rookie of the Year award to Ben Simmons, but very few first-year players get the opportunity and freedom to run a team like Mitchell has. If the season ended today, Mitchell would be the 13th rookie since 1990 to average over 20 points per game and 33 minutes per game. He can score with or without the ball in his hands. Mitchell’s greatest strength coming into the draft was his outside shooting but very few players are an effective threat from distance as Mitchell has been.
Despite only 18.6 percent of his shots coming off the catch-and-shoot, the 21-year-old is shooting 39.8 percent from 3-point land when he doesn’t dribble. That’s partly due to the fact that he’s also dangerous when he’s the one creating the offense. Close to 44 percent of Mitchell’s shots come off of pull-ups, where he is shooting an effective field goal percentage of 44.1 percent.
Mitchell isn’t a slouch defensively either, with a defensive rating of 105.
Even outside their stellar rookie, the Jazz have a capable supporting cast to surround him.
Despite missing an extended period of time, Gobert is still one of the front-runners to win Defensive Player of the Year. The French big man has also yet to reach his prime, turning 25 years old this summer. His frontcourt partner Derrick Favors is also having a resurgent year.
Joe Ingles is 30 years old but Utah’s single-season record holder for 3-pointers made has a game which ages like fine wine. Jae Crowder hasn’t started a game since being traded from Cleveland but has earned crunch-time minutes as a closer. Ricky Rubio has had an up-and-down season as the starting point guard, but has played better of late. Even if he’s not back in the same role next season, the Jazz might have his replacement already on call in former No. 5 overall pick Dante Exum.
The Jazz’s future looks a lot different than it did this time last year. But it’s not necessarily worse. Mitchell still has to establish himself as a consistent All-Star, but the fact that he’s already been able to make such a dramatic impact on the game shows the Jazz are still on their way to a championship.
With a 21-year-old rookie as the face of their franchise, the Jazz can afford to wait out teams like Golden State and Houston as they continue to add pieces around him. For now, the road to the franchise’s first championship is the scenic one. Jazz fans should lean back, enjoy the dunk show and wait for their time to shine.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.