Donovan Mitchell is still one of the most exciting young NBA players. But this year has been tumultuous for him and the rest of the Utah Jazz. The team failed to live up to expectations, struggled to find unity on the court, and then Rudy Gobert kicked off the coronavirus pandemic in America.
Despite an underwhelming season, Mitchell is well-regarded by people in the league. One even compared Mitchell’s leadership to generational superstars, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Donovan Mitchell brought optimism to the Jazz as a rookie
Flashback to the summer of 2017, when the Jazz stared down the barrel of another extended period of mediocrity. Star wing Gordon Hayward departed to join the Celtics after a season when Utah won its first playoff series in nearly a decade. Without Hayward, it seemed inevitable that the Jazz would sink back into the lottery for years to come. But hope arrived almost immediately in the form of Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell was drafted No. 13 overall in the 2017 draft. While there was buzz about him as a prospect, even optimistic fans couldn’t imagine his impact as soon as “Spida” stepped on the floor. It took him next to no time to become Utah’s offensive fulcrum. Mitchell averaged 20 points, four rebounds, and four assists in the regular season. The most impressive display of his talents came in the postseason, however.
Facing off against an Oklahoma City Thunder team with numerous stars, Mitchell outplayed them all, looking every inch a superstar in the making. He averaged 29 points in the series, culminating in a 38-point game six that sealed the series for the Jazz. Rookies aren’t supposed to look this comfortable on the biggest stage.
With Mitchell leading the way, Utah fans had a reason to dream bigger than they had since the Stockton and Malone days. As good as Hayward was in Salt Lake City, the potential never felt as limitless as it did after that first-round victory.
This season has brought more growing pains for him and his team
Mitchell was also very good in his second season, but he couldn’t conjure the same postseason magic of the previous year. The Jazz were dumped out of the playoffs in the first round by the Houston Rockets, with Mitchell only scoring 30 points in the first two games. That showing proved to be an omen for the 2019-20 season, in which almost everything that could go wrong in Utah did go wrong.
Trading for Mike Conley was supposed to put them over the top, but the Jazz have gone backward this season. Conley’s looked washed for most of the year, meaning that the offensive boost they were hoping for hasn’t arrived. Their defense, which was their backbone for the ascent in the Western Conference, has slid from the second-best defensive rating in the league last year to 13th this year.
The struggles on the court led to an increasing lack of unity in the locker room. It mostly centered on the relationship between Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, at least according to a Western Conference executive who talked to Bleacher Report:
“Donovan is on the level of Dwyane Wade, Steph Curry and LeBron [James], as far as he can be your leader on and off the court. He can be the face of your franchise. But I don’t know if that can happen with Rudy there because he was the incumbent.”
Gobert is the team’s defensive centerpiece. However, since protecting the rim doesn’t get much acclaim, he’s spent most of the season demanding more touches on offense and pouting when he didn’t get them. “Rudy wasn’t doing what they wanted him to do at a certain point this season,” a rival scout said. “He became enamored with his offense. He’s a hard dude to play with. He can only do so much on offense. He’s not a particularly skilled player.”
Everything came to a boiling point on the landmark night of March 11, 2020. This was the evening Rudy Gobert, just days after mocking the threat of COVID-19, tested positive for the illness. Mitchell tested positive a few days later. Many people decided that Gobert must’ve spread it to Mitchell, including Mitchell himself.
The two have seemingly made up. But questions around Utah’s core will only increase if they don’t make it past the first round of the playoffs.
Mitchell’s leadership has received praise, but can he lead Utah deep into the playoffs?
Utah finished the season as the West’s sixth seed, pairing up with the Nuggets in the first round. Denver is the favorite, but they’re not a juggernaut. Utah has a chance to win if Mitchell is the best player on the floor.
He certainly was in Game 1 of the series, scoring the third-most points in a playoff game in NBA history. Somehow, the Jazz lost that game but rebounded to crush the Nuggets in Game 2. Mitchell was excellent again, scoring 30 points on 71% shooting with eight assists for good measure.
Now, the Jazz sit at 3-2 against the Nuggets as Mitchell continues to show off superstar skills. If they can push past Denver, Mitchell may be able to give them a rosier ending than they expected.