SALT LAKE CITY — There was talk on a Sports Illustrated “Open Floor” podcast this week about whether Philadelphia would choose Donovan Mitchell instead of Markelle Fultz, if given a draft day re-do. The gist was that Mitchell would have been a better choice at No.1.
You won’t get an argument from Jazz fans.
“I wouldn’t trade him for Kevin Durant,” said someone in the Deseret News comment section.
Let’s not get carried away. Oops, too late for that. The Jazz rookie is considered one of the best draft picks of the summer, after scoring 41 points in a Dec. 1 game. If he were any more NBA ready he’d be on the league’s logo.
The Mitchell love is legit. He’s likable, humble, teachable and talented. A regular Tom Hanks in sneakers. As of Tuesday afternoon, a game-worn debut Mitchell jersey had drawn 105 bids at NBA Auctions, topping out at $8,080.
He’s on freeway billboards as if he had been playing in Salt Lake for years. The Jazz say they focus on promoting the team above individuals. Regardless, inside and outside the organization, there’s a lot of love for someone who has logged just 27 games.
But there’s another reason to appreciate Mitchell: His timing is impeccable. He arrived just when Jazz fans were begging for heroes. Rudy Gobert filled the role nicely after Gordon Hayward left, but for the team to get a second star so quickly was pure providence. Mitchell was drafted by the Nuggets at No. 13, then traded to the Jazz for Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles. Right now that looks like a Ringo Starr-for-Pete Best swap.
Mitchell’s smile could charm a repo man.
“I’ve pretty much been smiling the last six months out of school. I’m still smiling,” he said after his 41-point night against New Orleans.
“A star in the making,” USA Today raves.
“Donovan Mitchell is starting to look like a star,” says cbssports.com.
“Donovan Mitchell is Ready to Take the NBA by Storm,” trumpets SI.com.
No wonder he’s as popular in Utah as ice cream.
ESPN.com features him on the top of its website, along with this caption: “The crowded race for NBA rookie of the year.” Included in the image are former Ute Kyle Kuzma (Lakers), Lonzo Ball (Lakers), Ben Simmons (Sixers) and Jayson Tatum (Celtics).
Considering the markets in which the others play, the odds on Mitchell winning the award are modest. Still, his popularity at home, and his quick start, rank with some of the most notable Jazz players of all time. Fellow Louisville alumnus Darrell Griffith averaged 21 points in his first 27 games — better than Mitchell’s 17.3 — but was soon overtaken in popularity by Karl Malone and John Stockton. Malone averaged 13.3 points in his first 27 games. Stockton, never a shoot-first player, averaged 6.7 points.
Deron Williams, who averaged 11.5 points in his first 27 games, never fully embraced the community, and vice versa. Gordon Hayward (3.0 points) was a timid kid from a smallish basketball school. Mitchell is a confident kid from a big basketball school.
“The fans have embraced him,” said communications vice president Frank Zang.
When Mitchell arrived in Salt Lake for media interviews in June, it seemed a success if he could just contribute to the Jazz effort. He ended up starring in the summer league. But that’s a hard thing to evaluate. A decade ago, Morris Almond excelled in summer play.
Mitchell’s shot selection and variety place him well ahead of most rookies. Already he has eclipsed Hayward’s career scoring high, and is the first NBA rookie to score 40 points in a game since Blake Griffin in 2011. Things have calmed slightly since his breakout night 10 days ago. After going for 21, 31 and 26 points in the next three outings, he was limited to 12 in Saturday’s loss to Milwaukee.
Still, maturity and judgment, on and off the court, have made him a smash hit. When he misses a shot, he quickly creates a new opportunity thanks to a 6-foot-10 wingspan. He is second only to Ricky Rubio in total steals.
Sometimes rookies look good in their first spin around the league, but rapidly get figured out. So far that isn’t happening with Mitchell. He followed his 19-point effort against the Clippers with a 24-point game the next time the teams met. He went from two points to 31 in games against Oklahoma City. Versus Minnesota he jumped from two points to 24. Against Houston he improved from 17 to 26. And his Denver totals were 10 and 16, respectively.
The only teams to reduce his scoring were Milwaukee (24 to 12) and Brooklyn (26 to 15).
Meanwhile, from a publicity standpoint, he is as golden as the Jazz’s new alternate uniforms. The marketing staffers — whom the Jazz didn’t make available for this column — must be ecstatic. They dreamed up the slogan “Take Note” last year for the playoffs. A few months later, that’s exactly what people are doing.