SALT LAKE CITY — His game wasn’t just dunking. Three-point shooting also became a weapon after he turned pro. Mention his name today and Jazz fans go into a dream.
Yes, Donovan Mitchell is special. So is Darrell Griffith, the first to turn up the volume in Salt Lake with acrobatic dunks and long-range shooting.
Griffith returned to Utah Friday as part of the team’s ongoing reconnection effort with former players. A loud roar arose when he was introduced during a pregame ceremony honoring Mitchell’s NBA dunk contest win.
Griffith participated in the first two NBA dunk events. He is regularly listed among history’s greatest dunkers, though he didn't win either of the contests he was in.
In 1980, Griffith was the No. 2 overall draft pick. For Jazz fans, it was an exhilarating choice.
“Griff was the first Utah Jazz player fans could relate to,” former Jazz assistant Gordon Chiesa said.
They had their team, recently relocated to Utah, and they had a player to love. Now they have another. The two talked after Mitchell was selected at No. 13 and sent to Utah in a draft day trade.
“I said this team traded to get you, so they want you,” Griffith said. “It’s a good feeling to be wanted. Plus I told him he’s going to a great city.”
Nearly four decades after the Jazz added Griffith, Mitchell is filling up the box scores. The rookie stats for both players are nearly identical, at roughly 20 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals per game.
Both skyrocketed interest in the team.
In 1980, the Jazz were still a remnant of the sorry teams from New Orleans, coming off a 24-win season in their first Utah campaign. When a beat writer mentioned during training camp that the Jazz looked like they’d be good that year, coach Tom Nissalke deadpanned, “We’ll be lucky if we win 15 games.”
They won 28.
Even then, the Jazz were surpassing expectations. Already the 2018 Jazz have surpassed their 1980 counterpart, after a summer in which they lost their best player, Gordon Hayward.
Mitchell has recorded a 36.5-inch standing vertical leap, while Griffith’s was 38. Former Jazz scout Jack Gardner had made a science of measuring leaping ability. Griffith’s was the highest he had ever seen for jumps made from a standing position.
“I don’t do that any more,” Griffith said Friday. “The warranty on my legs has expired.”
Naturally, there are numerous comparisons between the Louisville alums. As to which had the best leap in their prime, Griffith has a, well, soaring response.
“I got 48 inches in the Guinness world book,” Griffith said, “so that’s all I can say.”
“Both,” Chiesa said, “have serious hops.”
As plentiful the similarities, there are also differences. Griffith was reigning college player of the year, Mitchell a relative unknown. But Mitchell has more physical gifts. Griffith’s wingspan was average, and he couldn’t palm a basketball. Mitchell’s reach is a freakish 6 feet 10 inches.
While both were marketing gold — remember Dr. Dunkenstein? — Mitchell is more effusive. Griffith was low key and quiet.
“As nice a person as I’d been around,” Nissalke said.
Griffith wasn’t the Jazz’s first star. Adrian Dantley was on his way to a Hall of Fame career when Griffith arrived. But Dantley had only been in Utah a season. Subsequent discord with management made him a polarizing figure.
That sort of drama never happened with Griffith, and is unlikely to occur with Mitchell.
“This kid,” Griffith said, “is right out of the gate leading the team.”
Both Griffith and Mitchell displayed their 3-point acumen in the NBA, to complement their flying rim approaches. At the behest of Frank Layden, the Jazz's second coach in Utah, Griffith increased his 3-point production as the years passed. He made 38 from outside the arc in 1982-83. The next two years he led the league with 92 and 93 3-point buckets. His was a high-arcing shot that Chiesa says “started on Monday and got there on Tuesday.”
Many have questioned the Jazz drafting Griffith, when future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale was available. But with the team in financial distress — they traded Dominique Wilkins for cash to make payroll two years later — an instant attraction was crucial. With Griffith already famous, it was a reasonable choice.
Nissalke says he preferred McHale, but understood then-owner Sam Battistone’s insistence on drafting Griffith, who averaged 20-plus points for his first five seasons.
“I wasn’t saying we can’t draft him; that he’s a bum,” Nissalke said. “He was a terrific player.”
So is Mitchell. Which makes it all so serendipitous. Two players, one city awaiting a star.