SALT LAKE CITY — Monday’s NBA awards program wasn’t everything the Jazz had hoped. The plan was to win both the Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. It’s not that they lacked qualified candidates. Last season, Rudy Gobert was as impassable as the Theodosian Walls. Donovan Mitchell’s dunks made grown men weep.
But while Gobert snagged the DPOY award, Mitchell was outpolled by Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons in ROY balloting. Still, the Jazz should be happy. There’s no questioning the direction they’re headed. If they can keep the Gobert-Mitchell combo together — along with coach Quin Snyder, who was a finalist in Coach of the Year balloting — it should drive the organization for years.
It’s understandable the Jazz had some disappointment in the voting results. Mitchell quickly made Utahns forget Gordon Heywood, er, Hayward. He averaged more points than any rookie this season, and put up early numbers comparable to players such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Beyond that, he brought a skill and charisma combination unsurpassed in Jazz history. He has repeatedly expressed love for Utah — the organization and the state — saying he knows this is where he is supposed to be.
Sunday he tweeted, “I swear man, GOD IS GOOD.”
Watching his playoff dunk against Houston, Jazz fans had to agree.
Gobert has been deserving of award consideration for a year or two. This season there was speculation he could lose the award to Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, after missing 26 games with injuries. But Embiid missed 19, so it was nearly a push.
Gobert nursed the Jazz through the uncertain days of last summer, confidently and calmly, when the fan base was losing its mind. His mantra — “We’ll be fine” — became a catchphrase whenever things dipped during the season, too. He carries the quiet confidence of a Sherpa, fully knowing the challenges ahead but unafraid of the climb.
Gobert blocked more shots than all but three other players in 2017-18. The only reason he wasn’t first was because people kept pulling up shy of the rim. Small wonder. Opponents made only 60 percent of their close-range attempts. No player so alters the other team’s attack. Opponents hear his steps before they leave the locker room.
After Gobert’s return from injury in January, the Jazz went 30-8, allowing the fewest points per possession in the league. He made the All-Defensive first team.
While Gobert has sometimes been fueled by perceived slights, he needed something new to drive him next year. Now he has it. Winning the award won’t be an excuse to step back. Instead, it will be a call to defend.
It’s a fresh motivation for him.
Meanwhile, Mitchell made more 3-pointers than any rookie in history. He was named to the All-Rookie first team and won the All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk Contest. He was named Rookie of the Month four times.
Still, Mitchell needs to be pushed, and he knows it. He even asks for it, actively seeking advice from coaches and teammates. He has been known to “like” tweets and share links that dismiss or downplay his accomplishments.
Staying hungry is part of his plan to take over the planet.
Simmons wasn’t even a rookie, in the eyes of many, who argued the Sixers’ guard had an injury season to mature since he didn’t play in 2016-17. Regardless, dealing with disappointment can’t be a bad thing for Mitchell. Winning ROY might even have been too much, too soon.14 comments on this story
Now Mitchell has other things to shoot for like, oh, someday MVP. Surely it’s on his radar — which is no accidental aerial reference. Monday’s televised awards ceremony was held in a gussied-up airplane hangar in Santa Monica, California. The symbolism was hard to miss: launching, soaring, orbiting, igniting, reaching.
In the end, the Jazz came away with a nice compromise — and a good reason to get better. One player got his due, the other got his road map. Both should be better for the experience.