SALT LAKE CITY — He still has that air of wholesomeness, a Boy Scout all the way. It’s hard not to like a player with a combination of mad skills and a good heart.
But enough about Donovan Mitchell.
Monday at Vivint Arena, Jimmer Fredette returned to Utah, popular still. At least for one night, there was room for two favorite sons. The media throng at the Phoenix Suns’ morning shootaround was as big as when LeBron James shows up.
Neither Fredette nor Mitchell had his best night in the Jazz’s 125-92 win.
Still, the former BYU star’s light never completely dims in Utah. It’s not every day a teammate (Devin Booker) scores 59 points but is the second-most talked about story of the night.
Never mind it has been eight years since Fredette was drafted by Sacramento, and four since he played meaningful minutes in the NBA, or that he was in town with the visiting team. The drawing power remains, thanks as much to Fredette’s humility and optimism as his shooting skills.
The Utah news media thoroughly hailed his appearance.
Upon entering the game to start the second quarter, Fredette was met by a few boos but a considerably larger wave of cheers. Asked if he’s surprised at his enduring popularity in Utah, he laughed almost bashfully.
“Not to this point,” he said. “Obviously I’ve appreciated fans through all my years in my career and they supported me and that’s a great thing. Hopefully it doesn’t die down.”
Not for now.
Meanwhile, Mitchell will be popular in Utah till the cows come home.
Monday marked Fredette’s second game back in the NBA after three years playing in China. He logged 14 minutes and scored six points. Now all he has to do is scorch the nets and show he can play at least modest defense for the remaining seven games of the Suns’ season. After that, the club can decide whether to trigger the second year of his contract.
It’s enough to make a nice guy nervous.
“Always,” he said. “Yeah. Good nerves, in a good, positive way.”
Fredette’s first shot was an attempted hook over Joe Ingles that wasn’t close. His second try trickled off. A fourth quarter corner shot rimmed out, drawing a loud “Ooooh!” from the stands. A second from the same spot was off. By then Jazz fans were openly cheering. They could afford the generosity. He stole a pass but traveled. The crowd howled in protest. A 3-pointer above the arc was off. He flipped a shot off the glass, took a 3 from the elbow, double-clutched a drive.
Nothing went in.
Then came the loudest part of the night. Fredette drew a foul and some of the crowd was on its feet. He made them both, to loud approval.
Finally a hesitation bank shot went in.
It wasn’t a 2011 atmosphere, but still.
Fredette has never failed to be a story, even when he was playing on the other side of the world. Both Jimmer lovers and Jimmer haters followed his journey.
Nobody actually hates Jimmer, only his team or his popularity. But for Fredette, the taunting hasn’t been outside the norm.
“I haven’t heard anything specifically crazy toward me,” he said, commending the Jazz for taking a strong stance on fan behavior. “I’ve heard a lot of things in my career, but I haven’t heard anything too bad.”
When he was drafted, the question was how far Fredette could take the Sacramento Kings. Later the conversation turned to how disappointing he’d been, then how he had drifted out of the NBA. But Jimmermania never really dies, it spreads like amoeba. He reached superstar status in China.
There are several theories on why the former college player of the year hasn’t thrived in the NBA. Pick your excuse: too short, too slow, too earthbound, too defensively challenged, too one-dimensional ...
Some say it was none of the above; that there are simply too many coaches who made up their minds beforehand.
“Why don’t they give him a fair chance?” the argument goes.73 comments on this story
Answer: Six NBA coaches — if you count Gregg Popovich during one summer league stint with the Spurs — can’t be wrong.
He went 1 for 10 from the field Monday.
So why now? For one thing, the NBA that has turned into an outside-in production. Who doesn’t need someone who can make shots from, well, China? But until late in Monday’s game he looked a lot like the previous Jimmer, i.e. a bit uncertain of when and where to shoot.
Still, his bond with his fans is a long-term agreement.
“I’m here and I’m ready for it,” he told Arizona media.
Even if he weren’t, his fan base is always good to go.