We may be in the midst of an almost perfect storm, but there is a silver lining. There is a wave that will take us to the ray of sunlight at the end of the storm. That wave is Donovan Mitchell.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of having dinner with, then Jazz CEO, Greg Miller. I remember him talking about building a winning culture and attracting players to Utah who will want to help the Jazz win and achieve championship level basketball. He wanted to build a winning culture.
Then, shortly after, we watched the team take some steps backward in the name of growth. There were struggles – the Ty Corbin era and Trey Burke. But they continued to tool and retool. Through it all, they stayed the course of building that competitive culture.
Corbin was let go. They brought in Quin Snyder to develop talent and mold an identity. He did. The team identity became defense. Rudy Gobert was drafted to be the anchor and focal point of that identity. They didn’t see the return on investment immediately. They tooled, retooled, and reconfigured around the new core and built a solid team capable of competing for the playoffs.
They continued to develop Hayward and Gobert, adding pieces like Rodney Hood, and Dante Exum. Additionally Joe Johnson and George Hill joined the team. They were on their way to building that culture – 51 wins and a playoff series win over the Los Angeles Clippers. It appeared things were starting to come together.
However, things took another step back when Hayward decided to leave for bright lights and greener pastures.
It’s tough to watch a player the team spent so much time developing, through it all to the wayside for a bigger market. It’s business, sure. However, being forced back into mediocrity because of scenarios like this destroys a fan community and sets a small market franchise back more than is comfortable. It’s not easy for smaller markets to recover from such a heavy blow.
With Hayward’s departure came darkness and pain, anguish and heartache. Even with Rudy Gobert’s insistence that the Jazz would continue to be a playoff contender, things were grim.
I know it’s all still fresh in our minds. We’ve revisited these last couple years in depth extensively. We have to. We have to revisit and hash them out in order to move forward to the next phase. You can’t go back. We can spend all our time on bemoaning what might have been, when in reality we should be celebrating what we now have and looking forward to what soon will be.
From the darkest night has emerged a bright star. In case you haven’t heard, Donovan Mitchell is really good. Perhaps more specifically, he’s sensational! The Utah Jazz guard continues to impress in his debut season. He began slow, but has gained momentum with each passing game. The youngster earned December’s NBA Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors in splendid fashion. You’ve likely seen the graphic. If you haven’t, allow me to share:
All time Rookie Scoring in December
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) December 31, 2017
As if the stellar December wasn’t enough, he scored 30+ points for the fourth time in his rookie season. He’s on an upward trajectory and it doesn’t appear to have an end or ceiling in sight.
Recently the question was asked when the last time a Rookie was this impactful and endeared by fans? In order to answer the second part of that question, you’d have to go back to the 2005-06 season. Deron Williams, was drafted by the Utah Jazz in June of 2005 at the third overall pick, acquired through trade from the Portland Trail Blazers. If memory serves right, fans boarded the D Will hype train from the get go.
Even Gordon Hayward didn’t come with nearly as much welcomed hype. Donovan is in rare company.
When the Jazz drafted Mitchell in June, it looked like they found a solid complimentary player to fit in with Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert on a playoff contending team. They reached out and brought in Ricky Rubio in the wake of George Hill’s departure. Things looked solid for the 2017-18 season.
Unfortunately the Hayward departrue happened and then injuries took hold of the Jazz, again. Worst of all, the injury bug claimed the Jazz’ anchor, Rudy Gobert. It’s been difficult to watch, painful no less. As difficult as it’s been, it’s a blessing in disguise. Good things come from adversity.
Derrick Favors has stepped up and Alec Burks has shined in his role. The Jazz “next man up” mentality continues to push the team forward. It’s Donovan Mitchell’s emergence and development that may prove the greatest reward in lieu of Hayward’s absence and Rudy’s injury.
The reward I speak of won’t reveal itself in full just yet. I suspect the full realization of Mitchell’s stardom, combined with a healthy Gobert will manifest itself in years to come to the tune of wins and playoff appearances. What’s more, I expect that both will draw other players to Utah.
I still believe in Greg’s vision. I still believe he was, and is, right. Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder just need to retool again. It feels almost as though they’re riding the storm out, knowing full well that sunshine and the pot of gold sit just over the next horizon. They believe firmly in the process (no pun intended Philadelphia).
I believe Snyder’s unique developmental style, combined with the rising stardom of Mitchell and competitive drive of Rudy Gobert, will attract free agents. The Utah Jazz are not far from ascension into the upper echelons of the Western Conference rankings. They’re closer than they have been in many years.
Mitchell will likely come in second in the Rookie of the Year race. Rudy isn’t going to win Defensive Player of the Year as anticipated, or make the All-Star team. But when the dust settles and the injury bug withdraws, the Utah Jazz will be ready to take the next step. It may take a trade or off season acquisition to add complimentary pieces and another star. Rest assured, the Western Conference and the rest of the NBA should take note.
A Utah Jazz team anchored by the grit and dominance of Rudy Gobert, built around the dynamic brilliance of Donovan Mitchell, will be prepared to ascend to the top of the NBA mountain. You can count on it. “Take that for data!” Take that to the bank. Place your bets.
The basketball gods will shine on Utah again. We need to wait the storm out and be ready when it happens.