The Utah Jazz kicked off 2017 with promise. Gordon Hayward appeared in his first all star game, the Jazz made the playoffs for the first time in five years AND won their first playoff series since 2010. Things seemingly couldn’t get much better, outside of bringing home an NBA title.
To top it off, on draft night, Dennis Lindsey, the new General Manager of the Jazz, moved up in the draft to select a guard out of Louisville. His name was Donovan Mitchell. Let’s face it, “cloud nine” dominated much of the early summer.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Gordon Hayward absolutely devastated Jazz fans and chose the bright lights of Boston over his humble beginnings in Salt Lake City. The favorite son, who’d grown and developed before our very eyes, shunned his family and went looking for greener pastures.
July 4th saw the hopes and dreams of every Jazz fan crash and burn like an errant firework. A 51 win, second round playoff team, now relegated to fighting for its playoff life. Things were about as low as they could be. Dennis Lindsey and company added some pieces to alleviate the pain, but the silver lining on the storm cloud seemed transparent and lost.
The NBA's Summer League began a week later and, in truth, the exuberant buzz that permeated the Wasatch Front just months before, seemed no more than a distant echo. Many were wondering if there was even any recompense available or is the near future a doomed experiment of sorts. Could the franchise salvage some pride and find a way to spin a rough negative into a positive?
Enter, Donovan Mitchell. Summer League saw the resurgence of Dante Exum and the blossoming chemistry between him and Mitchell on full display. A spark of excitement resonated in fans.
I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the lift that the young rookie would bring to the team, the community and fans across the state. Donovan Mitchell has firmly placed himself in the midst of race for Rookie of the Year, and in control of the reigns of an injury-riddled Jazz team in just a matter of a month. One. Month.
On the court, Mitchell is given near unbridled freedom to develop, grow and lead on the fly. In December he became one of just seven rookies all-time, to average more than 20 points per game. The only three rookies ahead of him? Michael Jordan, David Robinson, and LeBron James.
He’s captured the heart of Jazz fans each night as he continues to defy expectations. His teammates have embraced him. They’ve welcomed his humility, joined with his fearlessness, and melded together as a cohesive family unit. Despite the wins or losses, that latter is the latest trend, as they stand with and cheer for each other within the game. It’s a delight to watch and, quite frankly, is contagious even for the fans.
Off the court, Mitchell has also captured fans hearts. He’s embraced the community in word and deed. He’s attended both Utah and BYU basketball games, showing support for the local teams. At Fashion Place Mall on December 29th, we saw him sign autographs for 500 fans at an event that had approximately 1100 screaming superfans show up. It's become obvious that Utah loves this kid. At only 21 years young, he’s endearing, humble, and ever the student. What's not to love?
It’s become a bit of an event after every home win to remain and see who will be receiving the water bath. A tradition started by Mitchell after each win the player who remains for the walk-off interview is doused with water by Mitchell. Not to be outdone, Mitchell has been the recipient of those baths as well, as his teammates enjoy returning the favor. He’s just a likable kid, embracing not only his role but the community around him.
What does it mean for Jazz fans going forward? Aside from his continued support of the community, Donovan’s magnetic personality and sensational basketball skills could draw other big name free agents and the national spotlight back to Salt Lake City. The last time that happened – a young point guard out of Illinois dueled his way into the spotlight. Deron Williams drew excitement and heavy anticipation of Jazz fans. It paid off in 2007 when the Jazz ended up in the Western Conference Finals.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There isn’t likely a trip to the Conference Finals in the Jazz’ immediate future. However, there is a reason to hope and persist. With Rudy Gobert anchoring the team, Donovan Mitchell could be the next rising star to lead the Jazz to new heights.
The summer of 2017 will be forever remembered for seeing the exit of one star and the arrival of another. Utah said a bitter farewell to Gordon Hayward but welcomed with open arms a young budding star in Donovan Mitchell.
For Jazz fans, that has to feel pretty good. For the state of Utah, the implications are endless and exciting.
Alan Zaugg, SaltLakeInsider.com Sports Contributor
Alan “Jedi” Zaugg is managing editor of TornBySports and co-host of the Jedi & Jerms podcast. He’s an avid NBA fan and passionate sports enthusiast. Additionally, he co-hosts a Star Wars podcast, writes fantasy and science fiction, and some poetry, in his spare time. Follow him on Twitter: @jedizaugg.