A Star Is Born

At the end of the last NBA season, there was a massive debate that took over talk shows and Twitter alike: who was the Rookie of the Year? It was down to two true candidates, Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, two transcendent players on young, emerging teams fighting to prove that they're the best of their class. While Ben Simmons came in and made an immediate impact on the Philadelphia 76ers putting up big numbers and leading the Sixers to the third seed in the East, the answer to me was Donovan Mitchell. Ultimately, Ben Simmons would take home the award, but Mitchell was an absolute stud his rookie year. He came to a Utah Jazz team that had just lost their star player, Gordon Hayward, and was able to keep them relevant. After a rough start to the year, the Jazz were one of the best second-half teams in the league and bounced the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the playoffs in the first round. This season, Mitchell has a great cast around him and in an uncertain Western Conference, this is the year he becomes a true star.

The Jazz are a good team. Like, really good. Alongside Mitchell, they sport a starting lineup of Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. Every one of them is a formidable starter in the league, especially 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Gobert is one of the top centers in the league, and arguably the best defender, and helps anchor a Jazz defense that had the best Defensive Rating in the NBA in 2017-18. Ricky Rubio has been a great facilitator his whole career, Derrick Favors feels like he's been in the league for my whole life, and Joe Ingles is a fucking animal from the Land Down Under (Australia) who will make it rain on you no matter who you are. Last year he gave the Jazz almost twelve a game on 44% shooting from three. Expect those points to climb, as he's averaging 24.5 points through two games this season, further proving that looks can be deceiving. https://twitter.com/The_Jefe_Exp/status/1053656102884257793

Utah is also fortunate to have a really solid bench. Dante Exum, 2014 fifth overall pick, and Alec Burks provide sound backup guard play, as Exum can use his 6'9 wingspan to play defensive and finish at the rim while Burks can give the Jazz some scoring. Jae Crowder is the prized piece of the bench, as he's proven throughout his career that he's a capable three-and-D guy who could start if need be. While it seems unlikely, rookie Grayson Allen could provide an impact off the bench with his scoring, but he needs to improve his defense to crack the rotation. The Jazz can keep throwing defenders at teams throughout all their rotations, making them frustrating to play and potentially scary come April.

Where the Jazz really shine is through their budding star Donovan Mitchell. The 13th pick of the 2017 Draft out of Louisville, there weren't a whole lot of expectations for his rookie season. Gordon Hayward left for the Celtics, and the Jazz were again left star-less. Gobert was a solid player, but he couldn't carry a team to the playoffs through solely his defense. All doubts of a successful season were put to rest after Donovan Mitchell burst onto the scene. Throughout his rookie year, he kept making highlight play after highlight play with his high-flying dunks while carrying the Jazz to the best post-All Star break in the league (29-6). He won the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest, absolutely lighting up Twitter when he came out in a Vince Carter Raptors jersey.

Mitchell finished the season averaging 20.5 points (43.7/34/80.5), 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.5 steals per game throughout his rookie year. Those are stellar numbers for anyone, especially a rookie, and he should have won Rookie of the Year. That argument aside, Mitchell became a star during his rookie year, which apart from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, hadn't really been seen since Blake Griffin in 2010-11. Mitchell's stardom was fully cemented during the first round of the playoffs, as him and the Jazz were able to take out Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and the Thunder in six games as Mitchell averaged 26.2 points on 46.2% shooting throughout the series. They would eventually fall to the Houston Rockets and reigning MVP James Harden in the second round, but that was to be expected.

This is going to be the year of Donovan Mitchell. He's had a full season to work off of, and the team around him has gotten better. Through two games this year, he's averaging 21.5 points (34.1/31.8/75), 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2 steals. Across the board there will be many improvements as there's 80 games left, especially the percentages. His shooting numbers took an early hit during Friday's loss to the Golden State Warriors, but the game was more encouraging than anything. The Jazz lost at home 124-123 on a last-second tip by Jonas Jerebko. It was the most fun game I've seen this year, with the Jazz hitting the Warriors with a barrage of threes before halftime, effectively hanging an 81-piece on them after two quarters. If Mitchell hadn't had such an off night (19 points on 7-23 shooting), there's no doubt that the Jazz would've beaten the Warriors, and beaten them big. Games like Friday's are a lesson for budding stars like Mitchell, and once he can harness all of that into his overall game, he's going to be unstoppable. Donovan Mitchell is going to be an All Star this year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him land on an All-NBA team if the Jazz land a top-four seed in the West.