All-Star Gordon Hayward broke the hearts of fans in Utah when he left during free agency, but rookie Donovan Mitchell is starting to mend them one play at a time.
The 6-foot-3 guard has helped Utah win seven of its last 11 games, including five straight wins, by averaging 20.2 points, 4.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game. After a slow start, Mitchell has found his rhythm, shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from downtown and 81.6 percent from the foul line during that span.
Mitchell ranks second on Utah in scoring (16.4) and usage percentage (28.3). Among all rookies, he ranks third in scoring (16.4) and fourth in steals (1.3) and free throw percentage (82.0).
While Mitchell currently ranks among the top rookies in his class, he isn’t thinking about winning Rookie of the Year.
“I don’t, to be honest with you,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders during a video interview on November 18. “I would say the first two or three games I was kind of thinking about it, to be honest with you. I had the names saved in my background of the guys who were projected to win it, and that was all I would think about.
“First of all, that’s selfish, and that’s not who I am. I want to go out there and be able to help my team impact and win in any way possible. I think, thinking about the Rookie of the Year award leads to more of a self-driven thing and selfish type of thing, so I just want to focus on being able to make the playoffs. That’s the biggest thing. Make the playoffs. Help my team win in any way possible in any way that I can.”
Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award, and Mitchell responded by having a career night with 41 points hours later.
Mitchell joined Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin as the only rookies to have 40 or more points, four or more rebounds and four or more assists on 25 or fewer field goal attempts since 2000, according to Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett. Mitchell also became the first rookie since Stephen Curry in 2010 to hit five or more 3-pointers in consecutive games, as Dowsett noted.
“Utah got a star, man, for real,” All-Star opponent DeMarcus Cousins told reporters after witnessing Mitchell’s 41 points first hand.
Without Hayward, Utah has attempted to turn the page by becoming an even stronger defensive team in front of center Rudy Gobert, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The former Louisville Cardinal was an All-ACC Defensive Team member. General manager Dennis Lindsey gave up former lottery pick Trey Lyles and Utah’s No. 24 overall selection (Tyler Lydon) to move up Denver’s No. 13 selection and take Mitchell.
After the draft, Lindsey continued to add players with a defensive mindset, such as Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, who remains a serviceable wing defender at 33, and Ekpe Udoh, who was the Euroleague leader in blocks per game (2.3) in back-to-back seasons for Fenerbahce. Udoh also was the Euroleague leader in rebounds per game (7.8) last season.
As a result, Utah is causing the second most turnovers in the league per game (17.2) and is holding opponents to the fifth fewest points per game (100.0).
“We’re a solid defensive team, and I think with guys being out, guys have stepped up, and that’s the NBA,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders. “Guys are ready to step up whenever their number is called, and I think we’ve done a great job of that. We’ve had a little bit of, a few lapses throughout the season, but just going out there, just playing the way we know we can play. With Rudy being out, it’s a big test to see who’s going to step up defensively, and I think we’ve all responded the right way. We’ve just got to continue it.”
While Mitchell has picked up his play immensely, the rookie is absorbing veteran advice from his teammates to help avoid the dreaded “rookie wall.”
“You know, basketball, the life of basketball, this whole season can consume you and stress you out a little bit, so being able to find something to do in your downtime,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders. “Rest is important. Sometimes, like I said, getting your mind off of things, going out, whether it’s watching Netflix. I’m big, I’m an avid Netflix watcher, going to Top Golf, and I go to a lot of the university high school basketball games to just keep my mind free, and just go out there and do whatever, so when you get into the game time, it’s time to focus.”
Mitchell hopes to hang up his sneakers many years down the road after a long and prosperous career. When he does, he knows the legacy he wants to leave behind.
“Just a kid who’s underrated,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders. “I love that role. Just going out there and works his butt off every day. Don’t like being outworked, and just going out there and just trying to prove to people wrong, and go out there and do what I know I can.”
Through a quarter of the season, Mitchell has proven to be a building block for the future in Utah as the organization turns the page from the Gordon Hayward era.
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