SALT LAKE CITY — Some of the game’s best, after watching the star shine bright in person, have expressed admiration for the Jazz’s next great player.
Still one month shy of the halfway point of his rookie season, Donovan Mitchell has demanded the attention of the NBA. Paul George, Chris Paul and LeBron James — three perennial All-Stars — each went out of their way to compliment Mitchell after their respective teams played the Jazz.
In stunningly quick fashion, and to the shock of all NBA experts, Mitchell already has become the team’s best. Mitchell, not Rudy Gobert or anybody else, is this season’s most valuable player.
Going forward, the line of thinking has to change to the obvious. In one year, the centerpiece of the franchise has changed for a third time.
Last season, Gordon Hayward had the responsibility of carrying the team. The mantle was passed to Gobert over the summer, but Mitchell already has taken it away.
In his own way and in perspective, Mitchell has become one of the talking points of the NBA to this point in the season. And the world is noticing.
After his Houston Rockets beat the Jazz last week, Paul lavished praise on Mitchell, who scored 26 points to go along with four rebounds and four assists.
“One thing you can’t teach is the passion for the game and the aggression,” Paul said. “You see how much he loves it; how he comes out and competes every night. Utah got a gem in him.”
George, the longtime Indiana Pacers swingman now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, recognized Mitchell’s greatness before the league caught on. Sharing the same agent, the two worked out together last summer.
After Mitchell poured in 31 points two weeks ago against the Thunder, George called him the steal of last June’s draft.
“I knew he was going to blossom,” George said. “He’s just a tough, fearless kid, and we all saw that working out with him this past summer.”
The NBA’s best player, James, saddled up to Mitchell last week after Cleveland beat the Jazz. James kept the conversation confidential but referred to Mitchell as “the young king” on Twitter.
Starting the season slow, Mitchell leads the Jazz in scoring at 17.7 points a game. In December, he is averaging 23.6 points a game, 3.7 assists and 2.8 rebounds.
Withstanding the scattered poor game, Mitchell has enthralled the Jazz and captured the allegiance of a fan base that has been reeling since Hayward left the team to sign with the Boston Celtics last summer. At the time, Hayward’s predictable decision seemingly devastated a franchise that won 51 games and a playoff series while appearing to remain in contention for the foreseeable future.
With Hayward gone, along with starting point guard George Hill, the Jazz climb up the Western Conference standings was thought to be nothing more than a one-season stand. Many predictions had them falling out of a playoff spot.
Even if the Jazz don’t make the postseason – they currently are in ninth place, 1.5 games out of a playoff spot – the 21-year-old out of Louisville provides ample promise for the future. He’s the homegrown star the Jazz can build around.
For all his considerable talent, Hayward never appeared to be comfortable being the face of the franchise even though he wanted the money and status that went along with it. Mitchell is the entire package, a personable player with a killer smile and a warmth that easily connects him with a starving fan base.
Now the Jazz have to hope that Rick Pitino, Mitchell’s college coach, does not land a head coaching job in the NBA, like Hayward’s college coach — Brad Stevens — did with the Celtics.