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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell has officially taken the NBA world by storm. During the league’s All-Star weekend, hosted in Los Angeles, Mitchell went from being one of the league’s best up and coming rookies to a potential marquee name and face within the sport. Mitchell, like an elite few premier players in league history, etched his name into the history books, winning the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest.
Winning the contest alone is no signifier of greatness. Look no further than former Jazzman Jeremy Evans, who won the event in 2012 and was out of the league in 2017. However, with Mitchell’s rapidly rising stardom based on his talents on the floor, building on that image with a win at the dunk contest will only serve to accelerate his rise in the public eye.
The contest served as a catalyst for Michael Jordan’s arrival, though he lost his initial appearance to Dominique Wilkins. Jordan later won the contest in 1987 and ’88. Like Mitchell, Kobe Bryant won the contest during his rookie season, which helped to prove the Lakers rookie was ready for the NBA’s biggest stage. Vince Carter, to whom Mitchell paid homage during his contest-sealing dunk, donning a throwback Toronto Raptors jersey, proved he was a force to be reckoned with in the 2000 contest, his second year in the league.
While Mitchell wasn’t the odds-on favorite to win the contest going into Saturday night, that honor belonged to fellow rookie Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks, Mitchell comfortably dominated the competition. The Jazz rookie received perfect scores of 50 for two of his four dunks and two scores of 48, comfortably defeating Cleveland Cavalier Larry Nance in the contest finals.
It marks another example of Mitchell both living up to the moment and excelling when the spotlight is brightest.
Mitchell helped lead the Jazz in the team-hosted summer league to an undefeated record, filled with highlight reel plays by the rookie. After a rocky start to his regular season, Mitchell found his footing and captured the Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards for December and January.
Mitchell is the first rookie to post two 40-point games in his rookie season since Blake Griffin did in the 2010-11 season. Mitchell’s second 40-point performance came in the midst of the Jazz's current 11-game winning streak, of which Mitchell is the first rookie in NBA history to lead his team in scoring during such a stretch.
Mitchell’s next obstacles will be to land the Jazz in the Western Conference playoffs before the season is through, where the Jazz need to make up 1.5 games on the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers to earn a playoff berth, and continue to build on his Rookie of the Year campaign. Mitchell is in a tight race with Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons for the award, which a Jazz player has not won since Darrell Griffith in 1981.
While Simmons has been the front-runner since the season began, the Jazz recent hot streak and Mitchell’s All-Star weekend performance has thrust him into a dead heat for the award.
While predicting whether Mitchell has taken the lead in the race for the award remains murky, the 21-year-old’s future as an NBA player is not. Averaging a shade under 20 points per game as a rookie, Mitchell projects as one of the league’s best young scorers. But more than scoring, Mitchell has quickly carved out his niche as a leader and as a player other stars around the league are watching.
Several All-Stars, including Toronto Raptor DeMar DeRozan, Portland Trail Blazer Damian Lillard and New Orleans Pelican DeMarcus Cousins have cast their public vote for Mitchell as Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook have carved out time for Mitchell after games this season to extend advice to the rookie.
Though it isn’t uncommon to see NBA players talk after games, the amount of attention Mitchell has received is unique, and may indicate that the league’s best see the Jazz rookie as one of their own, rather than just another player fighting to earn his keep.
Individually, Mitchell’s rookie season achievements aren’t guaranteed indicators of success.
Recently, Michael Carter-Williams and Malcolm Brogdon won the Rookie of the Year award, but neither are star players in the league. Tyreke Evans averaged 20 points per game as a rookie in Sacramento but has become a journeyman throughout his career. Lots of players have won the dunk contest but go on to having mediocre NBA careers.
However, when you mix these elements, whether Mitchell wins the Rookie of the Year award or not, with the scoring achievements he’s amassed through 55 career games, it’s not difficult to project the rookie as a future star in the league.
While Mitchell still has room to grow on the floor, cutting down on his sometimes wild shot selection and occasional trouble with turnovers, the question surrounding the first-year Jazzman shouldn’t be whether he’ll become a star or not, but how soon he can get there.