SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell has quickly become a basketball darling. Not just in Utah, where he’s beloved by Utah Jazz fans, especially after last Friday’s 41-point outing, but across the NBA.
Nationally, the NBA, SB Nation, Deadspin and several others have highlighted Utah’s rookie for his breakout play. Before facing the Wizards Monday night, Washington head coach Scott Brooks said Mitchell was “one of the best, if not the best” rookie in the NBA currently.
It’s not difficult to figure out why Mitchell has drawn such praise. His 41 points are the most from a rookie since All-Star Blake Griffin did it in 2011. Mitchell regularly finds himself on nightly highlight reels for his high-flying dunks and clutch late-game performances.
But it’s neither his scoring nor his athleticism that sets him apart from former Jazz building blocks Gordon Hayward and Deron Williams, though neither could match Mitchell in those departments. It’s Mitchell's inherent charisma and likability that neither Hayward nor Williams showed that will endear the rookie to Utah fans.
To Williams' credit, likability was never his edge; it was likely the opposite. He operated with a chip on his shoulder. And while it worked for him in Utah, it failed him elsewhere in his career. After being traded to Brooklyn, and being handed the high-profile image he’d longed for in Salt Lake, Williams appeared to shy away from it.
Famously, fellow Brooklyn Net Paul Pierce said of Williams, "Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate. But I felt once we got there, that's not what he wanted to be. He just didn't want that.”
Williams' dependence on playing as the underdog betrayed him when he was no longer starring on a small-market roster.
Hayward, though significantly less ornery than Williams, wasn’t exactly warm during his tenure in Utah. Never was it more apparent than in his departure from the state, when he riled up Jazz fans by failing to inform Jazz owner Gail Miller of his intentions to sign in Boston. Hayward’s business-like approach to being an NBA player failed to build the bonds that many superstars share with their community.
Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with either of these approaches. Both Williams and Hayward had undeniable success in Utah, both making it to All-Star games and finding playoff success in a Jazz uniform. Winning, ultimately, will be the deciding factor in how most players are remembered during their NBA careers.
John Stockton was famously stingy with his public appearances during his time in Utah, and was rewarded with a statue and his jersey hangs in the Vivint Arena rafters, while a street bordering the arena was named after him — all due to the success the Jazz had while he donned their uniform.
Yet Mitchell’s apparent love affair with the Jazz stretches back before he was suiting up for the team. Coming out of Louisville, Mitchell was projected to get drafted above where the Jazz were due to pick, yet Mitchell found an opportunity to work out in Utah anyway. On draft night, the Jazz general manager said of Mitchell, "He loved us. We loved him. It’s kind of a mutual admiration club."
Now, Mitchell is repaying the Jazz, and the city, by publicly sharing his time. Before and after games, you’ll regularly find photos of Mitchell posing with fans. He’s also been spotted taking in University of Utah basketball games in his free time.
While these types of public appearances do nothing to help the Jazz win games, it helps provide confidence in a young player who appears to be interested in playing an integral part in his new city. While both Williams and Hayward sought their departures from Utah, Mitchell seems to be finding a way to cement himself within it.
Williams and Hayward were both terrific players for the Jazz and proved to be important pieces in building independent winning cultures with the organization, but neither embraced the community quite like it embraced them.
In his first six months, Mitchell has changed that trend. Though it remains to be seen if Mitchell will find the same success in a Jazz uniform that Williams and Hayward achieved, he’s making it easier to root for him getting there.