Salt Lake City — The Utah Jazz were fortunate to get rookie Donovan Mitchell in last summer’s draft. Twelve teams passed on Mitchell — including the Pistons — and the Jazz traded up to get their coveted guard, who is in the discussion for rookie of the year.
After a slew of injuries, Mitchell stepped into the starting role, and hasn’t looked back. He’s helped the Jazz to a 37-30 record, including a streak of 18 wins in their last 20 games, which has moved them into playoff position in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference.
He’s posting impressive numbers: 19.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists, while hitting 35 percent on 3-pointers, as he’s ascended into a surprising starting role. It was the vision of Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, who saw something in Mitchell in the pre-draft workouts and decided to make the move to get their man.
“Dennis watched him for a while and saw things in him both in the immediate and going forward that made him someone that we felt like would be an addition,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said before Tuesday’s game against the Pistons at Vivint Smart Home Arena. “In addition, it had the possibility and potential to really grow.”
“Donovan’s ability to push himself and the aptitude, beginning in summer league when he first started working on his finishes, that was one of the things that really fueled him early on. His pick-and-roll game has been a big emphasis and making reads there are all kinds of things that have happened.”
The Jazz have been patient with Mitchell, as he’s developed some of the weaker points of his game and just adjusted to the NBA game. They didn’t put limitations on him or try to cap what he could do.
It’s been a marvelous success so far, as he’s been their go-to guy and hasn’t missed a beat as he’s glided through his rookie season.
“We didn’t want to set a ceiling; we tried to take it as it comes. If he gets tired, we try to get him out and if he makes a mistake, we try to help him,” Snyder said. “He’s been committed to that and that’s why we’ve seen the improvement.”
The emphasis has been on getting Mitchell to continue to expand his game and improve on those weak points. It’s worked, but it’s a continual process, getting through the high points and low points and understanding the ups and downs of a rookie season.
During the Jazz’s hot streak, it’s been a continual reminder that even through moderate success, there’s still more room for growth, citing a classic scene from the movie “Cool Hand Luke” to illustrate the point.
“The challenge for him off All-Star break is when the cup is full, you have to empty it out and absorb more. That’s been a point of emphasis for him,” Snyder said. “I told him Cool Hand Luke could eat 50 eggs but eventually you’re full and you get it out and start eating again.”
One game sometimes can change the fortunes of a team — and of a season.
Consider the Pistons’ first meeting this season against the Jazz, on Jan. 24 at Little Caesars Arena. The Jazz prevailed, 98-95, in overtime, as the Pistons lost their sixth straight.
It came during a grueling stretch of the Pistons’ schedule, with losses to the Raptors, Wizards, Thunder and Cavaliers during that eight-game span. That loss came a week before the Blake Griffin trade, which changed the complexion of the Pistons’ season.
The Pistons are 8-12 since that loss; for the Jazz, the win had a more profound impact on their season. Since then, Utah has won 18 of 20 games and has catapulted into the final playoff position.
The Jazz are in a four-way tie for seventh place, just percentage points behind the Los Angeles Clippers and there’s still plenty to be sorted out in the last few weeks of the regular season.