By Matt Citak
During last year’s offseason, several rookies garnered more attention than others. Of course, Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, and Josh Jackson were the most notable members of the 2017 NBA Draft class. Then there were the sleeper picks that fell outside the top five of the draft, such as Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk. Finally, there was Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft who sat out all of last season with an injury.
But one player — Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell, taken with the No. 13 pick in last year’s draft — seemed to be a complete afterthought for most.
Mitchell did not have the most electrifying college career. After averaging a mere 7.4 points during his freshman year, the young guard improved his game and confidence in his sophomore season, scoring 15.6 points in 34 games for the Cardinals. His level of play earned him the 13th overall selection in last June’s draft, but many believed his true NBA ceiling would only be as a solid role player.
However, from the second he took the floor during the NBA Summer League, it became quite apparent that Mitchell would be much more.
The 21-year-old averaged 15.3 points in 25.3 minutes during three Summer League games in Utah, before exploding for 28.0 points in 33.0 minutes spanning two games in Las Vegas. The guard provided a glimpse at his defensive ability as well, as he racked up 6.0 steals per game in Las Vegas.
Once the regular season began, it was hard to tell that Mitchell was only a rookie. The 6-foot-3 guard reached double-digit points in his very first real game, and within a week and a half, was dropping 20 points seemingly every other game.
The real turning point of Mitchell’s rookie season came once the calendar flipped to December. In Utah’s game against New Orleans on December 1st, the rookie guard had the best outing of his short NBA career. Mitchell scored 41 points on 52.0 percent shooting from the field and 50.0 percent from long range, leading the Jazz to an impressive 114-108 victory over the Pelicans.
This performance sparked an amazing month of basketball from Mitchell, who averaged 23.1 points on better than 50 percent shooting in December. Any concerns with the rookie’s confidence faded in the rear view mirror. Mitchell had proven that he belongs in the NBA.
As the NBA gears up for the second half of the season, it’s hard to argue that Mitchell is still overlooked, especially after this past weekend. Mitchell was one of the biggest stars of NBA All-Star Weekend, beating out Larry Nance Jr. for the Slam Dunk Contest title.
While some might believe a star was born on Saturday, when Mitchell put on a retro Vince Carter Raptors jersey and wowed the crowd with a VC tribute jam, anyone who’s been following the Jazz this season knows just how good and valuable the 21-year-old guard has been.
Utah appeared lost after Gordon Hayward joined the Boston Celtics last summer, as it left the Jazz with a significant void. Fast-forward seven months, and Mitchell has quickly become Utah’s new go-to guy.
The former Louisville Cardinal is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 19.6 points per game through his first 55 career games. But Mitchell’s value to the Jazz goes beyond his points per game. The rookie is using a team-high 29 percent of possessions for Utah this season, meaning 29 percent of the team’s possessions end in a shot attempt, a trip to the free throw line, or a turnover by Mitchell. If he keeps those numbers up, it would be the fourth-highest usage rate by a rookie qualifying for the scoring title since the 1979-80 season.
Mitchell’s play has helped the Jazz win 11 straight games, and has Utah sitting just a game and a half out of the playoffs, something that seemed impossible just a few months ago. A playoff trip would only add to Mitchell’s already impressive rookie campaign, and could be what catapults the guard over Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year honors.
You can’t argue with the success that Simmons and the 76ers have enjoyed this season. The 6-foot-10 guard has put up some eye-opening numbers this year, but is surrounded by a more talented roster than Mitchell. What Mitchell has achieved this season, especially over the last month, is nothing short of amazing, considering the team’s outlook at the start of the year.
As we prepare for the final 20+ games of the regular season, it will be fascinating to see how the Rookie of the Year race plays out. Simmons may be the favorite, but if Donovan Mitchell has shown us anything over the last six months, it’s that we cannot sleep on the 21-year-old guard.
There is a lot of basketball still left to be played this season. Don’t be surprised if last weekend’s Slam Dunk Contest title helps Mitchell elevate himself to the top of the rookie class and possibly superstar status over the next few months.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.