The last time a member of the Utah Jazz won the NBA Rookie of the Year award, Jimmy Carter was sitting in the Oval Office as the United States was preparing to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in the Soviet Union.
Utah picked Darrell Griffith second overall out of Louisville 37 years ago and the guard spent his entire career in Salt Lake City.
Following an impressive summer, Donovan Mitchell, whom the Jazz traded up to select 13th overall out of Louisville in June, carries similar expectations as Griffith and could be on a path to become just the second Jazzman to win the award.
On Monday, ESPN released its annual Rookie of the Year forecast. As expected, the top picks of this year’s draft — Philadelphia’s Markelle Fultz and Los Angeles’ Lonzo Ball — received the most votes, but Mitchell got some love too, receiving five total votes, which was on par with third pick Jayson Tatum. Mitchell had more votes than Lauri Markkanen and Malik Monk, both of whom were picked higher in the draft.
In a draft stacked with guards, Mitchell has already begun to separate himself from his peers. Averaging 20.4 points in summer league, Mitchell showed flashes of his elite athleticism and explosiveness, helping the franchise patch its wounds after Gordon Hayward announced his decision to leave Utah.
The numbers Mitchell put up in summer league, for what it’s worth, are similar to the ones Griffith averaged when he won the award in his inaugural season. Griffith averaged 20.6 points on 19 shots per game (albeit at a much higher level, given that he did it during the regular season).
But more importantly, like it was for Griffith, Utah is going to be a place where Mitchell can shine as a rookie.
During the 1980-81 season, Griffith was one of Utah’s leading scorers, second only to Adrian Dantley. Griffith was also one shot shy of leading the team in shots per game. The latter stat is more important because it indicates that Griffith was allowed to work through his rookie mistakes on the court, not just in practice.
Utah, coming off a 24-58 season, was in a place to showcase the team's lottery pick and Griffith took advantage. Utah, having lost Hayward and George Hill this offseason, is currently in a comparable position as the past Jazz team.
While Utah isn’t expected to plummet to the bottom of the standings, head coach Quin Snyder will have to reallocate minutes. If he plays even half as well as he did during the summer league in training camp, Mitchell will find himself in Utah’s rotation at the start of the season. And if he continues to improve, his role will increase, too. Joe Ingles is projected to start at shooting guard, with Alec Burks as the primary backup.
Historically, at least as of late, guards have gotten the nod to win Rookie of the Year more than any other position. Seven of the last 10 players to win the award have been guards, with second-round pick Malcolm Brogdon winning it this past season.
Mitchell has the hand to compete for the award and end what’s been almost a four-decade-long drought in Utah. Winning it in a guard-heavy draft class would be that much more impressive.