SALT LAKE CITY — Fate is such a funny and fickle beast.
Whenever the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets play each other, Jazz fans are quick to point out that their team’s franchise cornerstones, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, both came to Utah on their respective draft nights after being selected by Denver and then traded away.
As the age-old saying goes, one man’s trade asset is another man’s All-Star. And now, years later, Gobert and Mitchell will need to be at their absolute best in order to send the team that drafted them back to Denver after a first-round playoff series.
While both players were taken by the Nuggets (Gobert in 2013 and Mitchell in 2017), the circumstances of their trades to the Jazz were pretty drastically different. Early in the 2013 pre-draft process, Gobert was considered a potential high lottery pick, but his stock tumbled in the months leading up to the draft and he slipped to the 27th pick.
Mitchell, on the other hand, was somewhat of an unknown despite playing collegiately at Louisville until the draft approached and he became considered a likely late lottery pick.
The Jazz benefited greatly when both players came to Salt Lake City for pre-draft workouts. Gobert had struggled in some previous workouts with other teams, but later stories were told of how he dominated in Utah, which led the Jazz to trade the 46th pick (Erick Green) and cash to the Nuggets for the Frenchman.
Mitchell’s workout with Utah was itself a surprise occurrence. The Jazz owned the 24th pick in the draft in 2017, and with Mitchell being a potential lottery pick, it was a bit odd that he would even go to a workout in the Beehive State.
But it was his first workout with an NBA team, and his agent wanted him to get used to the process. Mitchell wowed, and when Denver wanted to trade the 13th pick, a deal was struck, with Utah sending the Nuggets Trey Lyles and the 24th pick, Tyler Lydon.
Sources say one team that to keep an eye on is Denver. The Nuggets have a history of making draft-night trades. Could potentially move down.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 22, 2017
The reactions to the draft night trades for both players also differed drastically. Before the Jazz traded for Gobert, they had dealt the 14th and 21st picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the ninth pick, point guard Trey Burke. There was a great deal of excitement among Utah fans, as the team needed a floor general and Burke had just been named the player of the year in college basketball.
As such, the Gobert trade was largely a side note on a night Utah made numerous moves (it also traded for Raul Neto, the 47th pick that night).
The Mitchell deal was met with the same kind of excitement and fanfare as the Burke deal four years prior. After his workout with the Jazz, there was buzz that Utah would potentially try to move up in the draft, and Mitchell made sense as a target.
Of course, both Gobert and Mitchell have made the Jazz look smart and the Nuggets not so much, as the duo leads Utah and both were named All-Stars this season, coincidentally hearing the news while on a road trip in Denver, just hours before playing the Nuggets. It’s interesting that their paths through the draft, and the expectations placed on them before their careers began, were so different when everything they would do moving forward would be linked and in lockstep.
While Gobert was winning consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, Mitchell was in a heated battle for Rookie of the Year, winning the dunk contest during All-Star break and getting buzz as someone who could potentially be in MVP conversations if his game continued to grow. They made their All-Star debuts together, and in an ironic twist of fate were the first two players in the NBA to test positive for the coronavirus.
As with any duo of stars in professional sports, the microscope has been on both players, and any modicum of unrest leads fans to conversations about which star will leave Utah first or which one of the two the team should trade.
On the contrary, the Jazz see Gobert and Mitchell as the most essential pieces of their future, and as such, they’re also the most important pieces of the upcoming seven-game opening-round playoff series against the Nuggets.
“Having our go-to guys play well is imperative in any game and the playoffs are the pinnacle of what we want to do in our season and we’re going to need our guys to step up,” Mike Conley said of the Jazz’s stars. “We need the best of everybody that we can get...obviously with those two guys, Rudy and Donovan, leading the way.”
It’s not that the Jazz’s roster lacks depth beyond Mitchell and Gobert or that the weight of the Jazz’s postseason success is squarely on their shoulders, but given the state of the Jazz, without Bojan Bogdanovic and underdogs in the series, if the pair don’t play well, there’s little hope for the Jazz to advance. That means increased minutes, increased responsibility and increased pressure.
“We have no choice and I think we’re all cool with it,” Mitchell said. “It’s what we’re supposed to do, it’s our jobs. Bojan being out obviously is a big blow but I think we have the personnel to get out there and continue to do what we do.”
When the Jazz are at their very best, Mitchell is working on and off the ball, creating quick-passing plays, weaving in tandem with Gobert in the paint, and both are helping each other on the defensive end.
Despite being traded on draft night, despite their differing paths early on, despite any tension between them and despite what anyone is saying about their chances as a 6th seed facing a 3rd seed opponent, one thing is absolutely true; Mitchell and Gobert need to be great and they need each other to beat Denver.
“They are a very good team, so we know that we’re going to need one another and to do it together,” Gobert said. “I really like the dynamic right now. Everyone is on the same page and I really feel like the best Jazz basketball is yet to come.”