Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert’s growth and maturity in the NBA bubble cemented them as leaders of the Utah Jazz moving forward
SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the cornerstones of the Utah Jazz, and the Jazz would like to keep it that way.
After both players tested positive for the coronavirus in March, existing tension boiled over between them. What happened next would largely be the deciding factor on whether or not Utah would be able to proceed with keeping its star duo in Salt Lake City for the foreseeable future.
Rather than let any sort of misunderstanding, squabble or disagreement fracture their relationship, Mitchell and Gobert drew strength from what would be one of the best learning experiences of their careers and matured in unexpected ways while in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando.
Not only did they make it through being at the center of the COVID-19 chaos, but they brushed off rumors that they wouldn’t be able to repair their working relationship, proved wrong those who doubted they would be able to play together and in some ways became even better players.
“It’s really, really hard to get core franchise-level talent in any market, big or small, but it’s exponentially hard to get that level of talent that has a high level of character and competitiveness,” Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey said earlier this week. “As I’ve mentioned before, we’re working to add players of Rudy and Donovan’s physical talent and competitive makeup and so by definition we’re going to want to keep those type of players moving forward.”
That’s as much an endorsement as a front office executive can give without violating tampering rules before the window opens up so that they can offer very lucrative extensions to both Mitchell and Gobert.
In the meantime, as the NBA works through nailing down the specific dates and deadlines that will allow the Jazz to start inking contracts, the front office is evaluating every piece of the roster and trying to figure out what was learned this season before and during the bubble.
For Mitchell and Gobert, much of the improvement can’t be tracked by numbers or analytics. Sure, Mitchell looked like an offensive dynamo during Utah’s lone playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, but that’s not where the Jazz saw the most growth in the 23-year-old guard.
“When the league shut down, I think he spent a lot of time evaluating where he wanted to go and how he could help this team,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said. “I was really impressed with how he handled everything. ... Taking the losses for the team hard and wanting to improve as a teammate and a leader, and he made huge strides during the bubble.”
Mitchell’s role as a leader — and a shift in maturity that pushed him into even more of a leadership position — was evident not just to the Jazz’s front office brass, but also to his teammates, who were impressed with how the first-time All-Star took on a lot of responsibility when basketball resumed in Orlando and how he proved to be a larger voice both on and off the court.
For Gobert, when the league shut down following his positive coronavirus test, he admitted to being in a dark place emotionally, but the hiatus gave him time to reflect and to focus his mind on the important things in life.
Once the season restarted in the bubble, Gobert found solace and strength in his teammates and was able to move past the rumors and controversy and into a more determined state of mind.
“I’m really proud of the way we’ve been able to handle that as a team, as human beings,” he said after the Game 7 loss to the Nuggets. “A few months ago I probably wasn’t in the right space mentally to go out and play with my team, but we found a way to make it happen. And to be able to have my teammates’ support through these last few months, especially since we’re in the bubble and after everything that happened, it was really something that lifted me up and I really tried to give everything I could for this team.”
Both Lindsey and Zanik noted a maturity shift for Gobert as well. Rather than be more vocal, they noticed the two-time Defensive Player of the Year quieted down.
“He wasn’t walking up on the officials in contest of a call nearly as much, he wasn’t constantly asking for the lob,” Lindsey said. “There was real collaboration, ... a greater level of maturity.”
“As I’ve mentioned before, we’re working to add players of Rudy and Donovan’s physical talent and competitive makeup and so by definition we’re going to want to keep those type of players moving forward.” — Utah Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey
The Jazz knew that they were going to have some difficulties in the postseason without Bojan Bogdanovic and under the strangest circumstances the NBA has ever seen, but they saw this season’s playoffs as an opportunity to see how the core players would handle things.
“I felt personally, going into the series, that Donovan was going to have to ramp his usage up to James Harden levels,” Lindsey said. “The team didn’t really dictate that through the course of the year.”
Though Mitchell was already the team’s leading scorer, averaging 24 points per game through the regular season, without Bogdanovic and without Mike Conley for the first two games, Mitchell needed to take on an elevated offensive load.
Of course, Mitchell rose to the occasion, putting on historic performances.
“I think the game, from a read standpoint, had slowed down for him a little bit,” Lindsey said. “I think he became very cognizant of getting Rudy the ball in the right spots, when Donovan hit the paint with lobs. Really usage, efficiency, comeuppance, meeting the moment. That first game, 57 points, even in a loss, was something to see.”
The hope is that with health and added pieces, Mitchell will not have to work at such a high usage rate in the future. Even so, Mitchell was already thinking about ways he wanted to improve as soon as the Game 7 clock hit zero.
“I think take my game to another level, being able to play both ends of the floor,” he said. “I feel like that was the reason why I was drafted, to play defense, that was why I was picked. I wasn’t picked to do what I’m doing and I kind of evolved into that. But conditioning, getting my body right for that next level, and continuing just to build chemistry.”
That chemistry will include continued growth with Gobert. In order for the pair to maintain their roles as the leaders and anchors of the Jazz, in pursuit of a championship, they’ll need to improve and mature on and off the court. And as far as the Jazz front office sees it, Mitchell and Gobert are right on track to be exactly who the team needs them to be.