By: Bill Ingram
When the Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics in free agency last summer, it was like a gut punch to the organization. They had built a team around Hayward, one they felt strongly could be a solid playoff team for years to come. When Hayward left, many believed the Jazz would be headed for the lottery again.
That does not appear to be the case.
What the Jazz did not count on was that rookie Donovan Mitchell, drafted 13th overall by the Denver Nuggets and later traded to Utah for the 24th pick and Trey Lyles, would emerge quickly as a premier talent in their backcourt. The Jazz are very much in the thick of the hunt for home court advantage in the Western Conference playoff picture thanks to a recent 11-game winning streak. Mitchell has been the driving force behind this success, leading the Jazz with 21.6 points per game in the month of February. Their winning streak saw them topple top teams like the defending champion Golden State Warriors and East-leading Toronto Raptors, as well as two wins over conference rival The San Antonio Spurs. Mitchell even spent some time at point guard while Ricky Rubio was out nursing an injury.
Sources close to the situation tell us that missing the playoffs was never an option for the Jazz, even after Hayward left. They’re not interested in another lottery pick, preferring the invaluable experience that a playoff run would mean for their young core, especially Mitchell. Additionally, making the playoffs would make it easier for the Jazz to lure a top talent this summer, when they will have significant cap space to chase a big name free agent.
With former Indiana Pacers GM David Morway working alongside GM Dennis Lindsey in the Jazz front office, there’s reason for Jazz fans to hope they might get an audience with All-Star forward Paul George. George was the 10th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft by Morway and the Pacers and told the media over the All-Star break that he’s looking for a long-term home after this season in Oklahoma City.
Mitchell could also be a cornerstone piece in helping lure a player like George to town.
Whether or not Mitchell wins Rookie of the Year, and he has a legit shot, he is certainly proving his value to the Utah Jazz. It looks like he will be a significant part of the next era of Utah Jazz playoff basketball. Utah is looking to build a long-term winner with character as central to their process as talent. Paul George would fit right in.
Bill Ingram has 17 years of experience covering the NBA and is now a contributing writer for nbaradioshow.com. You can find him on Twitter: @TheRocketGuy
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