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Is Donovan Mitchell the Perfect Replacement for Gordon Hayward?

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What do you do when you lose your franchise player in free agency?

Pick up his replacement in that year’s draft, right?

Sounds simple enough, and yet it rarely (if ever) happens.

On May 8th, 2017, after a game four loss and a sweep in the second round to the eventual 2017 NBA Champions the Golden State Warriors, the Jazz knew a franchise altering off-season was about to begin. An impressive 51-win season on the back of two young core stars in Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert had the Jazz appearing like a team on the rise in the Western Conference. The only issue was Hayward’s pending free agency, and the overwhelming feeling that he would head elsewhere.

The 2017 NBA draft was held on the 22nd of June, when the Utah Jazz made one of the major moves on draft night in trading up in the first round. The Jazz parted with second year man Trey Lyles, a steady but not spectacular rotation player in his first two years, as well as with the rights to their first round pick, the 24th overall. In return from Denver, Utah received the 13th overall pick, 6’3″ Louisville guard, Donovan Mitchell, fresh off a 15 point, five rebound season for the Cardinals. The 24th pick ended up being Tyler Lydon, who has remained with the Nuggets thus far.

Photo Credit: Bleacherreport.com

In the coming weeks, the nightmare unfolded as suspected, with Gordon Hayward signing a four-year, max contract with the Boston Celtics on July 14th, just 22 days after Mitchell became a member of the Jazz. Quickly moving on from the Hayward defection, the Jazz were active, re-signing Joe Ingles, adding rotation players in Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh. The other marquee acquisition was trading for Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio. With Rodney Hood also remaining on the roster, Utah believed they could still put together a playoff caliber roster out West.

Leading into the draft Mitchell was seen as a player rising into lottery contention during the workout and interview process. Known as a hard working, high character guy, Mitchell seemed to be a safe pick in the late teens, if not a home run selection at that stage.

With major minutes now opened up at the guard/forward position, Mitchell was in the perfect position to get an early opportunity to find a role in the Jazz rotation. As Mike Schmitz from Draft Express wrote of Mitchell proceeding the draft:

“He’s a ways away from being able to run an NBA team, as his feel for the game could still use some work, so putting him in a position to focus on defending, making open shots, getting downhill in space, moving off the ball, and being an athlete in transition will be key, similar to Norman Powell’s development situation in Toronto” (http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Donovan-Mitchell-84680/)

Schmitz noted his potential to fill a 3 and D role wherever he was drafted, though a developmental role appeared likely.

Through 32 games in the season, Mitchell has not only found a role, but has rocketed into the lead position in a balanced Utah offense, averaging 18 points per game. Along with Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma, Mitchell is a leading candidate for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Completely blowing early expectations out of the window, Mitchell is improving at a staggering rate. Averaging 9.3 points in October, 18.1 in November and through 10 games in December is racking up 24.1 points per contest. Out of those ten games in December, he has topped 25 points five times, including two 30 point games and one 41 point outburst in a win against New Orleans.

More then just a scorer, Mitchell is proving he can handle the ball and run an NBA offense, posting a usage percentage of 28.9 percent while also averaging 3.3 assists per game. Often maligned for his shot selection in college, the early returns are good shooting wise, a true shooting percentage of .541 on 15.5 field goal attempts per game is certainly respectable. The deeper, three point shot, so often a challenge for rookies has also been a trusty weapon for the young Utah guard, knocking down 36 percent of his tries at high volume, attempting 6.2 per game.

Photo Credit: basketballinsiders.com

All this, while the other guys involved in the draft night trade remain background pieces in Denver. Lyles has found his spot in the rotation, and is in the midst of a career year shooting the ball. In 17 minutes per contest he averages 8.5 points per game, hitting a red hot 47% of his triples. Solid production, but no where near Mitchell’s output. The other player involved in the trade, rookie Lydon, has only seen the floor in one game. In two minutes of NBA action, Lydon was scoreless and didn’t attempt a shot.

Whilst out in Boston, Hayward’s story is well known. The multiple time All-Star guard only played six minutes of action before brutally breaking his leg, likely ending his season.

Mitchell currently leads all rookies in scoring and usage, ranks sixth in assists, second in free throw percentage, and second in steals per game. All this after a relatively slow start in October. In a team struggling to stay afloat in the Western Conference due to an unfortunate knee injury and the resultant multiple games missed by big man Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has been an absolute delight. Utah currently sits 15-19, good for 9th in the Western Conference. They remain well and truly in the mix for a playoff spot, and who would doubt that they won’t make it if Gobert can regain full health and Mitchell continues his ascension.

For reference, it took Hayward until his fifth season to give Utah the type of offensive production that Mitchell is delivering in his first two months. The loss of Hayward no doubt will remain a painful one for Utah fans to think about, but the arrival of their newest star would certainly numb the pain. The NBA draft is littered with steals and success stories from unlikely prospects, the latest draft night trade pulled off by Utah is undoubtedly a major steal and a potentially franchise altering move.

Is Donovan Mitchell really the perfect replacement for Gordon Hayward? The question will linger for far longer than 32 games, but the star of the young Jazz guard is rising in Salt Lake City and the NBA better take note.

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About Kane Pitman

Milwaukee Bucks fan from Melbourne, Australia. Long time aspiring writer and blogger on the Bucks and sports in general. General NBA and Bucks Lead contributor. Twitter: @mkebucksaus

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