The Utah Jazz are about to experience something they’ve never experienced in their franchises history: a bandwagon. Never before has Utah had such a rash of popularity. At this very moment, Donovan Mitchell is still trending on twitter worldwide. Donovan Mitchell is not just collecting accolades his rookie year like they’re pokemon, he’s changing the culture and image of the Utah Jazz to outsiders.
Take last year’s Utah Jazz team, even with a run that led Utah deep into the playoffs, more people were familiar with Joe Johnson’s heroics than Gordon Hayward’s scoring and Rudy Gobert’s defensive prowess. When Rudy Gobert was on the cusp of winning Defensive Player of the Year, many layman basketball fans were wondering how Rudy Gobert was in the discussion. When Gordon Hayward was an All-Star last year, he wasn’t talked about. Much of our writing at this site last year was spent trying to prove that the Utah Jazz REALLY were as good as their record despite injuries. Even though Utah was having one of its best seasons in years, the reputation of the Utah Jazz has been that it’s not an exciting team.
They say teams take on the personality of their stars. With George Hill and Gordon Hayward last year, the Utah Jazz took on their reserved confidence. They took care of business and had a ton of success, but they executed it with the excitement of a 9-5 job. Celebrations were at a minimum, retaliation and trash talking was at a minimum, and showboating was low due to the stoic nature of the Jazz’s superstars. There were two outliers to that crew, of course. Joe Ingle and Rudy Gobert aren’t the type of players that keep a low profile, but for the most part the Jazz team last year liked flying under the radar.
Donovan Mitchell has changed all that in less than a season. Donovan Mitchell’s loud and outgoing personality is infectious. Even during his most ferocious in-game dunks, Donovan Mitchell is grinning ear to ear. Every game to Donovan is like a child’s first time walking into Disney World. He allows fans to ENJOY the game as much as he does. That’s not to say Gordon Hayward nor George Hill didn’t enjoy playing basketball, but few players make the game’s excitement so accessible like Donovan Mitchell. He’s fun to watch and he looks like he’s having fun while doing that.
Donovan Mitchell is doing special things. He has more 20+ point games as a rookie than Karl Malone. He has two 40+ point games as a rookie, something not done by a rookie since Blake Griffin. He has won Rookie of the Month for December and January. He’s the first rookie since Wilt Chamberlain to lead his team in scoring on a 10+ game winning streak. Now he’s won the dunk contest.
It’s not just Donovan Mitchell who is leading Utah’s culture change. With Donovan Mitchell’s loud and outgoing personality, it’s allowed Joe Ingles’ and Rudy Gobert’s eccentric personalities to shine through. You see it on social media with the team celebrating each other’s accomplishments, but also giving each other a good ribbing on it. Check out this interaction right after the Rising Stars game. His teammates were proud of Donovan, but that doesn’t mean he was exempt from the requisite rookie hazing.
Donovan Mitchell has turned the normally reserved Derrick Favors into the outgoing fold. Ricky Rubio is the perfect compliment on and off the court as Rubio wears his feelings on his sleeve. He’s a high intensity guy and one of the NBA’s good guys off the court with all of his charity work.
Team chemistry is a hard thing to predict, but Utah Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey has hit a home run with this Utah Jazz team. The addition of Jae Crowder is no exception. A big personality guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, he matches Utah’s new culture.
Donovan Mitchell has been at the epicenter of this change. From giving his teammates water bottle showers when they’re the players of the game to religiously wearing his pink princess backpack, he is what would happen if the Jazz created the perfect rookie in a lab. He dunks like a mini-Dominique Wilkins. He scores like a young MJ. He cuts to the hoop like a young Dwyane Wade. He can hit the long ball like Damian Lillard. And he is garnering the attention of the layman NBA fan.
The Utah Jazz went into the All-Star break with the right kind of momentum. They’re on an 11 game win streak and were able to get much needed rest and rehab from their injuries. Their star rookie who has been the root cause of the win streak has just showed out at the Rising Stars game and won the Dunk Contest. After the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz have a couple of winnable games (Portland and Dallas) before matching up against Houston who could be on a 10+ game winning streak of their own. That’s a matchup that could garner Utah even more attention. Donovan Mitchell vs James Harden would be the key matchup in that game. Who could have predicted such a thing at the beginning of the season when Rodney Hood was being projected as Utah’s leading scorer.
For Utah Jazz fans, this is going to be an odd feeling. The Utah Jazz’s bandwagon is going to fill up. Folks that couldn’t find Salt Lake City on a map will be sporting Jazz jerseys. Louisville, Kentucky is going to become Utah’s sister campus when it comes to Jazz fans. Donovan Mitchell jerseys will casually be sold around the country just as a Steph Curry, Damian Lillad, or James Harden jersey would. It’s bittersweet. Being a Jazz fan in the past has been a badge of courage to NBA fandom. Saying you’re a Jazz fan is like saying you saw the Beatles in the dive bar in England before they crossed over to mainstream.
Right now, we’re standing at the turning point for the Utah Jazz. This is the moment where the Utah Jazz go from cult classic to mainstream, and it’s all because of some rookie out of Louisville named Donovan Mitchell.