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Harper | Jazz hope Donovan Mitchell is the energy they need to stay afloat

(AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Dante Exum wanted to see just what the newest Utah Jazz player could do. With under a minute to go in the second quarter of a Utah Summer League game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Exum had an idea for a counter to an inbound play Utah had been running. Prior to heading over to the sideline for a timeout, Exum called Donovan Mitchell over to him on the other end of the court. He motioned with his hands to move one way before crossing back to the other direction. Exum then made a passing motion with his hands and Mitchell’s eyes lit up. They both nodded in agreement and walked to their coach.

As Exum received the inbound pass on the right wing, Mitchell set up his defender. He started moving toward the top of the floor, where the pindown screen would free him to receive the pass.

This is where the hand motions crossed from Exum’s instructions. As Mitchell’s defender tried to cut corners around the screen, Mitchell doubled back toward the rim. Exum lofted a high-arcing lob pass to the heavens, targeting the 6-foot-10 wingspan and 40-inch vertical catapulting into the air. Mitchell’s elbow cleared the plane of the rim as he tried to corral the lob pass and create a Summer League highlight to remember.

Mitchell’s attempt came up empty. A Philly big man altered it just enough for the attempt to fly off the rookie’s hands and sail out of bounds to the sideline. Mitchell clapped enthusiastically. Exum squatted from his passing position in a manner that would have led to questions during the NBA Finals about what exactly he was trying to mimic. The squat was rooted in disappointment at the great idea just coming up short on execution. The arena buzzed — from a missed lob play! — as Exum and Mitchell were figuring out what they could do on the fly. For a Jazz team back in transition as a franchise, moments like these help quell the loss of Gordon Hayward leaving for Boston.

When Dennis Lindsey targeted Mitchell in the draft, everybody knew the Louisville guard wouldn’t drop into the 20s as so many draft boards projected months earlier. Mitchell had a rising stock in the draft and went from the back third of the first round to a guaranteed lottery pick. Lindsey moved a former 12th pick he made two years earlier in Trey Lyles and the 24th pick in the draft to Denver for the 13th spot in 2017. Mitchell would be tasked with adding dynamism to a second unit whether Hayward stuck around or not.

If Hayward left, the Jazz continued to have a proper young core centered around Rudy Gobert. If Hayward stayed, their loaded squad would try to figure out how to challenge Golden State. He left.

The Jazz had to pivot once again — going from budding Western Conference powerhouse to another young team trying to stay in the playoff picture. While nobody will expect Mitchell as a rookie or even a five-year vet to replace what Hayward gave them over the past few years, the excitement and opportunity he adds to this team are palpable.

Energy is both a very real and very subjective thing. It’s something we can measure to find out the temperature of something. It’s also something we experience and feel in a psychological sense. Momentum in a basketball game essentially becomes psychological energy we want to feel. Whether it’s the excitement of a turning moment or the pressure of any given clutch situation, energy fills the air. Mitchell appears to be intense energy bottled into a 6-foot-3 frame.

He springs toward the rim or fires off a jumper in a quick, compact motion. That can be tough for a player with longer arms, but any question about Mitchell’s shooting motion seems to have a satisfactory answer. Despite a poor showing shooting the ball from outside in five Summer League games (31.3 percent), most scouts seem convinced he’ll possess at least a league-average jumper from downtown. That seems optimistic considering his best in college sat at 35.4 percent, but his shooting motion does look good.

Mostly — and as cliché as this sounds — Mitchell just makes plays on a basketball court. Astounding plays. Plays in which the opposing team just seems lucky it was around to witness a bad event happen. Mitchell doesn’t have to dominate in order for the wow factor to come into play. Sure, he can drop 30 or more in a game — we all love the “volume scoring for a Summer League” moment. We remember the Josh Selby summer and the Marcus Banks summer. Some people still tell their grandkids about Anthony Randolph in Vegas.

Mitchell has a chance to be that in the summer and actually good in the games that matter.

For every big game, there are a handful of huge, spectacular moments that let us know we should expect the floodgates to open eventually — like when Mitchell shoots a passing lane before a behind-the-back save to Exum in stride for a dunk. Or a crazy tip-in from his own missed shot over bigger rebounders. How about when he makes an entire transition defense gravitate toward stopping him and abandoning a shooter trailing the play?

 

It hasn’t been all roses for Mitchell in his Summer League tests. He has struggled to score and facilitate in pick-and-roll scenarios. Being able to run some stuff with Rudy Gobert should help with that. But “early Mitchell” may not gain a ton of time with the first-unit players, despite Quin Snyder loving to mix and match lineup combinations. He will have to hone those skills and not settle for pull-up jumpers off the pick-and-roll. Luckily, Utah has some of the best skill development coaches in the NBA. They should be able to tighten his handle and help him get to spots for better shot attempts.

Despite his freakish athleticism and reach, Mitchell has to be more composed and efficient around the hoop. In the NBA, jumping over guys can only take a player so far at his size. Mitchell still struggles with the angles to attack when he doesn’t have the distinct athletic advantage. Yet, all of this stuff emerges in time for a lot of young guards anyway. The Jazz appreciate his moxie and attitude toward any challenge.

Tired of watching Jayson Tatum score

One of the most impressive rookies in the Summer League action thus far has been the third pick in the draft. Boston Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum has been giving buckets to just about everybody… and even took down Markelle Fultz in an early showdown in Utah. For the most part, Tatum has served as the unstoppable scoring rookie dazzling some of the less organized games of the summer. In one game, though, Tatum was surprisingly kept in check.

After watching Tatum look a little too comfortable on offense for Mitchell’s liking, the Jazz rookie already had enough. In the second quarter of their game, Mitchell asked to switch onto Tatum. Tatum probably has only about 10-20 pounds on Mitchell, but he’s also five inches taller. A combo guard wanting to guard a combo forward should be a mismatch in the Celtics’ favor. Mitchell proved his technique and tenacity could take away the physical disadvantages. He made Tatum miserable on offense the rest of the summer night.

 

Mitchell infamously dropped Tatum in the fourth quarter of that game, but the defense of the much bigger scorer left the lasting impression for everybody watching him. Mitchell clarified that it’s just Summer League and he wouldn’t get too high about the moments. Tatum told reporters he’ll use it as a learning experience, but Mitchell’s ability to hound Tatum and take away space on so many plays where the Celtics’ rookie experienced freedom kept everybody wondering if the Louisville guard will be the steal of the draft.

The excitement ahead as the Jazz retool again

Where do the Jazz sit in a post-Hayward world? The roster still consists of many exciting young players. Gobert just turned 25 and begins a big extension this season. Exum, who had a very good summer run, just turned 22 and gets to work in his first healthy offseason to get better. Rodney Hood (24) hits restricted free agency next summer if he and the Jazz don’t agree to an extension. Utah expects him to assume a lot of the scoring load Hayward leaves behind. Veteran role players and guys to develop in the D-League populate the rest of the roster.

Figuring out where Mitchell fits into all of this is a big key. Teams don’t want to get too excited about a Summer League session. If a rookie dominates the majority of the competition, they can feel all tingly, but when the real competition begins, none of that matters. The Jazz know this and want to continue to foster an identity and culture with this team. They don’t want to base it on hope; they want to base it on work and progress. Mitchell can either become the guy we wonder about — how did he fall outside the top 10? — or the unbelievable role player on a very successful team, kind of like Avery Bradley.

The excitement is there, though, and the potential to play around with a lot of different ideas on the court fills up the Jazz’s outlook. Mitchell and Exum will try to surprise the defense over the next few years. They’ll try to galvanize moments to fuel runs that lead to winning. The Jazz just want to see what their young guys can do. By the looks of it, Mitchell can do a lot of fun things.

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