Utah Jazz: Official or not, Donovan Mitchell is OUR Rookie of the Year

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 10: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz celebrates a lead during a 105-99 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 10: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz celebrates a lead during a 105-99 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

Both Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons are extremely deserving of the Rookie of the Year award, but there’s no question among Utah Jazz fans who has their vote.

The NBA Rookie of the Year debate this season has become pretty heated and, quite frankly, at times a little disappointing due to the reactions of some fans. While a talented rookie class appears to be producing a number of solid future players, there’s almost no arguing that the two who have emerged as the frontrunners for the award are the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and the Utah Jazz‘s Donovan Mitchell.

However, rather than celebrate the incredible first season that both these players are having, many members of both fan bases have resorted to tearing down the other to purportedly elevate the one they are in support of. In my mind, this is absolute lunacy. Both are phenomenal. Both are putting up historical rookie seasons. Both are deserving of recognition.

In my mind, the only wrong opinion is believing that neither one of these two players has a Rookie of the Year case, because they both absolutely do.

And at the end of the day, barring an extremely rare situation such as what was seen in 1995 when both Grant Hill and Jason Kidd shared the award, only one of these two incredible young players is going to end up taking home the hardware at the conclusion of the season.

That player may very well be Ben Simmons. And if such is the case, he will receive no ill will from this Jazz fan. He’s had a sensational season and is a generational talent. He’s an all-around great player who can impact the game in so many ways.

His traditional stat line of 15.8 points on 53.9 percent shooting from the field, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 1.7 steals is exceptional, and he even has the edge on Mitchell in several advanced statistics such as offensive rating (108.9 vs. 106.4), net rating (7.2 vs. 4.7), assist percentage (35.6 vs. 18.9) and effective field goal percentage (53.9 vs. 50.3).

However, Mitchell has the edge in a number of statistical categories as well including points per game (20.3 vs. 15.8), offensive box plus/minus (1.1 vs. 0.8) and, of course, in three-point percentage where Simmons has yet to make a shot (which, in fairness, is not his game).

Mitchell has also accomplished a number of historical marks including becoming the quickest rookie to hit his 150th three-pointer (63 games), passing LeBron James for the third-most 25-point games (25) as a rookie over the past 20 seasons and becoming one of only a few rookies ever to lead a 40-plus-win team in scoring, to name a few. But yet again, the same can be said about Simmons as several of the figures he’s putting up are historical as well.

Truly, when judging by just the numbers, either one of these players can be framed as the best rookie depending on which stats or comparisons you pick and choose from. That’s pretty understandable considering that both are different players with unique roles on distinct teams.

Even so, while both present intriguing and deserving cases for the Rookie of the Year award, Donovan Mitchell is still my pick. And my reasoning for that goes well beyond stats given that, as I’ve already touched on, certain numbers can frame either player in an exceptional light.

The reason why I believe Donovan Mitchell deserves to be the 2017-18 NBA Rookie of the Year comes down to one word – impact.

I know, Sixers fans. Ben Simmons has an enormous positive impact on his team as well and I’m not disputing that. But just hear me out for a second.

The Utah Jazz were an enormous question mark coming into this year. After losing their two leading scorers from the year prior, where were the points going to come from? Some thought Rodney Hood would pick up that slack, but he isn’t even on the team anymore! That right there should serve as a nice preface to how impactful Mitchell has been, as he made one of Utah’s top wing scorers largely expendable.

Not only is Donovan leading all rookies in scoring, but he’s leading his entire Jazz team – a team with a number of experienced players – in scoring. He’s the guy that opponents are game planning against. He’s the focal point of opposing defenses. They know if they can stop Donovan, it’s going to be hard for the Jazz to put up enough points to win. Now that’s an impact.

And while Rudy Gobert‘s return has been the catalyst for Utah’s monumental turnaround that has them nearing a playoff spot, it’s still Donovan that’s the best offensive player the Jazz have. Without Mitchell this season, the Jazz are likely lottery-bound, especially considering how long Rudy was sidelined. With Mitchell, the Jazz have an average offense (instead of the dismal one they were projected to have) to go along with their insanely staunch defense.

Mitchell detractors are quick to point out that with Rudy Gobert out or ailing for most of the month of December, the Jazz went just 5-10. In games that Mitchell has played this season that Gobert hasn’t, Utah is just 10-14, and in games Gobert missed in December and January that Mitchell played, Utah was just 3-10.

But to that I say, that’s just how basketball works! When you’re missing one of your top two best players, of course you’re going to struggle as a team! Do you think C.J. McCollum and the Portland Trail Blazers would do as well without Damian Lillard? How about Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets without James Harden? Or here’s one to get the gears going, how about even Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers without Joel Embiid?

Yes, Mitchell couldn’t single-handedly keep the Jazz above .500 during one of the toughest stretches of the season without the team’s most important player. But I don’t believe any rookie in the history of the league could. What Mitchell did do during that stretch and has done all season when the chips have been against the Jazz is keep them afloat.

A perfect example of this took place on December 20 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Mitchell was unable to play in the contest with a toe injury. The result? A 107-79 walloping in which the Jazz simply couldn’t find the bottom of the net. I have a feeling we would have seen a lot more games with that kind of result, especially with Gobert out, if Mitchell weren’t on the team.

Instead, Mitchell willed the Jazz to a number of victories during that stretch without Gobert such as his 29-point performance against Cleveland and his 41-point outpouring against New Orleans, which certainly would have been losses without him. With Gobert back in action, Mitchell hasn’t fallen off, but has continued to thrive, averaging 22.2 points in January, 21.4 in February and 23.1 so far in March.

If Mitchell isn’t on this team, there’s absolutely no questioning that the Jazz aren’t making the playoffs. If he hadn’t been there to will the Jazz to the wins he did with Gobert out, even the Stifle Tower’s return wouldn’t have been enough to get Utah back in the playoff race.

And that’s a huge reason why he deserves Rookie of the Year in my mind. There is no set of specific conditions or requirements that decide who gets the award and the final decision is certainly based on circumstance. Mitchell has absolutely exceeded all expectations especially with the circumstances facing him and has helped his Jazz team likewise exceed expectations.

Mitchell also leads all rookies (minimum 15 minutes played) in usage percentage at 28.8 percent and, for what it’s worth, comfortably leads fellow ROY contender Simmons in that category. In other words, the Jazz have handed the reins completely over to their first-year player and even with that added role and responsibility, he’s dominating a team and the league in the ways I’ve described thus far.

That’s also largely due to how exceptional he’s been in late-game situations. Mitchell is tenth in the league, not just among rookies, but among all players, in fourth quarter scoring at 6.4 points per contest, placing him above the likes of Kemba Walker, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. He’s absolutely become Utah’s number one option and go-to guy, and he’s been effective at it more often than not, especially for a rookie.

One final point about Mitchell is that earlier in the season, several of his critics referred to him merely as a ‘good player on a bad team’ and claimed that Utah’s poor record was a case against him winning Rookie of the Year. When the Jazz were nine games under .500, I suppose that could have been a valid argument.

Now, though, the Jazz are suddenly 42-33 and, despite some hiccups of late, are still right in the thick of the playoff race in the daunting and crowded Western Conference. Good player on a bad team, you say? More like exceptional player on a good (and surging) team. If Mitchell closes out the season by leading his team into a postseason spot – something that seemed unlikely coming into the season and nearly impossible in mid-January – that should only work to further his worthiness as Rookie of the Year.

In summary, Mitchell’s Rookie of the Year case goes well beyond numbers and historical accolades, it’s more a matter of the role he’s assumed on this Jazz team and how he’s thrived in it. He’s taken a team that many felt were doomed to struggle offensively and become a reliable go-to scorer for them. He’s their top offensive option as well as a solid defender that impacts the game in several more areas than what he gets credit for.

At the end of the day, Ben Simmons may very well be recognized as the NBA’s official 2017-18 Rookie of the Year. And he would be absolutely deserving of the award for the phenomenal season he’s had. Nevertheless, Donovan Mitchell has taken a wounded Jazz team – one that lost its two leading scorers last summer and was once thought of as certain to be lottery-bound – and willed them right back into the thick of the playoff hunt.

He’s redeemed a team that was hurting after a tough summer. He’s saved a season that once felt lost. And perhaps greatest of all, he’s given hope for an even brighter future than what he’s already creating this year.

Next: Utah Jazz-Memphis Grizzlies: As ever, Mitchell & Co. face must-win

The Rookie of the Year award can be given out to whoever the NBA pleases and that player may be very much deserving.

But make no mistake about it. Considering all he’s done this season, for Utah Jazz fans, Donovan Mitchell is OUR Rookie of the Year.