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In their next game, the Cleveland Cavaliers will square off against a team boasting the NBA’s top rookie in terms of points scored and third in assists.
And, no, it’s not the Los Angeles Lakers and Lonzo Ball or the Philadelphia 76ers and Ben Simmons.
When the Cavaliers take on the Utah Jazz on Saturday night (8 p.m. EST tipoff), they will see first-year standout Donovan Mitchell for the second time this season.
All that Jazz
- Since the Jazz moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City in June 1979, they have played the Cavaliers 76 times.
- Utah holds a 44-32 series advantage in those games.
- The Jazz have won 30 of 38 games against the Cavaliers in matchups in Salt Lake City.
- Cleveland’s last win at Utah was a 113-102 triumph on Jan. 10, 2014.
- LeBron James has played quite well in games played in Salt Lake City in his career, averaging 27.2 points, 7 rebounds, 4.8 assists per game.
- The problem is, dating back to his days in Miami, his teams have not fared well. James-led teams have lost six consecutive games at Utah, including a 110-92 defeat on Jan. 10 of last season.
Mitchell, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound shooting guard out of Louisville, is first among rookies this season in points scored with 607 and trails only Ball and Simmons among first-year players in assists with 114.
He torched the Cavaliers for 26 points back on Dec. 16 in a 109-100 loss at Quicken Loans Arena, canning 11 of 16 shots, including 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc in 36 minutes. He was the only Utah starter to reach double figures in the game.
Mitchell scored 12 points in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers needed LeBron James‘ 60th career triple-double to withstand Mitchell and the Jazz, who made 17 3-pointers against a leaky Cleveland defense that night. Utah was playing without the injured Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Raul Neto.
He certainly caught the eye of James.
“This league is all about opportunity and confidence,” James said. “And he’s been given both.
“That’s what this league is about. There’s talent from top to bottom and when you’re given the opportunity, and you’re given the confidence and you’re given the ability to make mistakes, then you can do well in this league and he’s done well, so far.”
The 21-year-old rookie has become The Next Big Thing for the Jazz, as evidenced by his plethora of highlight-reel dunks, not to mention a 41-point explosion earlier this season against the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Jazz (15-21) have lost three consecutive games and 10 of their last 12 going into the matchup with the Cavaliers (24-11). Utah has struggled mightily without Gobert.
Gobert, is averaging who is averaging 11.6 points and 19.6 rebounds this season, was expected miss 3-4 weeks after an MRI revealed a sprained PCL and a bone bruise in his left knee and being rolled up on by teammate Favors in a 107-95 loss at Boston on Dec. 15. He is to be reevaluated before Saturday’s game against the Cavaliers, according to Jazz radio play-by-play man David Locke.
The Jazz are 1-6 since Gobert suffered the knee injury.
But Mitchell’s performance this season has caught the eye of superstars across the league. Kevin Durant of the Warriors gushed about what Mitchell is doing in his first season in before a matchup against the visiting Jazz on Wednesday at Oracle Arena.
“When you get the green light, you got confidence,” Durant said, almost matching James’ comments on the budding young star. “You can kinda make mistakes from the fly. It makes for a better player as the season goes on. You see him getting better and better each month because he’s out there, he’s playing without looking over his shoulder, man.”
However, that freedom comes at a price, especially for a rookie. Now, teams are scouting and preparing for Mitchell, scheming to combat him, in fact. Star players are also testing him more, perhaps in an effort to see how the rookie will react.
Mitchell’s numbers, while impressive on the season — 17.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 steals in 30.5 minutes per game — have taken a bit of a hit of late.
According to numbers published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Mitchell has had a net rating switch from positive (plus-8.2) to negative (minus-6.7). Also, he is turning the basketball over more and his assist ratios have taken a hit in December.
However, Mitchell is still taking the most shots of any Utah player, 15.4 per game, with veterans Rodney Hood (15) and Ricky Rubio (10) next in line.
Still, even James Harden has taken note of Mitchell’s performance this season.
“Even guys like Mitchell from the Jazz,” the Rockets great said to the reporters when asked which opposing superstar he attempts to emulate. “He got game.”
And that “game” will most certainly be on the minds of Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue on Saturday night after the rookie put 26 on his squad less than two weeks ago.
Which is just fine, according to Jazz coach Quinn Snyder, who has seen Mitchell work harder and put more time in on preparation in terms of studying scouting reports, etc.
“That’s something that I’m glad he’s recognizing,” Snyder told the Salt Lake Tribune. “There’s a difference between being reported on personnel who you are versus a game plan, which is more what you do.
“It’s his credit that he’s transitioned into that as far as people prepare for that.”