With the loss of Gordon Hayward leaving a gaping hole in the Utah Jazz organization and breaking the hearts of their loyal fan base, could Donovan Mitchell fill the gap? Hayward was more than just an emotional leader. The former Butler star led the team in scoring (21.9 PPG), and often served as the team’s de facto point guard. On a team built around stifling defense and rebounding advantages, Hayward was the man tasked with providing the fuel to their offensive fire. In short, he delivered as expected, night after night.

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Who fills the Hayward gap?

With all of the player-shuffling and top heavy realignment in the Western Conference, the Jazz seemed destined to be on the outside looking in, come playoff time. George Hill left for Sacramento, prompting the front office to make a trade for pass-first point guard, Ricky Rubio. The question was clear: Would Utah be able to scrape together enough talent to remain competitive?

Someone would have to pick up the slack, and do their best to step into the team’s “go-to scorer” vacancy. Enter Donovan Mitchell, thirteenth overall pick in the 2017 draft. The shooting guard from Louisville probably understood his future role with his new team would be on the offensive end. What he didn’t know, was that he would have to pick up the slack, plugged into a starting lineup with Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, and Ricky Rubio. None of whom are averaging over 14 points this season, by the way.

So Who is Donovan Mitchell?

So, from day one, Donovan Mitchell was thrust into a situation where Rodney Hood was the closest iteration of a prolific scorer his team possessed. Initially moving in and out of the starting lineup, Mitchell quickly established himself as a solid fixture in the team’s guard rotation, averaging just over 22 minutes per game through his first seven games. Though he was very inconsistent early, his energy and fearlessness proved he was ready to step into the spotlight.

After watching his team struggle offensively, during a three-game losing streak, head coach Quin Snyder decided to finally pull the trigger and install Mitchell into the starting lineup, for good. This move would prove to be crucial to the team’s success, throughout the rest of the season, as well as to the development of their budding young offensive star. Donovan Mitchell responded in kind, posting very Hayward-esque numbers over the next three months:

December: 23.1 PPG, 3.4 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.8 STL, 2.2 3PM, 50.7 FG%, 88.2 FT%
January: 22.2 PPG, 3.8 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.5 3PM, 45 FG%, 79.2 FT%
February: 21.4 PPG, 4.2 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.7 STL, 2.9 3PM, 41.3 FG%, 85.3 FT%
March: 21.8 PPG, 4.2 REB, 4.5 AST, 1 STL, 2.7 3PM, 43 FG%, 87.9 FT%

Mitchell’s stellar play, leading up to the All-Star break, earned him a starting spot on team USA in the ‘Rising Stars’ game. His electrifying athleticism granted him an invitation to compete in the slam dunk contest. Further cementing his arrival as a future star, Mitchell proceeded to out-duel Cleveland‘s Larry Nance Jr., in the dunk contest final. Heading out of the All-Star break, Utah’s young stud guard had already built an impressive rookie résumé. However, with the Jazz sitting on the outside of the playoff picture, his work was not yet complete.

After winning eleven straight contests, entering the All-Star break, Mitchell and the Jazz left the break continuing their strong push up the Western Conference standings. Going (8-2) through those ten games, the Jazz have managed to pull even with the slumping San Antonio Spurs. Their conflagration fueled by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20.6 PPG, 4.5 REB, 4 AST, 1.4 STL, and 2.9 3PM over that span. The final domino to fall, for Utah’s young rising star, would be to lead his team into the playoffs.

The Utah Jazz weren’t being given a chance to be where they are right now, back in the summer of ’17. It is safe to say, however, that they have found a future star and answer to the “what do we do without Gordon Hayward?” question. Donovan Mitchell will continue to pay dividends, as he continues to sharpen and evolve his game. It appears that the Utah faithful won’t have to mourn their franchise’s loss of Gordon Hayward much longer.