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Instead of desired playoff appearance, Jazz might have found better prize in hotshot rookie Donovan Mitchell

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DETROIT – Donovan Mitchell inspires confidence.

Chris Paul watched him play at a spring camp and told Mitchell, who was leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior season, to declare for the NBA draft. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey threatened to fire anyone who revealed how good Mitchell looked in a pre-draft workout then traded up to pick the guard No. 13. After Gordon Hayward left Utah for the Celtics in free agency and early injuries set in, Jazz coach Quin Snyder made the rookie his go-to player. Fans flocked to Mitchell for his high-flying dunks, bold pull-up 3-pointers and monster scoring games.

Between his athleticism, smooth shooting stroke and 6-foot-10 wingspan on a 6-foot-3 body, Mitchell oozed promise. His future was undeniably bright.

But, in a distinction too few made, his present was underwhelming. Mitchell’s high-scoring nights were celebrated, but his too-frequent duds were ignored. He posted big point totals out of volume far more than efficiency. At Thanksgiving, his true shooting percentage was a dreadful 46.8, well below league average of 55.6.

Mitchell didn’t step back, though. In fact, he increased his offensive load. And he’s growing up right before our eyes. His true shooting percentage since Thanksgiving is 59.0, a sparkling mark considering his high usage.

“At the end of the day, I’m a rookie,” Mitchell said. “If I miss shots, it’s to be expected. None of this was supposed to happen.”

Not based on Mitchell’s reluctance to leave Louisville. Not based on his projection – mid-to-late first round – once he finally turned pro. Not based on where he actually got picked, No. 13.

But, by now, Mitchell has already established himself as a hyped player.

Most rookies who averaged 18 points per game won Rookie of the Year. Mitchell is averaging 19.1. He might not catch the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who appeared to be running away with the award earlier in the season, but Mitchell’s candidacy should be taken seriously.

Not that Mitchell is giving it much thought.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, make a playoff push,” Mitchell said. “I think if I focus on that one award, it’s kind of selfish on my part to be like, ‘Alright, this is why I’m playing.’ We have bigger things in mind.”

And that’s the rub.

Teams rarely win while relying so much on rookies. Sometimes, that’s because the only way to get a rookie worth giving the ball to so much is tankingg for a high pick. Regardless of that rookie’s talent, it can take years to build back up after stripping the roster to tank.

Utah sure didn’t do that, winning 51 games and a playoff series last season. The Jazz are still a veteran team, the NBA’s eighth-oldest weighted by playing time despite the 21-year-old Mitchell nearly leading them in minutes. They were built to win now with Hayward, and his departure threw the entire franchise for a loop.

Those are big shoes for Mitchell to fill, and he’s doing an admirable job – in context.

Mitchell shoots 16.1 times per game. The only team in the last 20 years to make the playoffs with a rookie taking at least 15 shots per game: Carmelo Anthony‘s Nuggets in 2004. Even at just 20-28, Utah has the best record of any team since with a 15-shot-per-game rookie:

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It’s especially hard to win when that go-to rookie is a guard. Putting the ball in a young player’s hands that often is just asking for trouble. The last team to make the playoffs with a guard shooting 15 times per game was Mitch Richmond’s Warriors in 1989. Restrict it to point guards, and the last team was Ernie DiGregorio’s Buffalo Braves in 1974.

Mitchell’s position is hazy.

He starts with Ricky Rubio, a clear point guard. But Mitchell spends so much time as the lead ball-handler, as he can use a variety of moves to create his own shot. The Jazz also try to get him going plenty off the ball by running him off screens. He’s dangerous as a spot-up shooter.

Mitchell is nearly peerless in the breadth and depth of his scoring.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (9.9 attempts per game) and efficiency (49.3 effective field-goal percentage) on shots off multiple dribbles: LeBron James, Victor Oladipo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Lou Williams, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, D'Angelo Russell, C.J. McCollum, Kemba Walker, DeMar DeRozan.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (3.6 attempts per game) and efficiency (66.5 effective field-goal percentage) on catch-and-shoots: Clint Capela, Buddy Hield, Mirza Teletovic, DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Kevin Durant, Reggie Bullock, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Enes Kanter, Tyler Zeller, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Trey Lyles, Hassan Whiteside, Jamil Wilson, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, Dwight Powell, Julius Randle.

If you notice, the only player on both lists is LeBron.

Like LeBron and many other players, Mitchell chose his jersey number to honor Michael Jordan. But Mitchell chose No. 45, not Jordan’s more famous No. 23. Jordan wore No. 45 during his stint in baseball, Mitchell’s favorite sport growing up, then briefly during his first comeback with the Bulls, which happened before Mitchell was even born. Why not pick No. 23 like everybody else honoring Jordan wears?

“Because that’s what everybody else does,” Mitchell said. “I try to be different. I’m not like everybody else.”

Mitchell isn’t blazing a completely new trail, though. His combination of usage percentage (28.7) and true shooting percentage (54.6) is amazing for a rookie, but one other first-year player already did it:

Jordan.

By putting himself in that elite company, Mitchell isn’t having his role reduced – no matter what growing pains the Jazz must endure.

“He’s our best offensive player,” Snyder said. “So, he’s going to get responsibility. From my standpoint, there’s not a timeline.”

Mitchell plays and talks like someone whose self-confidence matches the belief everyone else has in him. So, why was he leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior – not even sophomore – season until Paul told him otherwise? As Mitchell explains, he was too shocked by the idea of competing against players like LeBron and Durant for his confidence even to set in.

So, when did shock wear off?

“It really hasn’t, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “It’s game by game. It’s kind of crazy to me, the entire thing.”

Frank Vogel not worried Jason Kidd will undermine him as coach

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What else was he going to say?

In a “welcome to the Lakers” press conference that was hijacked by the sideshow of Magic Johnson torching the organization — is there better prep for what a Laker coach deals with than that? — Frank Vogel was relentlessly optimistic. He had nothing but praise for the organization, the people, the players, heck he probably would have said he loved the Game of Thrones ending.

And when asked about having Jason Kidd pushed on him as an assistant coach — one of the reasons Tyronn Lue walked away from the table, he didn’t want a guy who could replace him and had lobbied for the Lakers job before in the seat next to him — Vogel said he was not worried about that, either. Via Ohm Youngmisuk and Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I have been around this business a long time. I really don’t give that a second thought. You can say that about every coach in the league about their assistant coaches. It happens from time to time. I believe if you treat people with the right respect and do the job at the highest level, build an environment of positivity and collaboration, you can’t worry about that stuff.

“You can’t worry about looking over your shoulder. You got to worry about getting good damn coaches, and that is how I feel about this hire.”

Vogel also said he sat down with Kidd and they are on the same page in terms of coaching philosophy.

“I had a great, lengthy interview process with Jason where we talked about every topic you can imagine, and came away thinking he’s going to be an incredible asset to our program.”

Again, what else was he going to say?

Kidd has a history of angling for the Lakers job, even when it was filled, and Vogel knows it. But Vogel accepted the terms of a three-year contract (lining up with LeBron James‘ deal) and Kidd as his assistant, things that a coach with options would not have taken. Lue didn’t. Vogel has to make the best of the situation, and whatever he may think privately, he has to be optimistic and positive in public. Especially on his first day.

Vogel may have been the Lakers third or fourth option as a coach, but they backed into a good one — if they give him the talent to win and don’t undercut him. Vogel has coached the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where he always lost to LeBron (there are a lot of coaches in the East who had that problem). He’s a strong defensive coach. Vogel has a lot of fans in the coaching ranks, and a lot of those people think the Lakers have set Vogel up to fail. We’ll see, that’s more about the Lakers’ offseason.

But at the start, Vogel is saying all the right things. Even if that was the only thing to say.

John Beilein ready to undertake “renaissance” with Cavaliers

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — John Beilein has coached at every level in college but says the Cleveland Cavaliers are his dream job.

The 66-year-old Beilein, who turned Michigan into a perennial power during a 12-year run, was introduced Tuesday by the Cavaliers. Even before taking the podium, Beilein got to work with one of his new players, peeling off his suit jacket to rebound shots for forward Larry Nance Jr.

Beilein doesn’t view Cleveland’s situation as a rebuild but rather a renaissance. At one point during his remarks, Beilein pointed to the 2016 NBA championship banner and others hanging along one wall at the Cavs’ facility and said, “it’s been done before, it can be done again.”

Beilein drew a large laugh when he was reminded he has never been fired by saying, “That’s right.”

Beilein knows he has work to do with the Cavaliers, who went 19-63 last season.

 

Coach Terry Stotts signs multi-year extension to stay with Portland

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The buzz around the league had been that Terry Stotts was unhappy he had not gotten a contract extension last summer for GM Neil Olshey and the Portland Trail Blazers. Stotts still had two seasons on his contract at that time, but after this season — with a run to the conference finals that just ended — he was about to head into a lame duck year. Chris Haynes reported at Yahoo Sports that if Stotts didn’t get an extension this summer he might not be back.

The extension is done, Olshey announced on Tuesday.

This is well deserved.

The Trail Blazers won 53 games this season and for the second year in a row were the No. 3 seed in the West. This season they advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen were leading the team back in 2000. This year’s Blazers found a third option in Jusuf Nurkic (who was injured for the playoffs and the team made the run without him).

Stotts tied all that together with smart play designs that fit the personnel.

“It’s a disappointing loss, but for me it was an outstanding season,” Stotts said after his team was eliminated Monday. “The guys in the locker room are special. It’s been a special season. Always tough to lose the last game of the year, but I couldn’t be more proud of the group that we’ve had.”

It’s a season they can build upon, locking up the coach was part of that.

Steve Kerr: “[Kevon] Looney has become one of our foundational pieces”

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Last summer, any team could have snapped up Kevon Looney and had him for just a little over the minimum. The Warriors had not picked up his fourth-year option. Part of that was financial, but he hadn’t blown the doors off anybody — he was averaging just 4 points a game for the Warriors — but he was healthy and had become part of the Warriors rotation. The Warriors saw the potential, but nobody else stepped up. Looney returned to the Warriors on a $1.6 million, one year contract.

He’s going to make a lot more this July as an unrestricted free agent after a strong season — establishing himself before DeMarcus Cousins got healthy — and stronger playoffs. The Warriors’ goal is to keep him.

“Looney has become one of our foundational pieces. He does this every single night,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team eliminated Portland from the playoffs, a game where Looney had 12 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. “I think one thing that we’ve seen in almost every series, is as the game goes on and players get tired, Loon gets more and more rebounds. He just has a knack for the ball. Really long arms. Great feel for the game. And so his rebounding, I think he had 14 tonight, a bunch of offensive boards [four]. Really a big key for us.”

Looney was taken aback by those comments, talking to Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

“To be called a foundational piece, I never would’ve believed that,” Looney said, when relayed the Kerr comment. “Even when I was playing pretty good last season, I never would’ve taken it that far.”

The question becomes, can the Warriors afford to keep him?

Golden State undoubtedly wants to, team president Bob Myers called him a priority, but then admitted the Warriors have a lot of priorities this summer. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson will get max offers (Thompson will sign his, Durant is another story), plus there is DeMarcus Cousins, the possibility Shaun Livingston retires, and more. The Warriors are going to be a tax paying team, but how much tax will they pay to keep Looney as their starting center?

Unlike last summer, Looney’s phone will ring with offers from other teams, an athletic big man who is active on the glass is in demand. However, with the way the game is shifting, demand for centers also is down, which could favor Golden State because the market for Looney may not be crazy.

Looney, who has never made more than $1.6 million, is going to take the most money, as he should — this is his kick at the can. This is his chance to set himself and his family up for life.

Looney could be one of those guys on the board for a while this summer as he and others wait for the first big dominoes to fall, then the other big-name centers to be snapped up — Nikola Vucevic, DeAndre Jordan, Cousins, etc. But Looney is going to have options. The Warriors will be one of them, but another team may try to come in over the top.

It’s hard to predict what happens to Looney this summer. All we know is he has won the Warriors over.