Running high on a five-game win streak and coming off a 41-point explosion by rookie Donovan Mitchell, fans of the Utah Jazz (12-11) have plenty of reasons to have a spring in their steps.
But here’s another: Center Rudy Gobert has been upgraded to questionable for Monday night’s game against the Washington Wizards (12-10).
The 7-foot-1 big man ran through a “light practice” on Sunday, the latest step in his recovery from a bone bruise in his right leg on Nov. 10. While the Jazz said that he was scheduled for a medical re-evaluation this coming Friday, his upgraded status is a sign that he could be back sooner than originally hoped.
Coach Quin Snyder said the decision rests wholly on his medical staff.
“We’re going to confer and trust those guys to never do anything to put Rudy in harm’s way,” he said. “When he’s ready to go, he’ll be ready to go.”
Averaging 13.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg and 2.5 bpg, Gobert has missed 11 games since Miami’s Dion Waiters dove into his legs in a loss to the Heat. Since then, Utah has gone 7-4, catching fire on a five-game winning streak that has seen them lead the NBA in net rating over that span (plus-20.5).
While it is a no-brainer advantage to return one of the league’s best rim-protectors to the lineup, it presents a difficult dilemma for Utah. Derrick Favors has filled in as Utah’s starting center, averaging 16.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg while shooting 61 percent — some of the best basketball of his career. The Jazz originally played Favors more at power forward, but his run of success at center — and the team’s improved offense with additional floor spacing — may change how Utah uses him going forward.
“We’ve got two terrific players at that spot,” Snyder said. “Favs been better than good, he’s been great. So that’s the situation we’re in, and we’re going to manage it as best we can and be transparent with the players, and they’ll be transparent with us.”
Also on the injury report, point guard Raul Neto (hamstring) got a boost to probable for Monday’s game after going through practice. Rodney Hood (ankle), who has also missed the last two games, did not practice and remained questionable to return.
Mitchell’s profile on the rise
The day after scoring a career-high in points, Donovan Mitchell decided to attend the Runnin’ Utes basketball game on Saturday afternoon.
He wasn’t necessarily thinking he’d be the biggest star there. But it turns out that Utah fans are taking notice of the rookie — and it’s going to be harder to enjoy an anonymous day off.
“That was a little bit more than I anticipated,” he said.
Mitchell ended up turning off his phone and ignoring social media. But his focus remains on getting better — Snyder said that’s how he’s managed to make so much progress in his first year.
The emphasis for Mitchell has been on reading situations and making the right decision: attack, shoot or pass. During the win streak, he’s been playing at a superstar level: He’s averaged 21.8 ppg (best among rookies), 4.6 apg and shooting 47.5 percent from 3-point range. For the whole season, he has the highest offensive rating (107.3) of any rookie playing at least 20 minutes a game.
Snyder cited a play that spoke to his development: Late in the game against the Pelicans as Mitchell was putting the final touches on his 41-point night, he drove into the paint against DeMarcus Cousins, he flung a pass to Joe Ingles across the court for an open 3-pointer.
“More than anything, his mindset has been more on embracing challenges and getting better,” Snyder said. “I don’t know if Donovan starting out would’ve made that play, not because he didn’t want to, but because he wasn’t aware.”
As Mitchell becomes more aware on the court, it seems the rest of the world will start taking more notice of him.
Burks finding improved efficiency
Lost in the shadow of Mitchell’s stellar night was another great performance by Alec Burks, who scored 24 points. With Rodney Hood and Raul Neto out, Burks has gotten opportunities to shine — and more importantly, has taken advantage.
While he explained it away by saying he’s had to play more minutes, coaches cite his efficiency as one of the biggest factors of his strong performances. Burks’ personal efficiency rating this season (15.6) is the second-highest of his career thanks to good shooting numbers (40.0 percent on 3-pointers), the lowest turnover percentage of his career and a commitment to defense that Snyder is finally squeezing out of him.
“I think what’s sustainable is his efficiency,” he said. “His defense has kind of gone unnoticed. … His activity and his discipline have been much improved.”
People will notice that Burks has been much more conservative in how he finishes shots. On plays when he used to spill over onto the court, he now is able to land. He’s shown increased ability to finish with his left hand, which has helped him to score 54 combined points against the Clippers and the Pelicans in back-to-back games.
As far as his defense, Snyder appreciates that he’s been settling more in a stance and is able to stay in front of his man. Burks credits that improvement to working with Thabo Sefolosha in practices and picking up tips from the veteran defender.
“He can guard one through five, and he just tells me everything he’s learned over his time in the league,” Burks said. “I think it’s something unique to Thabo. He’s really known for his defense.”