When Gordon Hayward left for Boston in free agency in the summer of 2017, Rudy Gobert became the unquestioned leader in the Utah Jazz’s locker room.
Even when he was sidelined by injury last year, that remained a role where he knew he could contribute. As the team struggled early in the season, he continued to encourage and to preach the bigger picture, knowing how corrosive any internal dissension could become.
“When everything goes well, everyone is beautiful,” he noted at practice last week. “When s--- happens, it’s great to have those guys that are here to calm everyone down and keep trusting each other in those moments.”
As a rookie a year ago, Donovan Mitchell can attest to the big man’s influence.
Yes, he began to attract league-wide attention with his scoring prowess and knack for coming through in the clutch. But even in the guard’s ragged and disappointing moments, he never doubted his center had his back.
“It’s all about having trust in your teammates,” Mitchell said. “Rudy, last year, had a lot of faith in me.”
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Of course, even with 13 players from the 2017-18 roster returning for this coming season, that’s no guarantee that the stretch-run success which kicked off in February can be duplicated.
And it’s no sure thing, as people and personalities evolve, that the dynamics will ultimately remain the same.
“We’re not gonna sit here today and presuppose that the chemistry will be as good,” general manager Dennis Lindsey acknowledged on media day. “I know each guy’s character, and hopefully they come together.”
It becomes fair to wonder: as Mitchell’s star continues to rise, as he becomes the subject of fawning national media attention, as he continues to grow as Utah’s offensive focal point, as more and more fans become enamored of his community exploits and increasingly show up to Vivint Smart Home Arena wearing No. 45 jerseys, how does it impact his standing with the team?
Is it an inherent and natural absolute that Mitchell seeks a louder voice, a bigger influence with his peers? After all, this year’s rookie guard, Grayson Allen, has noted Mitchell’s impact on him on several occasions, saying, “Donovan’s been helping me a lot. … He’s always available to give me advice.”
For what it’s worth, the now-second-year guard maintains he knows his role and is not overstepping.
“I’m not here like, ‘Last year happened and now you gotta listen to me.’ That’s not my style,” Mitchell said. “It’s my second year in the league. … So my mindset is, I get to learn so much from Ricky, Rudy, Fave, Joe, Thabo, Ekpe, AB, Georges — even Grayson. I’m trying to pick people’s brains, because I have so much more for myself to accomplish, so much for this team to accomplish.
“We all give input, listen, and if we don’t agree, we kind of get back to the [source of the] pushback,” he added. “The greatest thing about our team is that if there’s pushback, it’s not in a negative way; it’s a respect we have for each other.”
Forward Royce O’Neale, arguably Mitchell’s best friend on the roster, concurred that the players’ mutual camaraderie has made everyone feel empowered, which thereby diminishes the possibility of any kind of power struggle.
“From the starters to everybody on the bench,” he said, “everybody does a great job of keeping everybody accountable.”
It was no accident that, with players being paired up on media day, Gobert and Mitchell entered as a tandem.
But it was also apparent that there was no alpha-male friction between them.
Gobert, taking a cue from social media, referenced Mitchell’s travels around the state and teasingly asked his counterpart, “What’s your favorite Utah football team?”
Mitchell burst out laughing before responding, “He was waiting for that!”
Later, when a reporter asked Gobert about what improvements he was making to his offensive repertoire, Mitchell interjected, “Hey, remember, he won Defensive Player of the Year.”
Both have since gone out of their way to point to the team’s close-knit nature, insisting that what’s presented publicly is also the case privately.
Mitchell mentioned that the Frenchman, who incorporated some boxing into his fitness routine this summer, invited teammates to a party to watch the much-hyped Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin fight. And in recalling Jae Crowder’s addition to the team at last year’s trade deadline, his line about the forward coming in “from a team where it’s kinda isolation-based” was not a reference to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offensive schemes.
“Maybe they don’t hang out as much as we do. And then you come here and we’re here with each other all the time,” he added. “… Stuff like that, being able to invite people to places and be with your teammates, I think that’s different than most NBA teams.”
“I feel like everyone is here to help each other. I’ve never seen a team like this year, where everyone’s talking to each other,” he said. “When someone does something bad, someone’s there to explain it. We want to see each other succeed. It’s great, it’s pretty rare.”
And, best of all, he said, it’s genuine.
“[Chemistry] is everything. We tend to forget that it’s a team sport. If you fake it, it’s really never the same as if you want to see your teammates succeed,” Gobert said. “Whenever you pass, whenever you set a screen, whenever you get your teammate’s back, when it’s real, it’s always gonna show on the court.”