Conventional wisdom suggests there’s two kinds of hosts: Those who tell guests to make themselves at home and those who fret about visitors making a mess.
Donovan Mitchell, one of the privileged few who has been invited to Rudy Gobert’s sprawling home in the Salt Lake Valley, said his 7-foot-1 teammate is a little bit of both. When he visited to watch the NCAA national championship game in April, he tried to respect the decorum but also, at times, felt at ease.
“You have to take your shoes off,” he said, “but you can still get relaxed and enjoy yourself.”
Gobert, 25, is the same way in the Utah Jazz locker room. As the largest presence, both in his physical stature and at the top of the hierarchy, Gobert commands a certain authority. He’s known as a good teammate and even sometimes a light-hearted one.
But he is willing to show his wrath the moment he detects a player who is putting himself ahead of the competitive needs of the team. Every teammate has felt his fire at one time or another.
“He knows right away,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people make excuses. If you do, he’ll pick up on that real quick.”
In that way, Gobert’s acceptance of his teammates is an important measuring stick for the health of the Jazz franchise. And for that very reason, one of the most encouraging developments of the past season is that he quickly accepted Mitchell, the 21-year-old guard who has rocketed into franchise player status.
Dynasties rise and fall on the bonds and squabbles of star players. Magic and Kareem. Jordan and Pippen. Shaq and Kobe. Two names in Utah resonate as much as any of those: Stockton and Malone.
Mitchell and Gobert have gotten out to a fortuitous start, and both players care deeply about making the relationship work long term. As far as star duos go, that’s the best the Jazz can hope for to build the contending team they want in the coming seasons.
“The good thing about that is the relationship, the respect, the trust, those things are there between those two guys,” coach Quin Snyder said in his season-ending interview. “It’d be great if they said ‘Mitchell and Gobert.’”
While Mitchell’s rookie season, during which he emerged as the NBA’s leading rookie scorer (20.5 ppg) and a highlight machine, took everyone by surprise, a small detail suggests the Jazz had an inkling of what was to come. His locker was placed directly next to Gobert’s.
The two carry themselves differently. Mitchell is known to commandeer the locker room music selections and trade joking barbs across the room. While Gobert has been noted for his edgy leopard-print shirt selections, that might be the loudest thing about him. He’s often the last person out of the facility, as much for his snail-like, European pace as for his extra-hour dedication.
But their proximity led to season-long conversations. Gobert reviewed little mistakes or gave him subtle observations from games each night. It was never long lectures — Gobert knew Mitchell would get those in the film room from Snyder or Johnnie Bryant — but always small details. And Mitchell listened.
There were times Gobert is sure he was “annoying,” but he felt deeply that it was his responsibility to push Mitchell — push him hard at times.
“I have to be the guy that tears in quick,” Gobert said. “If I don’t like it, I’m going to let him know. That’s my role, and I want him to be great.”
Gobert recognized early that potential for greatness, texting general manager Dennis Lindsey during Mitchell’s tear through Summer League, “I like this guy.” Mitchell knew the organization he was coming into valued defense, and Gobert valued it as much as anyone.
So Mitchell wanted to prove early in Summer League and camp how he could compete on that end.
“Understand he’s the defensive player of the year, I wanted to be like, ‘All right, I’m here to play defense. I’m showing I belong here,’” Mitchell said. “I think that’s one of the big things that got our relationship on a good foot.”
It was apparent within weeks of the season opener that Mitchell, who leap-frogged Rodney Hood for a starting role, was destined to be a star player. It could’ve gone to Mitchell’s head. It didn’t.
Mitchell, even as he was on the rise, continually cited the influence of the Jazz veterans: Ricky Rubio, who was struggling at the time; Joe Ingles, who was in his first year as a full-time starter; Gobert, who was injured. He even praised Hood, whom he replaced until he was traded. Mitchell took the blame on his own shoulders when the Jazz lost, as they did 17 times in December and January.
There were signs throughout the season that the respect was being repaid in kind. While Mitchell had to tote around a pink rookie backpack, it was telling that his teammates never pulled a major prank on him. His car, to this day, has yet to be filled with popcorn.
“Donovan is the first to take criticism and the last to take credit,” Lindsey said. “That’s why he was able to succeed in a veteran locker room.”
There’s stories in the league of established stars who would be threatened by a red-hot newcomer or simply would not branch out in some cases . A particularly relevant example: Damian Lillard told Sports Illustrated in January about his business-only relationship with LaMarcus Aldridge when he was drafted by the Trail Blazers. He expected Aldridge to take him under his wing, but it never happened, and Aldridge left the team three years later.
Mitchell and Gobert don’t necessarily occupy the same social circles. Mitchell was more likely in the season to be out with his fellow rookies than with Gobert, who has more established ties in NBA cities and often makes his own plans and visits his own friends. Many of their social moments are short dinners on the road or brief conversations in hotels.
Still, Gobert knows just how critical it is to build a strong relationship with Mitchell in the locker room and on the court, which he sees as the foundation of a competitive team.
“You don’t have to be best friends, but having me being true to him and him being true to me is really gonna help us grow,” Gobert said. “The goal is to win a championship, and to have that bond is going to help us keep getting better.”
Snyder said the bond was strengthened in the second-round series with the Rockets, when Rubio was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Mitchell was forced into a challenging point guard role. Gobert, who had grown more comfortable with Rubio running the show, had to adapt and at times help Mitchell on reads at the point. Defensively, they had to be more in sync than ever.
“They needed each other more,” Snyder said. “Rudy facing a defense that was switching 1-5 in the pick and roll all the time, and Donovan, it forced them to be even more connected in order to have success. I think they improved that as the series went on.”
The most striking public moment of their relationship came after their worst defeat, a 21-point Game 3 loss at home in which Mitchell had a playoff-low 10 points and three assists. He hung his head atop the news conference podium. He was short in his responses.
Gobert said on the last question that he knew Mitchell was blaming himself but that he would bounce back and do “amazing things” in the next game. It was a moment that was noticed at the top levels of the Jazz organization. The established veteran star taking the newcomer under his wing and giving him his vote of confidence.
“I got very high expectations for him now,” Gobert said later. “But at the same time, when that kind of thing happens, you’ve gotta have his back and look at the bigger picture and realize it’s pretty amazing what he’s been doing.”
The Jazz reject the premise that two stars, even ones who are as promising as Gobert and Mitchell, set the tone for an entire locker room. Lindsey believes the overall team chemistry, including the tone set by Ingles, Rubio, Derrick Favors and others, was the key to “accelerating” the Jazz into contention quicker than most imagined.
Snyder and Lindsey are invested deeply in vetting incoming players as “good people” who will fit into the locker room framework, and Mitchell and Gobert aren’t subject to any higher criteria than anyone else on the roster.
But how the talent fits together is unimpeachably important, Lindsey acknowledged, and so the relationship between Mitchell and Gobert is a critical puzzle piece to Utah’s success. The two men may possess very different personalities, but they’ve been able to identify in one season their most important overlapping areas: the desire to improve and win.
That more than anything is what has brought them together.
“The thing with me is I want to win,” Gobert said. “When I see another guy that comes in and wants to win, I’m excited. That’s what I saw in Donovan. I knew it’s a great opportunity, and I don’t want to waste it.”