Chicago • Whenever the Utah Jazz bring in a draft prospect, or add a player through free agency or a trade, the guy is inevitably asked by reporters what he knew about the organization.
And the answer is almost always just as inevitable: Stockton and Malone.
After Sunday’s All-Star Game, though, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert may be able to create a wider variety of responses.
That the team’s present focal points would each get his first career All-Star nod in the same season was almost poetic: the Utah Jazz, once again being elevated in the basketball universe’s consciousness by a star guard and an elite big man.
There’s a certain symmetry to it.
It’s not exactly a perfect parallel, of course. Mitchell, a transcendent young scoring machine, will probably never lead the league in assists. Gobert — a premier defensive force — certainly won’t wind up among the NBA’s all-time leading scorers. But this tandem definitely represents the team, and they can certainly appreciate the historical significance of it all.
Rather than bemoan never being able to outshine the omnipresent shadow that looms over the franchise, the team’s new star duo instead embraces their status as heirs to a revered legacy.
“For us, [the comparison] means the world,” Mitchell said at the conclusion of Friday night’s Rising Stars Challenge. “… This means a lot to both of us personally, to the organization, to the team, the fans. We’re gonna go out there and be the best players that we can be. At the end of the day — we both talk about it — [the All-Star Game] isn’t the end-all. We have bigger goals in mind. But for right now, we can do something that hasn’t been done much, obviously, since the dynamic duo. It’s incredible, but we’ve got a long way to go to live up to their legacy, for sure. We’re heading in the right direction.”
Gobert similarly did not shy away from the historical comparison.
“That’s the kind of legacy we hope to leave behind us when it’s all said and done. And hopefully win championships,” he said at Saturday morning’s Media Day event. “It’s just great to be able to have those two guys paving the way for us. For the fans, definitely reminding them you have two players, a tandem like that, that play, that represent the team every night — the fans appreciate that.”
And both Mitchell and Gobert appreciate what they’re up against.
Malone appeared in 14 All-Star Games, all told. Stockton wound up in 10. Considering that Gobert didn’t make his first until his seventh season, it will be difficult for him to match those totals. Mitchell, whose first such invitation came in his third season potentially stands a chance, though with the presently loaded nature of the Western Conference’s backcourt contingent, it’s no certainty.
Again, though, that’s not the point. Symmetry need not necessarily equate to outright imitation.
And, as Mitchell alluded to and Gobert mentioned explicitly, whatever they may lack in terms of unparalleled statistic output, they also have a chance to surpass their predecessors with the ultimate trump card — completing that one goal the old-schoolers could not.
Winning it all.
“This is obviously a great moment for us, but … this isn’t it,” Mitchell said Saturday. “We have championship aspirations. That’s where we’re at.”
Gobert was asked to reflect upon the Jazz’s evolution over the past few years, how the team managed to elevate itself to the point that it warranted a pair of All-Star reserve selections from the conference’s head coaches.
It didn’t take long for Mitchell, his All-Star teammate on Team Giannis, to get mentioned.
“After Gordon [Hayward] left, everyone thought we were gonna be a lottery team. We didn’t think that way — we had different plans. And then you have that rookie that comes in and does what Donovan was doing, and everyone gets excited again,” Gobert said. “And we are where we are today. We’ve still got a long ways to go, but the journey’s been great, and I’m excited about the future.”
And really, there’s no reason not to be.
Those two may not be inseparable best friends, but there certainly is an appreciative camaraderie, and a shared acknowledgement that their collective chemistry will likely be the driving force behind the team’s march toward contention.
While Mitchell was elated with his own All-Star invite, he was downright ecstatic about the big fella’s. And as Gobert approached his designated spot to address the media on Saturday, Mitchell — already in progress and seated mere feet away — interrupted himself to call out a greeting to his teammate, persisting until he got a smile and a wave in return.
“For him, you obviously see what happened last year, and I’m really thrilled for him to be here,” Mitchell said. “… It’s big — for myself and Rudy; we’ve come a long way. Obviously, he’s been waiting for this for awhile, so I’m very happy to see this for Rudy.”
“I’m just excited to go out there with Don,” Gobert added simply.
In the end, “Mitchell and Gobert” (or “Gobert and Mitchell,” if you prefer) may never become as ubiquitous as “Stockton and Malone.”
But it doesn’t need to.
Those guys intend to forge their own path. Playing in Sunday’s All-Star Game — well, that’s just a familiar plot point in an otherwise unique story.