Utah Jazz not worried that ‘big ol’ AAU tournament for grown men’ will kill their competitive fire

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) joke around after the game. The Utah Jazz defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 117-110 at Vivint Smart Home Arena Tuesday, April 3, 2018

In the early days of the NBA’s bubble, Yahoo reporter Chris Haynes was live-streaming himself eating at one of the restaurants open to the basketball personnel staying at Disney World, when Utah Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell and Lakers sixth man Kyle Kuzma suddenly appeared together for a quick cameo.

The Jazz’s own sixth man, Jordan Clarkson, meanwhile, was an internet sensation for a day as a result of the videos filmed of him shotgunning beers — first with teammate Royce O’Neale, then later with Miami Heat big man Meyers Leonard, who had proclaimed himself the “King of the Bubble” and issued an open challenge to his fellow players.

Before any teams even traveled to Florida, O’Neale suggested to reporters that the prospective environment “reminds me of AAU.”

He apparently was pretty prescient.

“I mean, honestly, for me, it’s like AAU, really — you know, except for the quarantine part,” Mitchell said in the first days there after being allowed out of his room. “… It gives you that feeling of an AAU summer camp.”

In the days since, that vibe has apparently grown.

Though some old-school fans have frequently criticized the modern league for players allegedly eschewing cutthroat competitiveness in favor of relationship-building, having such interactions in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is all but inevitable.

Opposing teams and players are all staying in the same hotels. As they’re not allowed off the campus and have a finite number of places to go, running into guys from other teams is all but bound to occur for anyone not content to be a full-time hotel-room recluse.

“It’s back to AAU days. You got guys who are just hanging around waiting to play, so you just mingle, and it’s all good in here,” O’Neale said.

No less than LeBron James agrees.

The Lakers star told media in a recent Zoom session that the four months he spent at home with his wife and kids during the season’s hiatus as the coronavirus pandemic exploded represented the most amount of time he’d gone without traveling since his freshman year of high school — a span of more than 20 years.

And while he was sad to leave them behind, he said the easygoing nature of the bubble, and being surrounded by colleagues he’s gotten friendly with over the years, has helped to ease the sting of now being stuck in one place without his family.

“Having this experience right here, it feels like a big ol’ AAU tournament for grown men,” James said. “So you take it and you enjoy it, and we get to do what we love to do, and that’s play the game of basketball and be with our teammates and brothers.”

While Mitchell said he’s been putting his all into the Jazz’s practices and staying prepared for the upcoming games, he’s also been trying to stay busy in other ways, too.

Getting to fill some of the frequent downtime by hanging out and socializing with guys he’s been buddies with for years has been beneficial to his mental well-being.

“It’s just been kind of good to catch up with guys and, you know, actually kind of go into a crazy experience of us being in a bubble and kind of having the whole world watching what we’re doing,” Mitchell said. “For me, I’ve known lot of these guys, like you know, Jayson Tatum, obviously, Bam [Adebayo], Kuz — there’s so many guys here that I’ve known for a little bit. So being able to kind of meet and chill with them has been cool.”

Of course, that’s been the case as well even for guys whose upbringing didn’t afford them the opportunity to participate in the Amateur Athletic Union.

Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert, who grew up in Australia and France, respectively, can’t really compare the bubble to AAU, but they do say it resembles the experience of various international tournaments they’ve competed in.

Ingles said the 10-minute quarters planned for the first three days of upcoming scrimmages “makes it be even more like a FIBA or Olympic tournament than it already is. … I’ve been walking around here, and it’s like a big international tournament, [given that] we’re staying with the same teams and and doing all that.”

Gobert concurred.

“For us that are used to playing with the national team and [going away] for like two months, [staying] with the same group of guys all over the world and seeing some different places away from families and stuff, it’s pretty similar,” he said Monday in a Zoom session with media. “It’s obviously a little different with all the safety procedures and stuff like that. But yeah, I have friends on other teams, and it’s kind of cool when we have some downtime to be able to hang out with all the other friends of ours. Obviously, we love to be home with the families and stuff, but we can’t, so it’s great to be able to have those interactions, for sure.”

As for those who fear that all this fraternizing will end up diluting the aggression of the coming games, well, none of those involved share that particular concern.

“The idea of players interacting and even just passing each other in the hallway is similar to what you have in AAU situations or even a camp. I do think that that environment will be impacted as we start the seeding games and certainly in the playoffs,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “It’s just natural [that] guys that have spent time hanging out, talking to each other, when you get really competitive environment — I don’t think it’ll be contentious at all, but I do think not everybody is going to be saying ‘Hi’ when they walk by each other in the hall. I think guys respect that about one another because they’re competitors and people want to win. They’ll approach that the same way.”

Mitchell was in accord with that sentiment.

“It’ll be different when the games start,” he said. “… Once we start playing, that’s when you’ll start to see the separation from guys. You’ll start seeing separation and the competitive mindset kind of flip.”