The Weekly Run: As we wrap things up, thoughts about Donovan’s leap, a new-look NBA schedule and more

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) are introduced at the start of their game with the Miami Heat where they were they were celebrated for being named their first all star game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

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Even before I was covering the Jazz, the team’s annual “exit interview” day was always one of my favorite bits of coverage to read, filled as it usually is with members of the front office opining on what went wrong and what can go better, maybe dropping a hint or two as to the type of moves they’ll make in the coming months, plus players spilling what they’re planning to work on, or, in some cases, saying goodbye for the final time.

Last year’s was fascinating to me as a first-year beat writer: I was pretty sure that would be the last time I’d be asking questions of Ricky Rubio and Kyle Korver and Ekpe Udoh as members of the Jazz. I thought the same was possibly true of Derrick Favors. Conversely, I had no idea it would be my final interaction with Jae Crowder or Grayson Allen.

It was obviously a bit different this year. A handful of players were made available in the aftermath of the Game 7 loss to the Nuggets, but their minds were understandably on a just-concluded defeat, rather than on any kind of bigger picture. And so it was that Wednesday’s convo with Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik had to do most of the heavy lifting.

Neither guy dropped in any unexpected bombshells (that’s not their style, in case you hadn’t noticed), but the Zoom session wasn’t devoid of interesting little tidbits. Here are a few odds and ends I didn’t include in the official coverage of the meeting:

Schedules resembling … baseball?

Going into the NBA restart, the question of what the quality of play would look like after a months-long hiatus was widespread. However, it’s been pretty universally agreed-upon that the level of performance has been almost universally good. Lindsey and Zanik noted there were myriad theories as to why — the shooting backgrounds in the bubble venues, the lack of back-to-back games, the absence of travel among them.

The latter point led to an interesting revelation from Lindsey, though: Players making it known how much their better their bodies feel on the account of the altered schedule could, in the future, lead to, well, altered schedules.

“The league, and teams — specifically the health-performance group — has gotten a lot of feedback from the players that [with] the reduced travel, that they physically feel better. So would we ever get to a situation like baseball, where you play a team more than one time in the market?” Lindsey opined. “Obviously, there’s some business concerns there, but that reduced travel … I definitely think the product is more compelling because of that, [and] the players feel better. Frankly, we need to listen to the players at every turn.”

So, for example, the home-and-home games the Jazz played with the Timberwolves on Nov. 18 at the Viv and on Nov. 20 in Minneapolis this season would not be a thing under such a schedule alteration. As they’re Northwest Division rivals who play each other four times a year anyway, why not put both of those games in SLC, for instance, then have the teams play twice in a row in Minnesota another time? Honestly, it makes a lot of sense — especially considering that after playing in Utah, then flying east to MSP, the Jazz then had to backtrack home again for a back-to-back against the Warriors and Pelicans.

Watching Donovan’s evolution up close

I don’t think it’s insulting, let alone an earth-shattering revelation, to say that I was surprised how incredible Donovan Mitchell was in the series against the Nuggets. We all feel that way, right? I mean, we knew he was one of the league’s top young players, but it’s reasonable to say that his scoring outburst was beyond anything any of us expected, right?

For what it’s worth, Lindsey and Zanik even agreed on that. The former noted that with Bojan Bogdanovic out injured and Mike Conley missing the first couple games due to the birth of his son, he expected “Donovan was going to have to ramp his usage up to James Harden levels.” Which is not to say he expected a pair of “historical” scoring performances in excess of 50 points.

Zanik, meanwhile, got a front-row seat for the explosion, as the Jazz’s designated front office rep in the bubble. This is a guy who spent several years as a player agent, and who has worked in a couple of front offices, and thus has pretty much seen it all. And even though you expect him to speak glowingly of his team’s young star, it was apparent in his discussion of Donovan’s growth, both on and off the court, that this was more than that.

“Being up close with him in the bubble for those almost 60 days, just the way he approached everything … And that started when the league shut down. I think he spent a lot of time evaluating where he wanted to go and what he could do to help his team,” Zanik said. “… He rose to the occasion, and I think that’s something that he expects of himself — even at a greater level — going forward.

“… I was really impressed to see how he handled everything, too. Much the way that you guys feel about him when you interact with him — he’s like that every day. That’s not a facade, it’s not just for you. That’s him. And I was happy and proud to see him do those things,” he added. “And he’s such a competitor, as you saw. I mean, taking the losses for the team hard, and wanting to improve as a teammate and a leader. He made huge strides in the bubble.”

Social justice initiatives aren’t over

Many fans have expressed dismay over the NBA becoming “too political” given the increased activism in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and the shooting of Jacob Blake, among other prominent cases. If such fans hoped that such “politics” would go away now that the Jazz’s season is over, they are mistaken.

Lindsey noted that as players opted against playing playoff games as scheduled to protest Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wis., the team reached out to various political leaders in Utah to see what could be done to advance the causes of racial and social justice locally. In speaking with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Lindsey said, everyone was struck by her story of having a 1930s-era map in her office of redlined neighborhoods, and how life expectancy and access to food and health care all remain diminished in those areas to this day as a result of the impact of those almost-century-old policies.

“I thought [it] was a really detailed, poignant point that we could all grab onto and understand the implications of dealing with social justice in 2020,” Lindsey said.

And while he followed up by reiterating some of the agreements between the players and the league to come out of that racial-justice strike, Zanik added that the Miller family has expressed its willingness to back players on specific personal projects: “Anytime the players have something that they want to highlight, the Millers have been absolutely behind it in how they can help or partner with [them], and I think that dialogue will continue to be ongoing in some really important subjects. So I think that part is going to be what we really need going forward.”

And now, a schmaltzy personal note

The season is over, and the offseason is unsettled. It would seem that the usual post-postseason routine of heading over to ZBBC to interview draft workout prospects is off the table, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That said, you’ll probably be reading a bit less of me in the coming months. We shall see.

And so, on that note, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for reading, and thanks to everyone who’s reached out, on Twitter, via email, stopping by the media seating area at the Viv, back when that was a thing. This job has been and continues to be a blast. Growing up a huge NBA fan, I never could have imagined one day covering an All-Star weekend. Couldn’t have conceived of being a rare writer to venture into “the bubble” to write about the NBA restart (a couple of months after having to quarantine for 14 days due to my close proximity to Rudy and Donovan). Hell, I would never have even dreamed of getting to travel around the country to watch and write about basketball.

Speaking of which, in my two years on the beat, I’ve hit nearly every market. This year, I got to visit Boston, Charlotte, Miami and New York City for the first time in my life. I’ve now seen the Warriors play in both Oakland and San Francisco. I sojourned to the cities of Atlanta and Orlando for the first time in more than a decade. The only opposing teams I’ve yet to cover a game of in their arenas now are the Brooklyn Nets (though I saw an Islanders game at the Barclays Center on my Knicks trip), the Indiana Pacers, the Los Angeles Clippers (every trip to Staples Center thus far has been a Lakers game), the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Washington Wizards.

Really hoping I get to check those off my list next season. And that I get to continue this crazy journey in general. It’s fun enough trying to get out of my comfort zone and figure out unfamiliar transportation systems, discover delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and spend off days visiting compelling places I’ve only ever read about. Getting to watch and write about basketball on top it all, though?

Yeah, this is a dream job. Let’s hope it continues sooner rather than later.

(Also, as always, a plea to consider becoming a subscriber/supporter, and a reminder that, as the Trib is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, you can also send some donations our way, should you be so inclined!)