As Utah Jazz ready for home opener, Donovan Mitchell is balancing scoring with playmaking

While the high-scoring guard isn’t about to go all John Stockton, he’ll be charged with simply making the right reads.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) loses control of the ball as the Jazz crack open their 2020-21 preseason with their second game against the Phoenix Suns, Dec. 14, 2020.

After opening the 2020-21 regular season on Wednesday night in Portland, the Utah Jazz will make their home debut on Saturday at Vivint Arena against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Beyond the obvious benefits of playing in the building they’re most familiar with, not having to travel on Christmas, and getting to sleep in their own beds at home rather than in some hotel, there will be one other potential advantage stemming from the home game:

There will be some fans in the stands.

The Jazz are one of just six NBA teams allowing any fans into arenas right now, with some 1,500 set to occupy lower-bowl seats and an undetermined number in the luxury suites.

After playing in an empty Moda Center on Wednesday, the Jazz were struck by the strangeness of it.

“A little different, kinda weird. Portland is super-loud — I’ve been coming in here and playing against them for awhile when I was in the [Western Conference] my first years. Definitely a little different feel,” said Jordan Clarkson. “It kinda was a little bit something like the [Orlando] bubble. Just a whole different vibe and something we gotta get used to right now.”

Coach Quin Snyder agreed that it was unusual, but also asserted that the idea of energy being diminished by the deadened ambience of empty arenas can’t become an excuse for players.

“I think, like anything, you’ll get used to it. [Wednesday] had the intensity of an NBA game. I think everybody would agree it’d be great to have fans in the seats, and that’s not where we are right now,” Snyder said. “… Fans are such a big part of our game, but I think everybody understands this just is where we are, and the games themselves are still high-level and competitive.”

That certainly was the case for Utah against the Blazers, as they were voluminous from outside and extremely efficient inside on offense, and highly effective in some stretches on defense.

Maintaining that high-level play will depend on a great many factors, but one of the key ones will be the continuing emergence of All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell as a playmaker.

Though veteran Mike Conley has been designated as a “point guard” for much of his career, it’s the dynamic Mitchell who actually does a lot of the orchestrating for the Jazz.

That’s perhaps a surprise to many, given Mitchell’s scoring outburst in the bubble, where he led all postseason performers in points per game during the playoffs, at 36.3.

Then again, given the way he played in the Jazz’s three preseason games, where he averaged just 14.0 points but 5.0 assists (albeit in an admittedly much smaller sample size), and again in the season opener (20 points, five assists), perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock.

Some context is necessary: It’s not like Snyder is trying to turn Mitchell into John Stockton; he’s simply putting the ball in his hands and asking him to strike the right balance, whatever that happens to be. And the Louisville product is embracing it.

“I mean, I’ve been trying to do that for like two years,” Mitchell said. “… Obviously my scoring went up in the bubble, but we didn’t have one our best weapons in Bojan [Bogdanovic], a 20-point-per-game scorer. So for me, [it’s] not so much worrying about having 36 [points], having 30, having whatever — it’s making the right plays, making my life easy, being able to hit guys, trust them to get off the ball and having catch-and-shoot opportunities. Not having to do everything has been my biggest thing. And then, at the end of the day, the ball’s gonna come back, the ball’s gonna come and find you.”

Center Rudy Gobert said Mitchell’s teammates have total trust in his ability to balance his own prodigious scoring ability against getting everyone else involved.

“I think he’s improved every single year. And whenever he’s able to stay aggressive and, at the same time, find his teammates, our team takes another step,” Gobert said. “I feel like this year, he’s really been able to do it consistently — in practice, in the preseason, and he did great [Wednesday]. As long as he stays aggressive, that’s what we need from him.”

Still, Snyder doesn’t want anyone to get too bogged down in who’s responsible for what. Mitchell will make a lot of plays. So too will Conley and Joe Ingles. Everyone else will have chances, as well.

The important thing in the end, though, is not who makes the play, but that the play gets made.

“We’re better off if we just play together and our guys are unselfish,” Snyder said, “so that the ball can kind of find the open man, so to speak.”


At Vivint Arena

Tipoff • 7 p.m.

TV • AT&T SportsNet

Radio • 97.5 FM

Records • Jazz 1-0, Wolves 1-0

Last meeting • Jazz, 127-116 (Dec. 11, 2019)

About the Jazz • All-Star center Rudy Gobert had team-highs of 20 points and 17 rebounds in the season opener. … Utah’s high-volume 3-point shooting saw them make 19 of 50 attempts beyond the arc. … An improved defensive effort helped limit Portland’s Damian Lillard to just nine points.

About the Timberwolves • Minnesota also opened its season with a victory on the road on Wednesday, defeating Detroit 111-101. … Malik Beasley had a team-high 23 points, while Karl-Anthony Towns totaled 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. … No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards had 15 points, plus four rebounds and four assists in his debut.