“He’s busting your ass.”
Donovan Mitchell knows this already. He watched as his man drove past him, and he knows the score. But just in case he didn’t, Rudy Gobert—Utah’s shot-ending center and the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year—is letting the rookie hear it. “He’s scored four or five straight,” Gobert tells Mitchell. “That can’t happen.”
Gobert doesn’t always have the softest conversational touch, but these particular comments are actually an expression of understanding. “He knows,” Mitchell said later, “that’s how I respond.” Tell Mitchell of his failings in no uncertain terms, and he will go out of his way to prove that they do not exist. Trash talk becomes a means to an end. Wherever Mitchell turns these days, he finds adulation—the kind that comes when a first-year player propels his team through playoff series and scores with the best in the league. Yet when he comes to the huddle, he may find Gobert waiting for him with a less saccharine truth.
“When everyone gets in your head and you start scoring a lot, you can start thinking that defense is not that important anymore,” Gobert said. “There was a stretch where I felt like that’s kinda what happened. I try to stay on his ass. Try to push him.” This is more than a veteran player wanting a younger teammate to clean up his mistakes. It’s an entire tough-love support system.
The Jazz rely on Mitchell to generate offense, but the structure of the team envelops him. Their rise this season is rooted less in the amazing things that Mitchell can do than all the things that Utah doesn’t ask him to. One can lead a team in scoring without bearing the full weight of actual leadership. The Jazz roared back from a 19–28 start to their season because of Mitchell’s brilliant play, to be sure, but also because Gobert gives the team its shape. They won their first-round series against the Thunder because Mitchell flourished, but also because Ricky Rubio has the emotional intelligence to keep an entire team connected.
Every jaw-dropping move that Mitchell makes is propped up by this delicate balance. Even as his usage rate climbs far beyond what could reasonably be expected of a rookie, it’s clear that the secret to Mitchell’s breakout success is that he’s never really alone.
Rubio took in Wednesday’s win over the Rockets from the sidelines, put out by a hamstring injury that has already cost him the better part of three playoff games. His exclusion is agonizing. After playing for six years in the NBA without once sniffing the postseason, Rubio finally broke through—only to strain his muscle just as he was playing the most meaningful basketball of his career. There was time enough for Rubio to spark the Jazz offense with his passing and to draw the ire of Russell Westbrook, though his injury denied him the chance to contribute much to Utah’s closeout efforts. Mitchell, in one of this postseason’s most thrilling performances, scored 38 points to eliminate the Thunder.
Now, Rubio can only watch and advise as his team suffers runs from the league’s most prolific offense. During timeouts, he floats from teammate to teammate, checking in and offering perspective on different ways to attack. “Sometimes when you’re not playing, you see things that you don’t see when you’re playing,” Rubio said. “I’m trying to give them another point of view about the game.” Between words of encouragement, Rubio imparts lessons in controlling tempo. Some of his advice is broad—almost thematic. Other notes are as small as encouraging rookie Royce O’Neale to drive a step or two deeper into the paint before kicking the ball out to a shooter. “He was doing the right thing,” Rubio said, “but I don’t think he was doing it in the right way.”
Underneath his blazer, Rubio wears a sweatshirt stoking the Rookie of the Year race between Mitchell and Sixers phenom Ben Simmons. It not-so-subtly lays out the definition of the word “rookie”—a semantic argument against Simmons (who was drafted in 2016, but forced to sit out an entire season with injury) flexed as a show of support. There is something perfectly in-character about Rubio, even while sidelined, offering up a sartorial assist.
“He’s one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever had,” Mitchell said. It’s not just the way Rubio plays, but the way he cares. Rubio’s lofty basketball IQ might actually be eclipsed by his EQ; no NBA player is more committed to understanding his teammates and what ails them. Teammates laud his ability to see things on the court before they happen, but that sentiment applies to far more than basketball choreography. Rubio anticipates frustration in his teammates. He searches for the smallest signs of tension. Emotional management is both critical to his job and driven by an overwhelming want to help.
“I think one of the biggest things we miss is Ricky’s voice,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
The way Rubio reaches out to his teammates throughout a game isn’t the compensatory gesture of a player excluded by injury. It’s a part of Rubio he couldn’t turn off if he tried.
“It’s for them,” Rubio said, “and it’s for me. It’s how I feel more involved in the team.” Not every word he offers is a comfort. Yet even when telling teammates something they might not want to hear, Rubio has the authority of genuine investment.
“When you’re playing, you don’t want nobody to tell you what to do and how to do it except your coach,” Rubio said. “But if you have your teammate saying it because he cares about you, that’s the most important thing.” You can see that care reflected back. When Rubio scores—especially in the kind of volume he did in the first round against the Thunder—his teammates glow. There is a reveling in his accomplishments that feels wholly unique.
Mitchell is the head of Utah’s offense, regardless of whether he’s listed as a nominal point guard. The threat he presents drives so much of the churn that gets the Jazz their best looks; follow a wide-open three from Joe Ingles back to its inception, and you’re likely to find a defense overreacting to Mitchell’s initial attack. But Rubio, injured or not, is the team’s beating heart, subtly tending to the entire system behind the scenes. Even a precocious rookie has to first work to understand his options—an overtly conscious process that can be especially trying in the playoffs. Rubio makes that course as straightforward as possible. It can fall to Rubio to set up a teammate who hasn’t seen the ball in awhile, or to pick up a shooter in a rut. All while Mitchell, whose ability to read the floor is the single most important factor in establishing the Jazz’s ceiling, maintains a more singular focus.
It bodes well for Utah that Mitchell is an exceptional student, both in aptitude and rigor. Those around the team marvel at how quickly he picks up concepts on film, and already we’ve seen him improve dramatically within games from one half to the next. With every bit of exposure, the frenetic action of high-level basketball seems to slow down for him.
The Rockets will put that notion to the test over the course of this series. The root of how Houston defends—switching in response to ball screens, in particular—is unlikely to change dramatically. Some traps and more traditional coverage might be deployed for a change of pace, but the capacity to switch and stay solid is at the heart of the team’s entire defensive identity. When Houston is sharp, there are virtually no openings to exploit. Even when the Jazz throw in a few tricks to throw the Rockets off-balance (like slipping screens in Game 2), Mitchell will have to identify openings quickly.
“The read is gonna be there in the snap of a second—much faster than they were in the OKC series, much faster than they were during the year,” Mitchell said. “Just being able to make those reads a lot quicker, I think, is gonna be one of the bigger things for me.”
In order to manage that pressure, Mitchell has tried to get ahead of the defense as much as possible. He’s asked players around the league: How would you guard me? Would you continue to do the same thing, or would you switch something up? He consults with Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant on what the defense’s next move might be—invaluable perspective for a rookie who doesn’t have the experience base to anticipate those moves on his own. One of Mitchell’s greatest strengths is his willingness to lean on others.
“I have a lot to learn,” Mitchell said. “It’s one of the things that I’ve figured out the most.”
What makes the Jazz so damn effective is how they withstand the toll of those lessons in real time. Mitchell can afford to make mistakes because his teammates keep them to a minimum. The fabric of the team is the understanding of its limitations—an ethos that begins with Gobert. The All-NBA center could go weeks with nary a misguided shot or wasted possession. Forget the token post-ups; Gobert’s game is as lean as it comes, largely because he is too consumed with winning to bother with what doesn’t work.
“He cares about winning more so than anybody I’ve played with,” Rubio said. “That says a lot about him.”
That Gobert dominates the game while playing squarely within himself is emboldening. Teammates can pressure the ball on defense with the knowledge that Gobert won’t have veered wildly out of his position. He plays to the system, in part because it was built around his very presence. “It gives you a sense of confidence, knowing that he’s back there,” Mitchell said. Even when the first line of defense breaks down, some of Utah’s perimeter players admit to surprise when Gobert doesn’t block every shot. That mindset is exactly the sort that Gobert has worked to cultivate.
“If you don’t believe in it, then you can’t create the impossible,” Gobert said. This is a player who, after learning of Gordon Hayward’s departure last summer, texted Mitchell to assure him the Jazz would be a playoff team. When Utah fell to 16–23, Gobert tweeted, “We will be fine”…before finishing the season on a 32–9 tear. He talks about expectations by using giant, dismissive air quotes—each digit a Mutombo finger wag to anyone who would dare doubt him or the Jazz. His certainty is unmistakable.
This is his gift to Mitchell, and to the Jazz. First he arms the team with the means to compete: a defense that can stand against any opponent by taking away the most efficient shots on the floor. Then, with every fiber of his enormous being, Gobert announces to the world that Utah will not be intimidated. He gives an entire franchise its backbone.
“Sometimes in this league, a lot of guys kinda check out mentally, or they think that tonight against this team, we don’t have a chance to win,” Gobert said. “Every night, I do my best to inspire my teammates to win and to at least give them the confidence that we can. The way I carry myself on the court and in the locker room, I have to show my teammates that I really believe—and that I believe in them.”
When Gobert tries to push Mitchell’s buttons with a pointed comment, that belief is the undercurrent. The implication, after all, of “He’s busting your ass,” is that he shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter that Mitchell is a rookie, because he’s been defending above and beyond rookie standards for months. This was a message Mitchell needed to hear, and Gobert knew him well enough to know how to deliver it. “I think having that communication like that where you can be trustworthy, where you can take the criticism and not get into your personal feelings about it—I think allows for us to have a better relationship,” Mitchell said.
No scout would have diagnosed Mitchell with a want for confidence before the draft, but there’s something to be said about the way Gobert and the Jazz have only amplified it. Different as they can be at times, Mitchell and Gobert are kindred spirits: bold, unflinching competitors who challenge those around them to keep up. Gobert saw that spark as early as the Las Vegas Summer League, when the recent Jazz draft pick caught his eye. “He had a lot of pride,” Gobert said. “I could really see that.” Knowing Gobert and how he carries himself, this amounts to the highest praise.
Teammates now bring up, unprompted, Mitchell’s taunting declaration to the crowd in Oklahoma City after Game 5. “We’ll see y’all next year!” he shouted, just moments after his team had blown a 25-point lead in a series still up for grabs. Such boldness isn’t typical of a first-year player, save the sort that doesn’t know any better. Mitchell, time has told, knew all too well.