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Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell makes statement with 41-point performance

Matt Petersen,

Over the past six years, Utah invested four lottery picks into backcourt talent. The need was real. The Jazz had already set its foundation in the frontcourt, even if that foundation morphed from Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.

Those draft picks, however, never panned out as hoped. Three of them — Alec Burks, Dante Exum and Rodney Hood — are still with the team, but injuries have severely crippled their progress and impact. Entering this season, the trio had missed a combined 331 regular season games out of a possible 968. That’s more than one third of their on-court impact down the drain.

The fourth guard — Trey Burke, taken 10th overall in 2013 — was traded after three seasons and is now trying to earn an NBA return in the G League. In 2015, Utah decided to draft forward Trey Lyles instead, but that choice looked iffy at best now that the guard taken one pick later (Devin Booker) is putting up more than 20 points per game for a second consecutive season. Lyles, meanwhile, struggled to thrive in Utah’s loaded frontcourt, and ultimately fell out of the rotation.

The lack of backcourt staying power left the Jazz especially vulnerable last summer, when All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward departed via free agency for the Boston Celtics. His absence created an immediate void of perimeter scoring for Utah, a problem that intensified when Exum suffered a separated shoulder during a preseason game. The fourth-year guard could be out for the entire season.

One bad stroke of luck, however, wound up working for Utah’s benefit. The Jazz found Lyles a new home in Denver and received the 13th overall pick of this year’s draft for their troubles. With it, they selected Donovan Mitchell, who faced questions about whether his size (6-3, 190 pounds) matched his position (shooting guard).

Six weeks into his rookie season, Mitchell is providing more than enough answers. After a cold shooting start to the year, the former Louisville standout is enjoying the most explosively efficient week of his young career, punctuated by a franchise rookie best 41 points against New Orleans on Friday night.

The performance caps off an impressive four-game stretch in which Mitchell is averaging 26.3 points on 52.2-percent shooting, including a sizzling 19-of-37 from 3-point range. In Thursday night’s victory over the Clippers, the 6-3 guard invaded highlight reels with a change-of-hands alley-oop and a tomahawk slam in transition.

Friday was even better. Mitchell scored 17 of his 41 in the fourth quarter, helping Utah erase a 16-point deficit and secure its fifth consecutive victory. Everything was on display, from long-distance bombs to driving forays complete with wizardry around the rim. It was the best scoring performance by an NBA rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011, and only six other active players can claim 40-point games from their respective rookie seasons: Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin and LeBron James.

Mitchell’s rise could not be better timed for the Jazz, who are trying to remain afloat in the Western Conference standings despite a knee injury to Gobert. Rather than buckle under the lack of star power, the Jazz are somehow thriving thanks in no small part to their confident rookie. It may still prove too much to ask him to fill the scoring vacuum left behind by Hayward.

Then again, Mitchell’s career-high is already one point better than his predecessor’s.