Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell have a lot in common. They were lottery picks in the 2017 draft — Tatum third to the Celtics, Mitchell 13th to the Jazz — and they’ve been friends since taking part in high-level camps for high schoolers years before.
And though it wasn’t what either of their teams wanted, both had their development as rookies aided by the absence of Gordon Hayward. That’s not to say Tatum and Mitchell wouldn’t have succeeded under any circumstances; each has the kind of approach to the game that pretty much assures they’ll find a way to be more than good.
But neither would have the number of touches that came their way had not Hayward been hurt five minutes into the Celtics’ season last year or if he hadn’t left the Jazz for the Celts as a free agent in the first place.
Mitchell averaged 20.5 points and should have been Rookie of the Year (Ben Simmons didn’t play in 2016-17, but he had a valuable year with the 76ers to get acclimated). Tatum averaged 16.3 points and started all year for a team that went to the conference finals.
“I think the biggest thing is I didn’t come in thinking that, ‘oh, it’s my time to shine’,” said Mitchell, before taking on the Celtics last night. “I don’t think that was anybody’s mindset when (Hayward) left. I just came in and kept working, and fortunately things rolled my way.
“But it could have easily went the other way — for myself and Jayson. We just had the opportunity, and we capitalized on it. That’s all it is, and I thank God for it. I know he does, as well. The NBA is all about opportunity, you know, guys getting that one shot. Both of us are products of that situation.
“But Gordon is getting back to being himself, and I’m excited about that, too. He’s a great player.”
Utah coach Quin Snyder doesn’t necessarily see Hayward’s departure as purely a Mitchell aid. And, of course, he’d rather have the two working together on the Jazz.
“You could point to anybody on our team,” Snyder said. “You could point to Joe [Ingles]. Anytime there’s a need, it’s the mother of invention, right? Guys fill the need when that opportunity is there. That’s usually how it works.
“I don’t know if there’s any one player that benefited more or less, but we didn’t know that Donovan was going to surface the way he did. But any time it’s a player that’s as good as Gordon is, you know, we miss him — and we’re happy that he’s healthy.”
Some of the help Tatum and Mitchell have gotten has come from each other.
“I talk to him all the time,” said the Jazz guard. “We talked after the last time we played (last Friday in Salt Lake City), and then he went out and had 27 (the next game in Portland). We talk about little things we see that can help each other be more efficient.”
“This game isn’t a given,” added Mitchell. “Jayson and I are a lot alike in the way we look at the game, but he was a one-and-done. I stayed in school (Louisville) for two years, so our paths are a little different, but our work ethic’s the same.
“I understand that I could be in college right now in study hall. But to be here is a blessing. Not to say that being in college on a scholarship isn’t a blessing. But to be able to get paid to play at this level is a blessing, and I don’t want it to be taken away because of my lack of effort.”
Tatum and Mitchell came into last night’s meeting averaging more points this season, though both haven’t been shooting as well. It’s part of the NBA learning process.
Asked the main difference this year, Mitchell said, “Just getting adjusted to people adjusting to me, if that makes sense. Being able to understand that I can’t creep up on anybody anymore. I’ve gotten a better understanding of that, but it takes time. In college, you have practice four or five times a week to get used to those things. You don’t really have that in the NBA. We had a game last night, and we’ve got a game tonight. They’re always coming.”
Tatum has to deal with the return of Hayward and Kyrie Irving, the latter of whom was done for the season after knee surgery last March. But teams are more tuned in to him, too.
As for what the “sophomores” have to do, Celtic coach Brad Stevens said, “I don’t know if it’s as much about them adjusting as recognizing that everybody’s adjusting to them. I think that’s just part of it.
“Great is great for a reason, and when everybody’s going after you every single night that’s tough. Both these guys have shown the mettle to handle that and shown one heck of a level of play for their ages.”
Mitchell would agree — and take it a step further.
“It’s a different element, from media and the off-the-floor stuff, being able to handle the success that comes to you,” he said. “I’ve tried my best to stay as humble as possible, because it can be taken away from you in a matter of seconds. I’ve seen it with some people that I knew growing up. So I just try to keep level-headed.
“Besides, if I changed, my mom would kill me.”
Same with Tatum and his mother, Brandy. But both matriarchs appear to be safe.