The Utah Jazz were one of the NBA’s most remarkable storylines last season.
Securing the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs were outcomes no one saw coming after the franchise lost its best player in Gordon Hayward and starting point guard George Hill in free agency.
Fortunately, Utah received an unexpected jolt from rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, who is poised to take his game and the franchise to greater heights in his sophomore season.
So, what’s next for the Jazz?
“The goal is a championship,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports without hesitation. “… I just find it funny. People ask me that all the time. What’s next? I say to them, ‘How come you don’t ask Golden State what’s next?’ You know what I mean? That’s how I look at it. We’re all in this for a championship. We’re not here for nothing else. I just laugh when people ask me that because I’m like, ‘Would you ask that same question to Boston?’ What’s next for us is a championship, and you can ask everybody in the organization and in the city and they’ll tell you what’s next.”
It is overwhelmingly considered a two-team race between the Warriors and Houston Rockets for the right to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
And LeBron James joining the West doesn’t make matters any easier for the rest of the field.
“At the end of the day, what can you do, cry about it?” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to get out there and play.”
Nevertheless, the Jazz are a team on the rise with Rudy Gobert — the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year — manning the paint, Mitchell terrorizing opposing defenses and coach Quin Snyder outmaneuvering his counterparts.
On Wednesday the Jazz defeated the Sacramento Kings 123-117 on the road in their season-opener, and Mitchell led the way with a game-high 24 points.
But for those not completely sold on the Jazz, this season should reveal the true level of their sustainability.
“I don’t think for me or my team, that we look at it like we have to live up to these expectations that the media created, because to be honest, a lot of y’all didn’t really have us making the playoffs last year and we didn’t listen to it then,” Mitchell said. “So, for us, what type of team would we be if we started listening to it now that you guys have us [pegged] in the top four or top five? I think we’re going to keep that same mindset, keep that same underdog mentality and play ball.”
Said Snyder: “Expectations, one way or the other, are external evaluations of our team. We can have the expectation that we’re going to be good or the expectation that we’re not going to be good, and neither one of them have any real impact until you start playing.”
If Utah is to take that next step, Mitchell understands that burden is on him.
The 13th overall pick in the 2017 draft snuck up on the league last year, but he’s not going to have that luxury going forward. After scoring a rookie-high 20.5 points per game and draining 187 triples, he’s going to be a targeted man.
“Donovan is the truth and he’s only going to get better, which is scary for the league,” Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green said. “You have to know where he’s at all the time. He’s special.”
The praise is flattering, but the 6-foot-3 guard isn’t satisfied. In that opening night win, Mitchell only registered two assists in 36 minutes of play.
“Just because I [averaged] 20 [points], I tell people all the time, if I wasn’t a rookie, this would be a regular season,” Mitchell said. “It’s 20 [points], three [rebounds] and three [assists]. That’s not [spectacular]. That’s average. So, I have a lot to improve on.
“I gotta get my assists numbers up, for sure. I’m a much better passer than what I showed last year. Watching games, and watching film, if I slowed down, opportunities would have presented itself a lot more. Being more under control, more efficient. If the All-Star Game comes, it comes, man. But for me, if I focus on myself and how to find ways to get better, that will all fall into place.”
Mitchell finished runner-up in the NBA Rookie of the Year race to Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons. Most of the media voters selected Simmons because he filled the stat sheet on a nightly basis, and Mitchell was seen as just a scorer.
“I heard the criticisms,” Mitchell acknowledged. “Obviously, with the back and forth between the Rookie of the Year, you heard the comparisons that Ben is a passer and I’m not. So, you hear that, but for me, my teammates were the ones that were backing me shooting. I think when you have your teammates and coaches telling you to shoot, you don’t really have a second thought about it and that’s why I thank my teammates incredibly. They have that confidence in me to go out there and play. For them, I gotta get more than three assists, I gotta get more than three rebounds a game. I did it in the playoffs, why can’t I do it in the regular season? That’s pretty much my mindset.”
The season is underway. Mitchell and his Jazz teammates will attempt to make everyone take note once again.
“We’re trying to make it farther than what we did last year and that’s the Western Conference Finals and the Finals,” said Mitchell. “Time will tell.”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• 2003 rape allegations cost Kobe spot on film festival jury
• Controversial call wipes out Astros home run
• NFL owners take a knee in waning anthem controversy
• Dan Wetzel: Gymnastics scandal secrets may finally go public