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The NBA Rookie of the Year candidate you should be talking about

SALT LAKE CITY – The Rookie of the Year race is real.

I know, I know: Ben Simmons. The frontrunner. The spectacularly talented 6-foot-10 point guard with superstar potential. Simmons is averaging 15.8 points per game — despite having a range of about 10 feet. He’s within shouting distance of averaging a triple-double (eight rebounds and eight assists) on a team of early 20-somethings playing together for the first time.

But are people watching Donovan Mitchell?

Maybe a full-throated advocacy of Mitchell wouldn’t be necessary if some of the takes that pollute the internet about him were not undeniably dumb. Consider:

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Simmons has been doing it from Day 1.

It’s true: Simmons averaged 18.4 points in October and 18.6 in November, and a shade under 10 rebounds per game in each month. Mitchell? He struggled … for three games. Then he dumped 19 on the Clippers on Oct. 24, 22 on the Lakers and rarely saw single-digit scoring again.

The Jazz will be the first to admit: They didn’t see this kind of offensive outburst coming. Dennis Lindsey, mining talent in the middle of the first round, didn’t draft Mitchell at No. 13 to be a primary scorer. Utah’s GM tabbed him to back up Gordon Hayward and be groomed behind George Hill, another combo-type guard who developed in the Spurs’ winning environment.

Things changed as Hayward and Hill left via free agency. Mitchell needed to take on a bigger role. The first sign he might be ready for it came at Utah’s summer league, where Mitchell’s moxie showed in a head-to-head matchup against Boston’s Jayson Tatum. Before the team headed to Las Vegas, Lindsey sat with Jazz coach Quin Snyder. They decided to open things up for Mitchell. Put him on the ball. Let him play in space. The result: Mitchell averaged 28 points. A few months later, in his 23rd NBA game, Mitchell racked up 41.

Donovan Mitchell is averaging 20.3 points this season. (Getty Images)

Spacing, Mitchell said, is a big part of his offensive success.

“There’s so much more space in the NBA than there is in college,” Mitchell told the Yahoo Sports NBA podcast. “Just being able to get by a defender and finish at the rim, and not worry about so much help. It was a lot simpler than kind of having to fight through four different guys to make a layup. I think that was the biggest thing, just being able to find gaps and ways to get it into the paint and finish.”

Here’s another sizzling hot take: Simmons is leading a better team.

Are the Sixers better? Record-wise … barely. But they play in a friendlier conference where Simmons is flanked by an All-Star center (Joel Embiid), a proven sniper (JJ Redick) and a talented young supporting cast. Mitchell’s best teammate (Rudy Gobert) missed nearly a third of the season and his backcourt mate, Ricky Rubio, has only been good for half of it.

Not that Mitchell will take any credit. Ask Mitchell to explain the Jazz’s midseason turnaround — when Utah went from 19-28 in late January to a 42-win team fighting for a top-four seed — and he’ll praise the training staff before he accepts any. There’s Gobert (“He should be Defensive Player of the Year,” Mitchell said.), Rubio (“He’s made great adjustments.”), and even unheralded backup Royce O’Neale (“Not many people know who he is, but he comes in the game and gives a bunch of guys fits.”). Said Mitchell: “When we were struggling, I just looked at my teammates and they all stuck with it, like they knew. I think that’s just the veteran leadership that we have on this team, like they knew this was going to click.”

Still, Mitchell has been the offensive catalyst. He’s the Jazz’s leading scorer (20.3 points per game) and his production has ticked up since the All-Star break. Snyder challenged him after the break. Mitchell was coming off back-to-back Rookie of the Month nods and had just won the Verizon Slam Dunk title. “A nice thing,” Snyder said. “But kind of inconsequential.” Snyder wanted to see him take his game to another level. Don’t wait until the summer to improve, Snyder told him. Do it before the end of the season.

Mitchell has impressed with how quickly he has learned and adapted to the NBA. (AP)

“His aptitude, how quickly he has been able to take things and apply them in the game, it’s something,” Snyder told Yahoo Sports. “When you are watching tape with him, showing him something from a skill standpoint that he can do, the little things in the game, he values. His ability to see something in practice and apply it as quickly as he has is amazing.”

Simmons could win Rookie of the Year. Fine. No issue. He’s great, with a sky-high ceiling. But this should be a tough call. Mitchell — victimized, perhaps, by playing in a smaller market and a Western time zone — has room for growth, too. Mitchell works closely with Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant, who happened to have worked closely with Hayward. Mitchell adds layers to his game almost monthly (“He’s a much better finisher than he was at the start of the season,” Snyder said.) and has already identified what he wants to add to his game in the offseason.

“Pull-up jump shot,” Mitchell said. “Russell Westbrook does it well. Full speed, stopping. Westbrook, Dame [Lillard] and Kemba [Walker] are the guys I watch do that the most.”

As for Rookie of the Year, Mitchell, predictably, expresses little interest.

“Not at all,” Mitchell said. “I think where we’re at now as a team is exactly what I wanted when I first got here.”

What matters to Mitchell? Winning, of course. “If I win Rookie of the Year and we make the Finals, I’m not going to be thinking about the award,” Mitchell said. The respect of his peers means much to him, too. A common sight after Jazz games are Mitchell’s opponents seeking him out. Chris Paul did. LeBron James, too. After a midseason loss to Oklahoma City, Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony took turns embracing Mitchell on the floor.

“I knew ’Melo and PG from the summer,” Mitchell said. “But when Westbrook came up to me and was just talking to me, I was like, ‘Man, this is special. This doesn’t happen often.’ And I won’t share his message but it was just along the lines of just don’t stop, continue to grind and keep working. And if I’m earning respect from the guys around the league, I would prefer that than the Rookie of the Year award. If your colleagues are saying that you’re doing the thing, I’d rather that than anything else.”

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