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USA TODAY Sports spotlights one rookie each week as part of our weekly Rookie Power Rankings.
Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon may have inadvertently aided Donovan Mitchell’s rise to stardom.
When Gordon pulled out of Saturday’s All-Star dunk contest due to a hip injury, it created a spot for Mitchell, who has quickly shown himself as one of the most acrobatic and electric dunkers in the league.
Alley-oops, surging fastbreaks, tip-dunks, it doesn’t matter. Mitchell throws them all down. He’ll compete Saturday night in the dunk contest against Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Dallas rookie Dennis Smith Jr., and new Cleveland Cavalier Larry Nance Jr.
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The Jazz rookie was initially slated to participate in Saturday night’s skills competition before he got the call and pulled out of the multi-skill challenge. He’ll still compete for the U.S. team in the Rising Stars challenge on Friday night.
“I’ve been Googling or YouTubing the old dunk contests to figure out dunks that kind of got overlooked that are still pretty tough, and guys are a little bit taller than me have done, so if I do it, it might look a little bit better,” he told reporters.
Veterans are catching on and want no part of Mitchell’s aerial display. On Friday night vs. Charlotte, which turned into Utah’s eighth consecutive win, Mitchell trailed on a fastbreak, charged down the lane and chucked the ball through the hoop as Nicolas Batum sidestepped the incoming train. On Monday night, he rallied the Jazz past San Antonio for their NBA-best 10th consecutive win, scoring 25 including eight of Utah’s final nine points.
Not only is Mitchell thriving, but also during their streak, the Jazz have beaten six playoff teams and the top two teams in each conference, Toronto and Golden State.
Hovering around .500, they’ve slowly given themselves a chance at the playoffs while reinforcing Mitchell’s Rookie of the Year candidacy. NBA All-Stars are taking notice.
USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick, Jeff Zillgitt, Michael Singer and AJ Neuharth-Keusch vote in our weekly rookie rankings.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers: 16.4 ppg, 7.3 apg, 7.7 rpg
Simmons just keep plugging away. With him on the court, the 76ers have an offensive rating of 106.2 points per 100 possessions, while with him off they’re at 103.2. Defensively, with him on, they allow 101.7 points per 100 possessions, and with him off they’re at 105.6.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: 19.5 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.5 rpg
Mitchell scored 40 on 14 for 19 shooting from the field in a recent win over Phoenix. It’s the second time this season he’s scored at least 40. The only other active players to reach that mark as rookies are LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and Carmelo Anthony.
3. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls: 15.3 ppg, 1.3 apg, 7.7 rpg
Markkanen is tied with Devin Booker and C.J. Miles for 28th in the NBA with 112 three-pointers made this year. He, along with Simmons, Tatum and Mitchell, will take part in the Rising Stars challenge on Friday night of All-Star weekend.
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: 13.6 ppg, 1.4 apg, 5.1 rpg
Since dislocating the pinkie on his shooting hand on Dec. 20, he hasn’t shot better than 34% from the three-point line in either January or February after leading the league in three-point percentage throughout much of the first half.
5. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings: 11.3 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2.6 rpg
It’s officially the Fox show in Sacramento after the Kings traded veteran George Hill during last week’s trade deadline. Fox said recently that coach Dave Joerger has entrusted him with more of the playcalling and oftentimes won’t dictate a play, content to let the rookie play through. He’s averaged over 14 points in January and February since moving into a more prominent role.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Singer on Twitter.