Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is defended by Knicks guard RJ...

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is defended by Knicks guard RJ Barrett in the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, March 20, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

With Madison Square Garden still filling up, Donovan Mitchell was putting on a show through pregame warmups, drawing oohs and aahs from the upper deck as the 6-1 guard threw down windmill dunks in the layup line.

When public address announcer Mike Walczewski intoned that the Knicks’ opponent was the Utah Jazz, there were loud boos. Rudy Gobert got the same and the other starters mostly were ignored until Mitchell was introduced to the sort of cheers usually reserved for the hometown team.

Maybe it’s because he’s a hometown kid, growing up in Elmsford, New York, not far from the Knicks’ practice site in Greenburgh. Or maybe it’s because the crowd, like the Knicks’ executives, are thinking wishfully that Mitchell will be in Knicks orange and blue soon.

It’s certainly a long shot, but enough of a possibility that front office officials have whispered the desire to acquire Mitchell as the key part of a plan to restore the franchise to contender status.

Passed on in the 2017 NBA Draft by then-Knicks president Phil Jackson in favor of Frank Ntilikina, then signing a max extension with the Jazz in November 2020, Mitchell has become the sort of star that New York hungers to sell. He’s also as elusive as any other star the franchise has pursued.

Mitchell, who entered the night averaging 25.7 points per game, was without his full squad Sunday, as the Jazz were missing Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic. But Utah, through injuries, ups and downs and even a trade deadline deal, brought a 44-26 record and the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference into Sunday’s game.

“It’s well-balanced,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said of Utah. “Any team that has Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, you’re talking about two of the top players in the league. The way they shoot the three and get in the paint to break you down. [Royce] O’Neale is a versatile wing. They can guard multiple positions. They’re strong defensively, strong offensively. They can go big, they can go small.”

It is that success that makes it hard to imagine that Mitchell — as much as he may wonder about a return home and though he has connections throughout the Knicks’ front office and coaching staff — will want to take on the task of being the face of the Knicks.

With three years and $98 million left on his contract, plus a player option for a fourth season, Mitchell is far from free agency. Trading for him would require the Knicks to hand over their best assets — start with RJ Barrett and start adding on draft picks and contracts and you still will have a hard time creating a package that would be attractive for Danny Ainge, who heads the Utah organization.

Even if the Knicks can structure a package in their desperate search for a star, it would decimate the roster around him. While Julius Randle has been the leader of the Knicks for the last three seasons, Barrett is the rising star — just 21 years old and making huge strides during his three seasons in New York, the last two under Thibodeau.

But the Knicks have decisions to make on just how much they believe in Barrett, who is eligible for a five-year, $181 extension this summer. It’s not just him, either. Mitchell Robinson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he reportedly turned down an extension offer from the Knicks earlier this season. With a 30-40 record entering Sunday night and sitting on the outside of the playoff picture, it’s understandable that the Knicks’ front office might not only be enamored of Mitchell but hesitant to go all-in on this group.


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