Donovan Mitchell didn’t expect to be here this time last year. The Utah Jazz rookie spent the early stages of this past offseason working out with Chris Paul and Paul George in Los Angeles after their teams were eliminated from the playoffs, and their influence convinced him to stay in the NBA draft.
It’s a good thing they did.
He performed better than both he and the NBA stars expected in their workouts, and his draft stock shot into the lottery ranks. Mitchell was projected to go in the top 10 picks but dropped to 13th, and he may have found himself in the perfect situation in Salt Lake City.
He has had the typical struggles rookies deal with, but he’s had flashes of brilliance uncommon to a player in his first month and a half at the NBA level. While he didn’t have tremendous shooting numbers in college, his shooting stroke is pure and seems to have come around quickly, especially over the last few weeks.
Mitchell shot just 40.8 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from three in his sophomore season, and his expected development appears to be fast-tracking. He shot just 32.9 percent from the floor in the month of October, a dreadful rate considering his high usage of nearly 29 percent in those early days, but Mitchell is quickly putting things together of late.
Mitchell has started all 12 games since Nov. 10 (at both the one and the two) and his initially woeful true shooting percentage has warmed to 56.5 percent over that span. He’s shooting 44.7 percent from the floor and an impressive 40.7 percent from three while averaging 19.5 points.
It’s also worth noting that while little is expected of most rookies, particularly those selected outside of the first few picks of the draft, Mitchell has provided a dose of stability for a team that has been ravaged by injury. Rudy Gobert has been out since Nov. 10 with a bone bruise. Rodney Hood, Ricky Rubio and Raul Neto have missed time. Joe Johnson hasn’t played yet this season and Dante Exum is going to miss the entire campaign.
In spite of this rash of injuries, both the Jazz and Mitchell are thriving. In fact, over the 11 games since Gobert went down, they are 7-4 with a 9.6 net rating. Without their supposed best player, the Jazz are performing better than anybody expected them to at full strength.
In analyzing Mitchell’s game, it’s important to note where he’s struggled and how he’s improved. For starters, Donovan Mitchell can turn any change of possession into a frenzied fast break opportunity. While most easy offense comes from transition chances, at various points this season he takes this a step far.
There is a line between aggression and recklessness, and Mitchell frequently treads upon it. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. He’s so explosive and quick he can create opportunities with his athleticism that most players can’t, and with experience his decision-making and finishing around the basket could become a serious problem for opponents.
Mitchell is in the 10th percentile in transition efficiency, scoring just .722 points per possession. Much of this comes from poor decision-making on the move, as one might expect from a rookie in his first six weeks of NBA play. This is proven by his 18.5 percent turnover rate, and he hits just 38.5 percent of his field goals when in transition.
With the physical attributes and high basketball intelligence Mitchell possesses, the combination of a long leash, patience from his coaching staff and an ability to quickly learn from mistakes may prove to have put him in the perfect situation.
It appears he’s already putting things together. With increased usage and responsibility over the last 10 games, starting games at both the one and two, Mitchell’s turnovers have actually gone down from a turnover rate of 11.45 over his first 11 games to just 9.82 over this last-11 game stretch.
While Mitchell’s finishing around the basket and playmaking decisions have been weak points thus far, there’s nothing wrong with his jump shot. On all jump shots, he’s scoring 1.069 points per possession. On unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts, he’s scoring 1.214 points per possession, which puts him in the 60th percentile. On all catch-and-shoot opportunities, he’s scoring 1.219 points per possession, good for the 74th percentile.
On all jump shots off the dribble, Mitchell is scoring a splendid 1 point per possession, placing him in the 80th percentile.
Aside from the excitement about his athleticism and smooth jump shot, his length and defensive abilities may have turned the most heads coming into the draft. Mitchell stands at just 6’3″, but he has a pterodactylian 7′ wingspan. He averaged 2.3 steals and half a block per 36 minutes in his sophomore season, and his defensive production at the NBA level isn’t far behind at 1.6 steals and 0.6 blocks per 36 minutes.
He has great instincts and his quickness and anticipation can have a devastating impact on opposing offenses. As Mitchell’s transition decision-making improves with time and experience, he’s going to become a major problem for opponents.
He is especially effective in on-ball defense, allowing the pick and roll ball handler to score just .698 points per possessions in 96 possessions.
While some coaches may be more conservative about bringing along rookies, even those with high ceilings and intelligence like Mitchell, Quin Snyder took a completely different approach with Mitchell. Rather than protecting him from the heightened level of competition in the NBA in a turbulent season after losing Gordon Hayward and George Hill last summer, Mitchell was thrown into the fire and expected to perform.
He’s proven to be a fearless player who will keep taking his shot when he can get it, and sometimes when he can’t. Mitchell had three separate 1-of-7 shooting nights, a 3-of-21 performance and a 1-of-10 outing. He has taken 15 or more shots 12 times through his first 23 games and 20 or more four times.
Of course, he also has a 10-of-18 game, a 10-of-19 performance and two 9-of-16 outings, including Thursday night in a 126-107 route of the Los Angeles Clippers. He also had a spectacular 41 point outburst in a 114-108 home win over the New Orleans Pelicans, a game in which he shot 13-of-25 from the floor and 6-of-12 from three.
Some players struggle with confidence after bad shooting performances, but Mitchell seems to have a steely resolve that supercedes that of mere mortals. While it’s hyperbolic to suggest the Jazz have been able to stay afloat through this tumultuous season solely because of his efforts, Mitchell has contributed more to team success than all but a couple of rookies across the league so far. That he’s been able to do so while learning and developing on the fly in a baptism by fire is all the more remarkable.