How Far Can Donovan Mitchell Take the Jazz?

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The Utah Jazz are off to a red hot start, jockeying for the top spot in the Western Conference alongside the other heavyweights in Phoenix and Golden State. Despite their considerable early success and league-leading offense, they’re regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism; if you’ve listened to an NBA-centric podcast or TNT broadcast at some point this season, you’ve probably heard Utah praise qualified with some iteration of “lets see it in the playoffs.” That’s fair! Utah has notably struggled in the playoffs, but this is a new year, with new circumstances. 

Each season in the league is a unique subset with carryover from prior years, but not a direct continuation. The Jazz are again the best offense in the NBA, en route to break records, akin to last season. The underlying defensive concerns are still there and air themselves out during primetime play.

As I wrote about recently, the Jazz have actively tweaked their system this year. New personnel have unlocked intriguing lineups and styles of play. Much like the Bucks last season, the Jazz are using this regular season to test-run new tactics and schematic wrinkles for the postseason. 

However, the most intriguing development has been the growth of Donovan Mitchell this season. Check the box score and the changes are negligible at best, partially due to a slow start. Dive deeper, and combined with glimpses in-game, Mitchell has taken a step that may be the most significant shift for the franchise in his tenure with the Jazz.

What step might that be? Well, every step, quite literally!

Pound for pound, Mitchell is one of the most overwhelming athletes in the NBA (he’s frequently compared to Dwyane Wade for a reason), which has provided the framework for him to function as a lead guard. Mitchell has found more ways this year to meaningfully harness his speed and power. He establishes his pace; he sets his own rhythm. In prior years, Mitchell played like Peter Parker still coming to terms with being Spiderman—it was obvious that he had special gifts and powers, but he hadn’t quite figured out how to deploy them effectively. Whereas Mitchell’s drives used to be somewhat halting as he haphazardly shifted between hitting the NOS button and fully putting on the brakes, he’s now learned to calibrate his transmission. This year, Mitchell changes direction and speed more fluidly, excising the profligate herk-y jerky, start/stop activity in favor of more continuous motion.

Keeping a handle on the ignition keeps defenders at bay, forcing constant attention and reaction to his own movements. Defenders have always had to pay attention to his top-end quickness and rapid deceleration, but now they must also account for the full spectrum of speeds that he can access in between those two extremes.

In essence, operating more slowly opens access to more windows than previously attainable.

Mitchell has straddled the league-average line of efficiency for the entirety of his young career, but now sits comfortably above it for the first time (his 57.1 percent True Shooting is 3 percent better than league average). Zooming into his last 15 games and he’s been even better, putting up 28.5 points per game on 61 percent True Shooting across that span.

Career-best shooting inside the arc—a byproduct of his aforementioned control of pace— has propelled Mitchell to new heights as a scorer. Mitchell is hitting 55 percent of his twos, his highest clip since his rookie season (50.2 percent), shooting 71.2 percent at the rim (previous high of 63.8 percent), and 48.6 percent from 3-10 feet (38.6 percent for his career). This growth is especially remarkable considering that he’s upped his accuracy without sacrificing any volume. 

Mitchell’s evolution has catalyzed his transition from an above-average pick-and-roll operator to one of the best in basketball; his 1.06 points per possession as a pick and roll ball-handler is the most of any NBA player who averages more than three such possessions per game. He tackles ball-screens with guile and patience, taking full advantage of what the defense offers. 

Go under the screen to stop a drive: He’ll cash the jumper.

Wiggle over the screen to contest a potential pull-up: he’ll flash to the rim.

Fall back into drop coverage : here comes a pull-up two, which he’s hitting at a 50.5% clip.

While Mitchell has had these options and modes of attack at his disposal for much of his time in the league, he now displays the tact and craftsmanship to take full advantage of his natural toolsiness. Empowered by the knowledge that he has an answer for whatever problem the defense poses, Mitchell is nearly unguardable operating a pick-and-roll.

Beyond merely finishing pick-and-roll chances, Mitchell is exceptional at initiating advantages from the get-go thanks to his timing and footwork. One of the great joys of the season has been watching Mitchell use his screeners to remove his defender from the play, knock trailers off-course, and open up shooting pockets.

Watch the craft in these two possessions.

First, he freezes Facundo Campazzo with a hesitation, which allows him to jet around the screen without much resistance. Now, with Campazzo out of the play, he attacks a backpedaling Nikola Jokic, decelerating into a floater before the reigning MVP can react fast enough to mount a contest. Rather than a direct drive right into a seven-footer, Mitchell collapses the defense, threatens to batter the paint, and times a relatively effortless look while Jokic steels himself for the expected paint-battering.

Next, Whiteside rolls and is open for a split second, but Marquese Chriss lies in wait to tag the roll, so Mitchell continues his drive into the paint. Once there, he gradually slows, keeping Dwight Powell in limbo. By the time Powell’s teammate Theo Pinson reconnects to Whiteside on a late switch,  Mitchell has already exploited Powell’s indecision, hitting him with the quick up-fake and stepping through to the now vacant lane that Whiteside just carved for him on the roll.

No individual component of what Mitchell does on these plays is particularly noteworthy at first, the sheer amount of information that Mitchell processes on these patient drives is astounding. Rather than popping for a 19-foot pull-up on his first read, he’s progressing through, feeling out the defense, and finding better ways to score.

While this alone won’t carry the Jazz to an NBA Finals, Mitchell’s growth strengthens the backbone of an already formidable team. Playoff games are determined by minor advantages that gradually accumulate over time, so Mitchell’s improvement on his already impressive offensive repertoire makes you question whether he can tilt the margins just enough in the Jazz’s favor to compensate for some of their shortcomings. So yes, let’s wait and see in the playoffs, but be sure to take note of the strides being made in the meantime.

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