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.