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From July 4, 2017, when Gordon Hayward announced he’d be a Boston Celtic, to Jan 22, 2018, when the Utah Jazz were 19-28, forecasts for this season’s No. 5 seed in the West were bleak.
On plenty of occasions in between, rookie Donovan Mitchell was a ray of hope.
Prior to the season, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell wrote, “They must find a reliable 20-point scorer and bail-out artist, and that person might not be on the current roster.” He had every right to think that.
Five games into his rookie campaign, Rotoworld’s Ryan Knaus pointed out that Mitchell’s usage rate (27.5) was higher than his field-goal percentage (26.7).
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, everything changed.
Over the next 74 games, Mitchell averaged 21.4 points and 2.5 threes with a .550 true shooting percentage. During the 11-game, season-saving winning streak that started when Utah was 19-28, Mitchell put up his second 40-point game of the season.
“I didn’t know I had 40, to be honest with you,” Mitchell said after that performance against the Phoenix Suns, according to Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune. “I think the biggest thing was we were clicking. Everybody was clicking; that was the best part about it. Everyone was on the same page, and I think that’s where this performance was better, because as a team we played a lot better.”
Therein lies the key for Utah in its opening-round series against Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder: Mitchell has to be the “reliable 20-point scorer and bail-out artist” Powell described before the season. The “reliable” part of that might be most important, because that’s when the whole team thrives.
The league-average true shooting percentage this season was .556. And in games where Mitchell shot at least that well, Utah went 25-14.
The efficient, reliable version of Mitchell takes Utah to another level, and keeping pace with the Thunder will require that. The trick is figuring out if the difference between Mitchell’s above- and below-average games is something he can specifically address.
Early on, he struggled around the rim—understandable for a 6’3″ rookie. But he’s been adding to his bag of tricks. Scoops like this beauty around DeAndre Jordan have almost become commonplace:
He’s also gotten better at knowing when to pull up for a jumper or floater, rather than attempt to challenge a big in the paint:
This is largely the result of a mindset Utah player development guru Johnnie Bryant discussed with The Athletic’s Ben Dowsett.
“The thing with him—he’s not afraid to apply whatever he’s worked on into the game,” Bryant said. “A lot of people, just naturally, if you’re not good at something, you don’t want to look bad—especially professional athletes, right? For him, he’s not afraid to go out there and try it.”
That willingness to expose himself has indeed made him look bad now and then. He’s still prone to nights like Wednesday, when he went 6-of-23 against the Portland Trail Blazers in Utah’s season finale.
Sometimes, he forces things:
On that play, Jusuf Nurkic did a good job of showing on Mitchell’s drive, without completely abandoning Rudy Gobert at the rim. Gobert is often the obvious play for driving Jazz players, but Mitchell wisely didn’t go there. He missed Ricky Rubio and Royce O’Neale on the perimeter, and Jae Crowder along the baseline, though.
While Mitchell has made plenty of heady plays out of drives and pick-and-rolls this season, he still gets tunnel vision at times.
In fact, among the 10 Jazz players with at least 100 total drives this season, Mitchell’s assist percentage out of drives (nine) ranks seventh. Even O’Neale and Crowder top him there.
Part of that is by design. Utah needs Mitchell to go out and get buckets. After all, he’s the “bail-out artist.” And Joe Ingles and Rubio are Utah’s only players with a 40-plus three-point percentage since the All-Star break (Jonas Jerebko is at 38.6). But options are presenting themselves.
Check out the number of defenders looking directly at Mitchell in that play against the Blazers. If you don’t want to scroll back up, I’ll spare you the trouble. It’s five. When that happens, someone is likely open. In that case, three someones.
Seeing those guys against the Thunder defense will be important, especially if Paul George defends Mitchell for long stretches. Mitchell’s wingspan (6’10”) is a weapon that helps make up for his lack of height, but the 6’8″ George is even longer (6’11.25″).
If Mitchell is unable to shake loose from him, gets forced into the disruptor that is Steven Adams inside or has Oklahoma City’s defense collapse, he has to take advantage with the pass. That doesn’t mean he should suddenly become the late Boston Celtics-era Rajon Rondo, hunting assists at the expense of the scheme, of course.
There’s a reason Mitchell led the 48-34 Jazz in scoring this season (the only rookies to average at least 20 points on teams with more wins were Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walter Davis, David Robinson, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan). There are times when he needs to put the pedal down and try to score. It’s why defenses collapse and open things up all over the floor for Utah.
And Mitchell’s appetite for the big moment is one of his best traits. Among players who’ve appeared in at least 10 fourth quarters, Mitchell is 11th in fourth-quarter scoring. The closest rookie, Kyle Kuzma, is 30th.
Against OKC, the Jazz will find themselves in some tight final frames, and they’ll need their fourth-quarter hero to be himself. If he can strike a balance between that and creating for others, Utah has a chance to move on.
That’s a lot to ask of a rookie, but he’s surprised everyone before.