It’s a small sample size, but one thread running through the Jazz’s first three games is this: Donovan Mitchell is struggling.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) pivots after stealing the ball during late second half play. The Rockets beat the Jazz 100-87, Sunday, May 6, 2018.

During last year’s regular season, Donovan Mitchell picked up two technical fouls. One came after Joel Embiid taunted him after a block, and Mitchell got up off the deck and shoved him in retaliation. The second came after Marquese Chriss bodychecked Ricky Rubio, with Mitchell coming in to the scrum to stand up for his teammate.

2018-19′s first technical wasn’t from a physical confrontation, though, but from sheer frustration. Midway through the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies, Mitchell drove to the rim and lost control of the ball.

It may have been a foul, as Shelvin Mack’s arm collided into Mitchell’s, but it’s the kind of play where you often don’t see a whistle blown: Mitchell was driving into traffic without a real plan, and was punished for it. And after the turnover, he said something that caused referee Natalie Sago to blow her whistle and give the Grizzlies another point.

It has been that kind of season so far for Mitchell. While the averages look fine — 19 points, three rebounds and three assists per contest are all roughly in line with what he did last season — the percentages have been awful. Mitchell is shooting just 34 percent from the floor and 27.6 percent from three. And when the Jazz have needed baskets most, late against Golden State and Memphis, he has come up short, forcing up ugly looks that didn’t fall.

And when you ask Mitchell about his performance this year, it seems like he’s searching for answers a little bit too. He’s said his poor shooting performance was a case of “Just [missing] a lot of shots, a lot of easy shots.” But he’s also noted that teams are playing him differently, with a year of scouting information at their disposal. “They’re more physical, taking away my easy looks. Now I have to be able to make tougher shots. That’s all it is.”

That approach is debatable. Mitchell is extraordinarily talented, but he’s still not going to make those “tougher shots” at a rate that makes it the Jazz’s best offensive option. When opponents are making his shots harder, they’re probably committing multiple bodies to do so. Taking the shot anyway is just pressing.

Look at the video above: when Mitchell loses the ball, there are five Memphis players with a foot in the paint. While the Jazz’s spacing wasn’t good (Rubio running in front of Crowder made it possible for Memphis to guard two players with one), Mitchell could have made an earlier pass for an open three. It looks like the lob pass to Gobert was there too.

The key to Mitchell’s success won’t be “making tougher shots,” but making defenses pay for collapsing on him. In turn, that will open the spaces inside and out that Mitchell can score efficiently in.

There have only been three games, of course, so small sample size is definitely at play here. The overwhelming belief from both Mitchell and the Jazz is that he’ll turn it around and be even better in his sophomore year than he was in his rookie season. Everyone has that level of trust in Mitchell’s character, work ethic and talent.

Step one in that process is turning frustration into action. After games like these last two, Mitchell can be hard on himself. “I try my hardest not to get too down on myself,” he said. “But that’s a tough task.”

But Mitchell knows that he’s done this before. After all, he began his rookie season with even a worse beginning, shooting only 20 percent in his first three games. Then, he was just as frustrated with how his rookie season had begun, especially after dynamite performances in summer league and preseason.

Mitchell turned it around, changed his approach, and had one of the best debut campaigns of any player this millennium.


At Toyota Center, Houston

Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m. MT

TV • AT&T SportsNet

Radio • 1280 AM

Records • Jazz 1-2; Rockets 1-2.

Last meeting • Rockets 112, Jazz 102 (Game 5, Western Conference semifinals).

About the Rockets • PG Chris Paul will miss the game after being suspended two games for his role in a fight with the Los Angeles Lakers this weekend... Eric Gordon will start for Paul... starting forward James Ennis will also be out due to a right hamstring strain, Michael Carter-Williams will start for Ennis

About the Jazz • Thabo Sefolosha still suspended after violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy... The Jazz’s last regular season win in Houston was Nov 29, 2016, 120-101... Joe Ingles leads the team in scoring with 19.3 points per game

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