Indianapolis • For sophomores in the NBA, life isn’t always easy.
Take it from Brad Stevens and Quin Snyder, the coaches of two of the best rookies in the league last season: Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum. Those two set the league afire in the 2017-18 season, leading their teams to lengthy playoff runs. Rookies aren’t supposed to be able to do that.
Mitchell and Tatum haven’t played poorly in their second seasons. Both guys are actually matching or exceeding their scoring totals from last year as they take larger roles from the beginning of the season.
But it is true that they haven’t scored quite as efficiently; Tatum’s points per 100 shots has decreased about 9.8 points, while Mitchell’s has declined about 6.8 points.
It’s not a huge dip, but it reflects there’s a new reality for both players: Defenses are keying on them like never before. Mitchell is at the top of Jazz opponents’ scouting reports every single night, and teams are spending significant defensive resources to stop him. They’ll switch as he comes around screens to prevent him from getting to the basket, or send two men at him temporarily as he drives the lane. At times, that’s prevented him from getting the easy looks he found last season.
“Great is great for a reason,” Stevens said. “When everyone is going after you every single night, it’s tough.”
Snyder, though, isn’t worried whatsoever. He knows that this is part of the process of Mitchell’s development.
“I think it’s more common than not that guys have to work through some of that in their second year, and there’s no way to skip over that,” Snyder said.
In doing so, Snyder compared Mitchell’s journey to a very different kind of rookie campaign: that of Joe Ingles, who was 27 when he came into the league and already an established professional. Ingles, too, struggled early in his second year, but turned things around by the time the season ended.
And of course, there are other parts of development besides finding easier ways to score. As defenses use new wrinkles to defend Mitchell, he can learn ways that his teammates are open for split-second opportunities. His teammates can start to learn where to space themselves in those situations, or when they might be able to make a cut to help Mitchell out. Mitchell’s assists are up this season by about 10 percent, even as the Jazz’s shooting woes have taken some of those assists away.
As always for the Jazz, it starts with the defensive end of the floor, and Mitchell has shown an ability to apply himself there too. While he struggled with his shot in Philadelphia, Mitchell found success applying significant ball pressure on fellow second-year player Markelle Fultz, earning a steal and several rough possessions from a Sixers point of view.
“We’re talking a lot about everything offensively, and that’s what we do, because those are the stats that show up in the box score,” Snyder said. “But as you throw yourself into the defensive end, a lot of those feelings are diluted if not mitigated.”
In Boston on Saturday, Mitchell played his part in an excellent team defensive performance, limiting the Celtics to just 86 points, the lowest scoring game by any Jazz opponent this season.
“I didn’t do too much, but being in the right spots just kept me focused on the game plan,” Mitchell said. From there, it was easy to stay there on the offensive end, and Mitchell had one of his best games of the season, with 28 points and six assists.
“That’s where he is, and he’s going to have good games and bad games,” Snyder said. “The more he can take from any adversity, that’s the key.” Against Boston, he showed that ability in spades.
JAZZ AT PACERS
At Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Tipoff • Monday, 5 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 8-8; Pacers 10-6
Last meeting • Jazz, 104-84 (March 7)
About the Jazz • They are healthy, leading Raul Neto to be marked as inactive on Boston in their last game. … Rudy Gobert is fifth in the league in rebounds per game with 12.8. … Jazz are playing third game in four nights
About the Pacers • Victor Oladipo’s status is up in the air after he left Saturday’s game early due to a sore knee. Oladipo leads the Pacers in scoring with 21.4 points per game. … They have won three of their last four games, all by 8-point margins.