Last year, everything was a revelation for Donovan Mitchell.
“The whole year last year was,” Mitchell said. “When I found out about that shoe (his signature shoe), it kind of capped off an entire year of being surprised by everything.”
Mitchell took the world by storm and surpassed every expectation possible on his way to a second-round playoff visit and a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting.
But that’s the funny thing about expectations: They change. Once people saw what Mitchell was capable of, they asked for growth — even despite a foot injury that severely hampered what he was able to do this summer. And once NBA opponents saw how Mitchell propelled the Jazz to great heights, they changed their game plans to stop him.
The result has been an inconsistent second season in which Mitchell’s numbers have taken a small step back from the heights of his rookie year. He’s still averaging just over 20 points per game, but taking an extra shot in order to get there. The rebounds, the assists, the 3-point shooting, and the turnovers are all about five percent worse than last season.
By any reasonable standard, Mitchell’s sophomore season has been impressive: Second-year players who carry their teams offensively are a rarity in the NBA for good reason. And yet, that rookie season in which he put his stamp on the franchise, the city, even the league itself holds Mitchell to a higher plane.
“With the struggles, it’s easy for people to turn the positives into the negative stuff,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell tries to tune it out, but the truth is that even if he ignores the outside world, he holds himself to a higher standard. He wants to be known as “one of the greats," he says, and this season’s step back has made clear that he’ll need to improve in order to reach those lofty heights.
“I’ll be honest with you, it took me some time to figure it out this year, mentally,” Mitchell said. “I had struggles last year, but none like this year, and it’s really tested me mentally.”
NBA teams are game-planning for Mitchell with more focus than ever before.
“He’s been trapped, he’s had people send him to his weak hand, all of those things," said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “I think there’s a level of attention oftentimes for a player or a team, as you see someone more, you’re more focused on certain things.”
Take this play for example, against San Antonio. Mitchell gets the switch, and finds the longer Rudy Gay with him, but the Spurs send Jakob Poeltl to stop Mitchell’s drive, while Royce O’Neale’s defender, Derrick White, seals off Derrick Favors in the paint. The result is that Mitchell is double-teamed, facing five players with a foot in the paint, and the open man an impossible pass away.
Can Mitchell be smarter about attacking here? Sure, the first shot had no chance and was rudely treated as such by Gay. But mostly it’s a reflection of how teams have sold out to stop Mitchell by helping off of his Jazz teammates who aren’t big threats from outside, whether that be Ricky Rubio, Royce O’Neale, Dante Exum, Jae Crowder, or Favors. And then Mitchell gets his own rebound, and faced with no other options, has to fire from 28 feet.
It is true that Mitchell’s shot has let him down to some extent this year. Interestingly, he’s actually been better at pull-up jump shots, with his effective field goal percentage jumping from 43.4 percent to 47.6 percent on those kinds of shots.
But it’s the catch-and-shoot opportunities that have cratered: Last year, his effective field goal percentage was 60.8 percent on those, now it’s down to just 41.8 percent. For 32 games anyway, Mitchell’s shooting has been like James Harden’s: He’s better taking a jump shot he creates himself than one that his teammates create for him.
As Mitchell has worked to find himself, he’s focused more on pull-up attempts as well as his midrange game, which actually has been one of the best in the league. Mitchell shoots 49.4 percent on shots between 10 and 16 feet away, and 48.3 percent on 16-footers out to the 3-point line. But that’s the thing about the midrange: Even if you’re great at it, it’s hard to get the really efficient looks that drives a team to new offensive heights. Mitchell isn’t going to the free-throw line frequently, and while he’s taking the 3-point shots, they go in only 29 percent of the time.
“Donovan’s going to have his ups and downs. The important thing for him is no matter what teams are doing to guard him, whether they’re double-teaming him or trapping him or chasing him or going under, it’s all part of the process for him," Snyder said. "He’s going to see different coverages and different matchups. I just don’t want him to stop attacking, because his instinctiveness is what’s going to allow him to continue to get better.”
Opposing coaches have noticed, too. “First of all, you see it all the time with sophomores. You see it all the time — big rookie year; sophomore, the league figures them out a little bit more, they come back to earth a little bit more," said Sixers coach Brett Brown, who is no stranger to elite rookies. “I see him maybe not having the [same] type of year consistency-wise. But he’s incredible to me. ... I have very high praise for Donovan Mitchell, and I understand why their offense plays through him.”
Here’s the unique thing about Mitchell: He’s proactive about everything. When faced with a new community, he threw himself into it immediately, meeting everyone, going to every sporting event he could, even stopping by fans' barbecues on the Fourth of July.
So when he faced the struggles of this season, he’s done everything he can to change that. He says he’s staying at home more, and is starting to become aware of the mental exhaustion that comes with saying yes to everything.
“I’m in a good spot, staying composed, and figuring out what I can and can’t do off the court, where I can’t go,” Mitchell said. “Things I was able to do last year, I can’t do this year.”
And at home, he’s consulting everyone he trusts. That means long phone calls with players around the NBA who have been through these situations before, like Miami’s Dwyane Wade.
"We was on the phone for two hours,” Wade said. “I don’t talk to nobody for two hours no more, but he wanted to pick my brain. He had a lot of great questions and we just talked about the game. We talked about my first year to my second year, how did I make the jump, and he had a lot of great questions.”
Mitchell has made similar phone calls to Houston’s Chris Paul. But he’s also looking inside the organization for advice. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio sat down for 35 minutes this month talking about how it can be hard to stay inside the right “headspace," as Mitchell calls it. Mitchell and Snyder are close too, often talking late after shootarounds and practices about the game and how best to approach it.
There’s also the core jokester group on the team that still makes his job feel fun. Mitchell appreciates the barbs he receives from Joe Ingles, “Especially when he lets me know what I’m shooting from 3,” Mitchell said.
“But that kind of stuff keeps you lighthearted, keeps you in the right spirit. When you have guys like Joe, Jae, even Kyle’s a jokester, Georges running around making jokes every second of the day, it helps."
So yes, at times last year, everything seemed easy for Mitchell. But now he’s learned that true greatness, lasting greatness, isn’t about climbing the mountain once. “It’s easier said than done, and I’ve figured that out this year,” Mitchell said. “Now it’s here, and I have to work, and I have to prove myself over and over again.”
“I’m good now. I’m smiles, and there’s no sad moments. I’m good.”
JAZZ VS. KNICKS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Saturday, 6:00 p.m.
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 17-19; Knicks 9-27
Last meeting • Knicks, 117-115 (Jan 19)
About the Jazz • Jae Crowder will miss the game due to a left thumb contusion, while Grayson Allen is still out due to a right ankle sprain... Ricky Rubio is listed as questionable due to left lower back and left knee contusions suffered in Thursday’s game against the Sixers, while Dante Exum is listed as probable with right shoulder soreness... The game is the first 6 p.m. MT tip of the season at home
About the Knicks • Star Kristaps Porzingis is still out as he recovers from an ACL tear suffered last season, while this season’s leading scorer Tim Hardaway Jr. is listed as questionable due to illness ... Mitchell Robinson is out due to a sprained left ankle... other than Hardaway and Porzingis, former Jazzman Enes Kanter leads the team in scoring with 14.7 points per game, though he was ejected in his last game against Milwaukee