Donovan Mitchell celebrated his 23rd birthday on Saturday. His USA teammates chipped in to gift him a 69-53 victory over Greece in the FIBA World Cup tournament.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t all that special a present, considering Utah Jazz teammates Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles didn’t have birthdays this weekend, but were nevertheless recipients of FIBA victories as well.
With Gobert and France hanging on for a 78-75 win over Lithuania, and Ingles and Australia outlasting the Dominican Republic 82-76, the three Jazz players’ teams are now a combined 12-0 in World Cup play, and have each guaranteed themselves a spot in the eight-team quarterfinals.
Which doesn’t mean it’s all been smooth sailing for the Jazz trio.
Since the tournament began in China a week ago, each of the players has had his ups and downs. So let’s take a look at the how and the why.
Spida’s birthday effort Saturday — 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, one block, one steal, 4-10 FGs, 2-8 on 3s — was actually pretty representative of both his and Team USA’s tournament performances on the whole. Which is to say, full of scrappy defense, willing passing, but also over-reliance upon inefficient 3-point shooting.
Mitchell has been a noticeably better defender this summer than what he’s shown in his first two NBA seasons. He has displayed improved positioning, fundamentals, instincts, and effort overall on that end. As the Americans were harassing Giannis Antetokounmpo with swarming double-teams, Mitchell’s long arms and quick feet helped keep Greece’s perimeter players in check. While Giannis shot 7 of 11 and finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, he also totaled zero assists, as his teammates combined to shoot 14 of 55 (25.4%).
After Team USA allowed Japan to score only 45 points the game before, he told The Associated Press he was extremely pleased with his group’s defense as a whole.
“From the jump, I think for the full 40 minutes,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had games where we played 30 minutes of great defense or 35 and kind of let up a little bit. I think for a whole game, to really lock in and set a tone, it was really impressive.”
Offensively, it hasn’t been quite as pretty. While Mitchell is Team USA’s third-leading scorer (his 11.3 ppg trail Kemba Walker’s 14.3 and Harrison Barnes’ 11.8), his shooting has been somewhat worrisome.
Mitchell’s 43.9 FG% and 34.6 3P% have been pedestrian, if not altogether awful. Of more concern is that among his 10.2 FGA per game, 6.5 of them have been 3-pointers. Given that nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts are coming from deep, and that he has yet to attempt even a single free throw in four games, clearly he has had some difficulty acclimating to the zone-prevalent defenses and increased physicality, and has, in turn, found himself settling for perimeter jumpers rather than attacking the rim.
Is this reason for Jazz fans to worry? Probably not. Neither his over-abundance of 3s nor his complete lack of trips to the line will carry over the NBA, where his increased familiarity with his teammates and friendlier whistles will both help. Further, he is still contributing in other ways, averaging 3.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals, while committing just 1.0 turnovers in posting a team-best plus/minus of +20.0.
While much will be made of Gobert struggling to contain Jonas Valanciunas as Lithuania staged a big rally on Saturday, this is really nothing new. Throughout his career, the Stifle Tower has most often had difficulty against beefy powerhouses who are able to jostle his thin frame and prevent him from fully utilizing his length.
Otherwise, Gobert has been pretty outstanding.
In just 23.9 minutes per game, he is averaging 11.8 points, 9.5 rebounds (fourth among all tourney players), 2.3 blocks (first among all players), and 1.3 assists. He has been finishing with his typical dominance inside, to the tune of a 72.7 FG%. And while he was in foul trouble vs. Lithuania and struggled at the free-throw line (3 of 6, including two big misses late), he has generally been fine in both areas — committing just 2.8 fouls per game, while shooting 71.4% at the stripe (on 5.2 attempts per game).
With Gobert anchoring the middle, France’s defense has been phenomenal — with the 75 points that Lithuania scored Saturday representing the most the Frenchmen have allowed (they yielded just 74 vs. Germany, 64 to Jordan, and 56 against the Dominican Republic).
After raising eyebrows by coming just a single dime shy of a triple-double in the Boomers’ victory over Senegal (17 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists), Slow-mo Joe has come back down to earth a bit in Australia’s next two games.
Notably, he scored just two points against each of Lithuania and the Dominican Republic, while shooting only a combined 1 for 9 in those games. He has, of course, been contributing elsewhere: For the tournament, Ingles is averaging 8.5 points (tied for fifth-best on the team), but his 7.3 assists, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.8 steals all lead the Aussies. He’s shooting 42.3% overall and 37.5% on 4.0 attempts from deep.
As for whether he should be shooting more overall? Jazz fans are well-versed with that particular concern. Ingles is averaging only 6.5 FGAs per game — less than half that of Patty Mills, and also trailing Aron Baynes and Matthew Dellavedova, while just slightly ahead of the likes of Nic Kay, Chris Goulding, and Andrew Bogut. Still, Australia ranks fourth in the tourney at 89.5 ppg.
For what it’s worth, Ingles isn’t ever really driven by any stat other than what appears in the win-loss column. Told that triple-double he narrowly missed would have been the first in FIBA World Cup history, he shrugged it off.
“I didn’t know that, but even though I do know it now it still doesn’t bother me,” he told the AP. “The only goal today was to win the game and that’s all our focus.”
Ingles and Gobert will square off on Monday as Australia and France battle it out in each team’s final game of Round 2.
JAZZ PLAYER HIGHLIGHTS AT THE FIBA WORLD CUP
Game 1 • 16 points, two rebounds, two assists (USA 88, Czech Republic 67)
Game 2 • Nine points, four rebounds, four assists, 3-12 shooting (USA 93, Turkey 92, OT)
Game 3 • 10 points, three rebounds, six assists (USA 98, Japan 45)
Game 4 • 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, 2-8 on 3s (USA 69, Greece 53)
Game 1 • Nine points, nine rebounds, five blocks (France 78, Germany 74)
Game 2 • 16 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks (France 103, Jordan 64)
Game 3 • 13 points, eight rebounds, one block, 5-5 FGs (France 90, Dominican Republic 56)
Game 4 • Nine points, eight rebounds, one block, (France 78, Lithuania 75)
Game 1 • 13 points, nine assists, five rebounds, three steals (Australia 108, Canada 92)
Game 2 • 17 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, 6-8 FGs (Australia 81, Senegal 68)
Game 3 • Two points, five rebounds, eight assists, 0-5 FGs (Australia 87, Lithuania 82)
Game 4 • Two points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals (Australia 82, Dominican Republic 76)