Donovan Mitchell, since the beginning, has sparked the imagination.
Fans imagined: After scoring 37 points and getting eight steals in one game in his first summer league, what could he do in the NBA? And they pictured: After scoring 41 points and leading a comeback in his 23rd NBA game, what could he do in the prime of his career? And yes, they dreamed: If he led a playoff upset in his first-ever playoff series, tearing up the experienced Thunder, what could he do in future playoff battles, when, not if, he became one of the league’s best?
Could he get the Jazz to the NBA Finals again? Could he do what past heroes didn’t, and, gasp, win it all?
As he enters his third season, whether or not Mitchell’s reality matches his potential becomes more important than ever. It’s possible for the Jazz to win a championship without Mitchell taking a leap; the 2004 Pistons example shines brightly as a team that succeeded at the highest level without an offensive superstar. But if he can, it certainly becomes much more likely that the Jazz get what they all acknowledge the ultimate goal is — a title.
But the truth is that imagination only puts a spotlight on the destination, not the journey. As much as fans — and yes, the 23-year-old himself — have envisioned Mitchell at the peak of the mountaintop, exactly how to build off of that rookie season is a tougher matter.
SB Nation’s Mike Prada shows us one path. In a terrific essay, Prada compared Donovan Mitchell’s plight to that of Derrick Rose in his first two years. Both showed tremendous scoring potential, but both showed a penchant for tough shots near the basket, avoiding contact but avoiding scoring sometimes as well. Mitchell and Rose can make some unbelievable circus layups, but circus attempts aren’t the basis of efficient offense.
In his third year, though, Rose won MVP of the league. How? By becoming a “killer all the time,” in his words. He shot more 3-pointers. He increased the amount of time he drove north-south rather than east-west. He got to the free-throw line over 50% more than he did in his previous season. In Prada’s words, “Rose was no more powerful or athletic in 2010-11 as he was in his first two years. He just applied those traits more consistently by cutting out the cute stuff. Rather than use his power to produce fancy moments, he channeled that energy into consistent, punishing pressure on the basket.”
Unfortunately, Rose was unlucky. He tore his ACL in the playoffs, and was never the same. Still, his MVP season provides a blueprint that Mitchell could follow.
Brains, not brawn
That may not be the blueprint he will follow, though. Talking to Mitchell this season, he’s not giving out statements like Rose did before his MVP campaign. He’s not saying things, as Rose did, like "Why can’t I be the best player in the league? I don’t see why not.” He’s not talking about being a killer all of the time. He’s not talking about relentless aggression.
Instead, he’s talking about the opposite approach. When you ask Mitchell about how he’s going to improve, he’s thinking about attacking with his brain, not his brawn. “It’s just being patient, that’s been one of the biggest things that I’ve really started to focus on,” Mitchell said. “Being able to just get into the paint and take my time. ... Being able to slow myself down, I think is the biggest thing — find Rudy [Gobert], find Bojan [Bogdanovic], find Mike [Conley], Royce [O’Neale], Joe [Ingles].”
How do you practice going slow? By going even slower. “In workouts, it’s just going at a certain tempo, you kind of over-exaggerate it,” he said. “So when you get in the game, it feels natural.”
He’s not going slow to score more points himself. He says he’s slowing himself down to become a better passer, to find more shots for his teammates. This approach does make a certain amount of sense, especially given the changes to his team. In last year’s playoff series against Houston, surely frustrated with the inability of his teammates to hit open shots, Mitchell made some bad decisions at the rim and got punished with some ugly shooting and turnover numbers as a result. With Conley and Bogdanovic shooting the ball instead of Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, those open 3-point opportunities are going to be just as efficient as Mitchell drives, if not more so.
There’s also the most efficient shot of all: a Rudy Gobert dunk. Mitchell assisted Gobert just once in last year’s playoffs, and while some of that was because of how the Rockets were guarding the Jazz, Mitchell also thinks he missed his French big man too frequently.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to, I was just going so fast that I just wasn’t seeing him. Opening my game up, slowing down, being able to see him, and making the right play,” Mitchell said. “That’s what I mean by being more efficient, making the right play. It’s not just field goal percentage, it’s everything.”
Mitchell becoming more of a passer has been a trend throughout his young career. In his rookie season, he averaged 3.7 assists per game. Before the All-Star break last year, he bumped up to 4.0 APG, then 4.6 APG after the break. And against international competition in the FIBA World Cup, he averaged 5.0 APG in just 27 minutes of play per game. It may not be a leap, but it’s steady improvement.
A do-it-all star
Is going in on smash-mouth basketball or outwitting your opponent the better path? It’s a good question.
Mitchell is an incredibly unique player. He’s the only 6-foot-5 or under player this millennium to score 20 points per game as a rookie, and only the fifth to do so as a sophomore — along with Rose, Dwyane Wade, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving. According to draft measurements, he’s actually the shortest of the five, but plays the most shooting guard. He’s, in many ways, unlike any player seen in recent memory. That’s a good thing, but it means a blueprint escapes us.
There have been scorers of Mitchell’s ilk that have gone from good to elite in large part by committing to an attacking approach: Rose, Russell Westbrook and even Allen Iverson come to mind. It’s harder to come up with guards who have taken a leap through more intelligent reads. Chauncey Billups is probably one, but he never scored 20 points per game in his career — while Mitchell’s done it twice already. Wade, maybe the player Mitchell is compared to most frequently, took an intelligence leap at the same time he attacked every big man in existence; he nearly doubled his free-throw rate from his rookie to sophomore breakout season.
But it’s also a different NBA than ever before. In Rose’s years, teams weren’t quite as committed to drop-big, rim-protection defense as they are today, and maybe his approach would have been less effective. It’s hard to know how Iverson would have fared today, but Westbrook’s attack-at-all-costs mentality has proved to have real downsides. You can win MVPs that way, but those guards haven’t had success deep in the playoffs, either — that is, unless you consider Wade, who figured out how to attack and playmake brilliantly and defend, all at once.
So what does a Mitchell “leap” year look like, realistically? It probably doesn’t mean 30 points per game. It could mean more intelligent shots, more passing to open teammates, more playing within the flow of an offense — one with better tools to get him open shots. And with his job made easier on the offensive end, his defensive efforts could improve as well. He’s said defense has been a focus for him this offseason; he may well have the gas in the tank to make it happen.
In other words, he foresees a role change. This season, Mitchell hopes to graduate from lead scorer to all-around, do-it-all star.
If he pulls it off? Well, imagine that.