Donovan Mitchell has been a top-10 player in the NBA this season.
He’s still not particularly satisfied.
Okay, some of that is frustration due to what happened at the end of some close games. Memphis was the latest example, where he was raked across the arm in the game’s final two seconds without it being noticed by the referees. A foul called there would have changed things, just as it would have in Sacramento in the Jazz’s one-point loss, and as it would have at home against Milwaukee — though Bojan Bogdanovic’s buzzer-beating three rescued that game.
“It’s the third time this has happened in 12 games at the end of a game and I haven’t gotten a foul call, which is at this point ridiculous,” Mitchell said after the game.
But more than the frustration about the whistle, Mitchell thinks he can be even better than what he’s been so far this season.
“I think I have a lot more to improve on. There’s a lot more to be where I want to be at,” Mitchell said. “I’ve made leaps. But there’s more I can do, for sure.”
That’s pretty remarkable, given how good Mitchell has been this season; there’s no chance that the Jazz would be where they are — in Memphis or the other 11 games — without the contributions of the third-year guard from Louisville. He’s taken an undeniable leap, moving into the top 10 in all-in-one metrics like Win Shares, Value over Replacement Player, 538′s RAPTOR, and others. And he’s done it by scoring more points, now 25.4 per game, up from 23.8 last season, while taking slightly fewer shots on average.
Interestingly, he’s been more efficient while taking more midrange shots. Mitchell has found his home in the midrange, where he’s coming off of Rudy Gobert’s screens and finding himself in acres of space, as teams worry about the roll man. This CleaningTheGlass breakdown shows how Mitchell has changed his shot profile throughout his career, culminating in his taking fully 50% of his shots from midrange so far this season.
Normally, that’d be a bad thing, but Mitchell’s been one of the NBA’s best at making those pull-up shots. He’s hitting 51% of shots between 14 feet and the 3-point line, a Chris Paulian level of success.
Taking those midrange shots has also reduced the number of times Mitchell’s driving into traffic without a plan, and that has drastically reduced his turnovers — save for one game against the Bucks, when he had eight. Eventually, defenses have tried to defend that shot, but that opens up assist opportunities, which he’s also doing at a career high rate. More points, more assists, and fewer turnovers? That’s the dream Mitchell’s achieved.
But he’s also helping on the other side of things, too. Defense is notoriously tricky to measure, but we’re getting closer with the help of player tracking data and more advanced on-court vs. off-court metrics. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR system uses both, and after finding Mitchell at about a net neutral level in his first two seasons, it considers Mitchell an unabashedly positive +3.3 points per 100 possessions on defense this year. That’s second on the Jazz behind Rudy Gobert’s +7.2 mark. He’s been given more challenging assignments, and has been doing well with them.
“I think I made the right steps on the defensive end,” Mitchell said.
He’s also had to get more rebounds, getting 10-15% more than he did last season. That may be due to the departure of Derrick Favors — there are just more rebounds to be had without Favors vacuuming them up — but he’s helping to fill that void that the Jazz need filled.
Maybe that’s what’s most surprising about Mitchell’s season so far: the amount his team has had to rely on him despite changes to the roster. With Mitchell in the game, the Jazz’s offense is fine: 105.2 points per 100 possessions. Without him, though, it completely craters: 95.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s even as Quin Snyder has staggered Mitchell’s minutes, playing nearly 12 minutes per game with Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay’s bench units.
Those minutes help explain why Mitchell’s usage is still as high as it is: at a 31.1% usage, he’s 12th in the league, even above LeBron James. The arrival of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic hasn’t been the solution to the Jazz’s reliance on Mitchell yet, not during the 12 games we’ve seen so far. The Jazz rank just 25th offensively, a step back from the league-average numbers they’ve put up over the past two seasons under Snyder.
And yet: they’re on a 55-win pace, having faced a relatively difficult schedule so far. If they can get better without Mitchell on the court, it’s easy to imagine improvement. If Mitchell can get better, as he says he can? That’s rarefied air, both for the Jazz and their budding superstar.
TIMBERWOLVES AT JAZZ
When • Monday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN