Nobody in Utah needed DeMarcus Cousins to say the Jazz had a star on their hands.
Fans knew before LeBron James had an aside with him postgame, and they knew before Carmelo Anthony said that “something special” was happening in Utah.
Donovan Mitchell, the center of their attention, has a way of announcing his own potential, from his highlight-reel dunks, which happen at least once a game, to flexing his scoring muscle for 41 points against the Pelicans earlier this season. No one needs NBA superstars to state what already is obvious to many fans, but it sure adds confidence to that assertion.
But what they also talk about isn’t Mitchell’s skills or gifts. They mention something else they seem to envy: freedom.
“When you get the green light, you got confidence,” Kevin Durant said before Wednesday’s game. “You can kinda make mistakes from the fly. It makes for a better player as the season goes on. You see him getting better and better each month because he’s out there, he’s playing without looking over his shoulder, man.”
Initial questions about Mitchell’s heavy use as a rookie — does anyone remember those ugly first five games? — basically have been resolved by Mitchell. He’s scored more points than any other rookie (607), and has more assists than anyone among rookies except Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball. His scoring load (9.3 to 22.6 ppg) and shooting percentage (38.2 to 56.6 eFG percentage) from October to December both rose.
But it’s not a total upward curve. Mitchell also has had a net rating switch from positive (plus-8.2) to negative (minus-6.7). His turnovers are up and his assist ratios are down this month. As he becomes more of a focal point, teams move him up the scouting report and more NBA stars try to test him on defense, some of his numbers have taken — and will continue to take — a hit.
Cavs at Jazz
When • Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
And that’s fine with the Jazz as long as he’s learning. A smile eased over coach Quin Snyder’s face after the coach heard a quote from Mitchell about how important studying the scouting report has become to him.
“That’s something that I’m glad he’s recognizing,” he said. “There’s a difference between being reported on personnel who you are versus a game plan, which is more what you do. It’s his credit that he’s transitioned into that as far as people prepare for that.”
The Jazz system hinges on its players taking open shots. As arguably Utah’s most dynamic shot-creator, Mitchell takes a lot of them. His 15.4 attempts per game are the highest among the Jazz, rivaled only by Rodney Hood’s 15 shots per game. Ricky Rubio is the next-closest player with 10.
But the quality of those shots has gotten better. He’s improved shooting around the rim. He would attack the lane without a specific plan to finish in mind during his first month with the Jazz. It’s something that worked in college. Mitchell has been working with assistant Johnnie Bryant on staying balanced and now is shooting .483 on 2-point attempts for the season, which is better than any Jazz player under 6 foot 7.
Snyder said he gives Mitchell “homework assignments,” and he always appreciates seeing him sitting with Bryant reviewing film. The Jazz give him things to look at. It’s his job to improve.
“There’s a lot still I have to learn,” Mitchell said, but I’m comfortable with it.”
How rare is it that a rookie gets as long a leash as Mitchell? As rare as it is for a rookie to arrive as one of the team’s best players.
Jazz forward Joe Johnson was a rookie in Boston in 2002 when he was traded to the Suns for two role players. He eventually found a better role waiting in Phoenix and would go on to become a seven-time All-Star, but it took time — a lot of it.
“It’s understood from a rookie, that [Mitchell is] going to make mistakes but learn on the fly,” he said. “I didn’t have that type of freedom. I wouldn’t really know nothing about it. But I just played as hard as I could.”
What also might give the Jazz some confidence in Mitchell is who they have around him. Players like Johnson, who was one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers for years. Thabo Sefolosha, who often can be spotted giving Mitchell defensive insight from the bench during timeouts. Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio, who can review with him his passing decisions — what he did well and what he missed.
Snyder also has noticed Mitchell’s postgame discussions with LeBron, Russell Westbrook and many others. While he tries not to read too much into it, he views it as the NBA’s biggest stars embracing Mitchell’s charisma, which is also a huge presence in the Jazz locker room.
“It’s a credit to him,” Snyder said. “They see some of the things in him that we see in him, and they recognize it.”
The Jazz have a lot invested in giving Mitchell the level of freedom he enjoys on the court, but so does Mitchell. As he tries to transition from a rookie sensation to a more grounded, mindful NBA player who can have consistent success, nobody wants it to work out more than he does.
“It’s been definitely tougher, but that’s a part of the NBA process,” he said. “They’re going to see me hopefully, God willing, many years to come. I just gotta keep adjusting and keep getting better.”
PATH TO IMPROVEMENT
Some of the areas in which Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell has seen improvement since the season began, comparing his October numbers to his December numbers:
Scoring • 9.3 ppg to 22.6 ppg
Assists • 2.4 apg to 3.6 apg
Steals • 1.1 spg to 1.7 spg
FG percentage • 38.2 percent to 56.6 percent
True shooting • 40.9 percent to 60.2 percent