Gordon Monson: Donovan Mitchell set 3 goals for himself before the season. Now he’s realizing them.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell dribbles the basketball against the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)
Before this season started, if anybody can remember anything that happened that far back in what seems like an entirely different existence, Donovan Mitchell said there were three “biggest things” he had worked on and wanted to accomplish in his individual game.
The first was seeing the floor better.
The second was becoming more efficient.
The third was getting to the free-throw line more often.
In the initial games of the Jazz’s playoff series with the Nuggets, the effects of those goals, that work are plain to see.
He is shooting 62 percent overall, and 54 percent from deep, and has shot and made 17 free throws, having scored 87 points. And he has 15 assists.
Over Mitchell’s first two seasons, it became apparent the kid could score. He could maneuver and twist and spin and contort his body for open looks in uncommon ways and jet to the rim for dunks that made you understand he had extra spring in those thumper-sized feet.
He got the looks and he took the shots in volume, averaging a field-goal percentage of 43 each season. He just didn’t make them quite often enough to satisfy himself or his team.
As for the court vision, there were too many instances when Mitchell was preoccupied with arranging space and opportunity for his own business. Hard to blame him, considering so many of the Jazz’s other offensive options were … unreliable.
High-end opponents took note of each of those facts — see the Houston Rockets in playoffs past — and threw interference all around him, committing additional resources to fouling up his intentions. That further exacerbated his deficiencies.
Thus, the goals and the work.
This time around, over the regular season, strange though it was, Mitchell edged his scoring up, alongside his efficiency averages (45 percent, 37 from 3) and his assists (4.3). He also got fouled more frequently, forcing that contact, heading to the line for 322 attempts.
But what he’s done against the Nuggets in the playoffs, in what a player as intelligent as Mitchell knows is by far the most significant time for any sort of advancement, has elevated those numbers in a manner that transforms edging to straight bumping.
Not only has he scored 57 and 30 points in games 1 and 2, he’s made 29 of 47 shots, 12 of 22 from behind the arc.
And in an authentic sign of maturity — Mitchell is still only 23 years old — after taking 33 shots, and throwing up more attempts in which he was fouled, in the first game, rocking the bubble with the third-highest playoff scoring total in NBA history
, he came out on Wednesday and settled in by allowing and creating space for this teammates to score. Which is to say, he looked for and saw the floor, passing out eight assists.
He scored just six points in the first half and in total took a mere 14 shots.
“The biggest thing for me is reading the situation,” he said afterward. “… My first few years, I kind of saw the rim, being a scorer. I’ve prided myself over quarantine in becoming a playmaker, finding ways to get the team involved.”
Said Quin Snyder: “Donovan was patient early and he made the right plays,” adding that Mitchell is cerebral in his approach, recognizing what his team needs and when it needs it.
In the third quarter, for instance, Mitchell sensed an opportunity to blow a 13-point lead to a greater margin, and proceeded to put up in excess of 20 points in the period, and in doing so sparked the Jazz to a 43-point quarter, a record for the club.
That ability and awareness not only to sense what is necessary, but to impose it is what’s emerging in Mitchell’s arsenal. It’s clear in no just his performances, but also his bearing on the floor, in the huddle, in the locker room, in the postgame.
It’s the reward for an individual who set some goals and worked to earn them. Moving forward, what hangs in the air like a Spalding spinning toward the basket, is how accurate that assessment, how lasting that reward will be.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.