Donovan Mitchell Answers Utah’s Need for Scoring, Star Power

December 6th, 2017 | by Andrew John

Andrew D. Bernstein via utahjazz.com

As soon as Gordon Hayward announced on July 4 that he was taking his 22 points a game to the Boston Celtics, the Utah Jazz’s biggest question became how the team would score without its top scorer since 2011. How would Utah replace a shot creator and 40 percent 3-point shooter who could close out games, all while trying to remain relevant in the rugged Western Conference?

Well, Utah has been without Hayward for less than 25 games, and the answer to that question already appears quite clear.

In Donovan Mitchell’s latest effort, the rookie scored 31 as Utah’s six-game win streak ended in a close loss at Oklahoma City. That performance came a night after dropping 21 points in just 26 minutes during the third-largest blowout victory in Jazz history, a 116-69 victory over the Wizards. In all, Mitchell is averaging 23.0 points on 49 percent shooting, including 47 percent from 3, during Utah’s recent 6-1 stretch.

The Wizards were without All-Star guard John Wall, who is nursing a sore left knee. Not that his presence would have closed the gap on a 47-point margin. The Jazz outscored opponents by 24 points a game during their win streak (115.5 to 91.5), and have scored at least 110 in each of the games, while allowed 80 or fewer three times.

Oh, and four of the six wins have come against teams who at the time had a winning record.

Part of that success must be attributed to Quin Snyder and his ability to find rotations that have worked as the Jazz have been ravaged by injuries. Credit also must go to general manager Dennis Lindsey, who built considerable roster depth last summer in the wake of Hayward’s departure.

Also give credit to veteran guard Alec Burks, who has scored 19.5 points a game on 58 percent shooting off the bench during the streak, and Jonas Jerebko, who filled in admirably in Rudy Gobert’s absence.

But Mitchell’s immense growth as a player in such a short time may be the biggest reason for such an impressive Jazz surge.

Last Friday, Mitchell became the first rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to drop 40-plus in a game, and just the third player since 1984 to do it within his first 25 games as a pro. But his influence goes well beyond that one 41-point game.

Mitchell’s absurd athletic ability and his unique feel for the game for a rookie have helped him make quick adjustments to the pro game, and in turn helped the Jazz find easy buckets.

His shooting percentage was just 33 percent in October, as he rotated between the bench and the starting lineup. He averaged fewer than 10 points a game, and shot just 29 percent from 3.

He’s since settled into a starting role, and he appears to be getting more confident and comfortable. He’s started each of the last 13 games, averaging 19.6 points on 46 percent shooting and 41 percent from 3, to go with four assists and nearly four rebounds a game. Even before Monday’s blowout win, the Jazz were four points better with him on the court per 100 possessions.

Utah is fifth in the league in offensive rating since Mitchell began a full-time starter, averaging 112.2 points per 100 possessions. The Jazz had a 109.6 rating with Hayward a year ago.

Defensively, Utah hasn’t dropped off all that much, even as defensive anchor Gobert missed 12 games due to a knee injury. The team is sixth in the league in defensive rating (101), and is third since Mitchell was inserted into the starting lineup on November 10 – mostly without Gobert. The Jazz gave the third-best net rating over that stretch, behind only Golden State and Houston, until Tuesday’s loss bumped them back to fifth.

While it’s easy to look at Mitchell’s soaring 3-point percentage as an indicator of how his offense has become so potent, it’s more than that. He’s getting into the lane much more easily than he was earlier in the season, and finishing at a much higher percentage. He was 36th among all guards in shots at the rim during the month of October, converting at just 42.3 percent. Over the last 10 games, he’s crept into the top 15, at a 54.2 percent conversion rate.

It’s helped create more trips to the free throw line, where Mitchell is an 82.4 percent shooter, and is forcing defenses to collapse to the paint. In those instances, Mitchell has proven to be an adept passer out to the open man, and the Jazz have shot 39 percent from 3 – or third in the league since the start of the season.

Defensively, Mitchell has the physical tools to eventually be elite. He’s not there quite yet, as the Jazz are no better defensively with him on the floor than with him on the bench and, according to ESPN, he’s just 57th among all shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus.

Still, he’s 13th in loose balls retrieved and 13th in contested shots, and his energy, long arms and 6-foot-10 wingspan make him a versatile perimeter stopper who can guard players much bigger than his 6-foot-3 frame.

The real difference he’s making right now is offensively. He’s on pace to become just the seventh rookie in league history to average at least 28 points, five rebounds and five assists per 100 possessions, and the first since Kyrie Irving in 2011-12.

And it’s not merely because he’s getting minutes and shots that most rookies typically don’t. Mitchell is 25th among all players this season in points per possession, which speaks to his unbelievable efficiency early in his career.

He’s also become Utah’s fourth quarter closer. Though he was on the bench late in Monday’s blowout win, he scored 12 points over the final four minutes Friday to lead a Jazz comeback against the Pelicans, and scored nine over the final eight minutes against Milwaukee on Nov. 25. In Tuesday’s loss, he played the final nine minutes, scoring seven points.

Perhaps no Jazz rookie since Darrell Griffith in 1980-81 has played this big of a role, and that was on a team that won 28 games. Karl Malone averaged nearly 15 and seven as a rookie on a 42-win team in ’85-86, but even the Mailman wasn’t doing things Mitchell is doing on a team that, for now, is far exceeding preseason expectations.

Mitchell isn’t as good as Hayward yet, and his production will be less consistent this year than the Jazz would have had from Hayward had he chosen on July 4 to return to Utah.

But it’s worth noting that the Jazz may already have a long-term replacement for a player that just a few months ago seemed irreplaceable, and instead of having that production on a max-level contract it will be on the rookie scale, allowing the Jazz use cap space generated by Hayward’s departure to piece together a contender around Gobert and Mitchell in their early prime years.

Andrew John

Andrew is a career journalist who write for the Desert Sun in Southern California. His work has also been seen major publications such as the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, as well as prominent basketball sites such as SI's The Cauldron and 16 Wins a Ring.

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