Vision and Pace Could Take Spida’s Passing to the Next Level

October 30th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

Donovan Mitchell is already lauded for his scoring, athleticism, and personality. Might his passing join that list of celebrated virtues this season? (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

I have a sneaking suspicion that Donovan Mitchell will average five assists a game this season.

It isn’t easy to rack up high numbers of assists in Quin Snyder’s egalitarian offense. This isn’t a Mike D’Antoni system here, a.k.a., get the ball to Steve Nash, James Harden or even Jeremy Lin and send him a screen as everyone else spaces the floor. If that doesn’t work let him iso, now let’s put that on an infinite loop. 

When Snyder’s offense is humming, everyone is a passer, and a cutter, and a screener, and a shooter. Even a primary possession user like Mitchell can go long swaths of games working off-ball so as to give players like Ricky Rubio or Joe Ingles advantages as they initiate offensive sets. 

Because of this, Utah’s leading assist players last season only averaged 5.3 (Rubio) and 4.8 (Ingles) respectively. 

So why am I so confident Mitchell, who is a scorer at heart, will reach five assists per contest in an offense designed to spread the wealth? 

Mitchell is the only Jazz player with the LeBron skip pass

Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, production. And the Jazz offense needs to punish defenses with skip passes to the weak side corner.

It’s LeBron James’s patented pass that maximizes the spacing created by the plethora of shooters he always insists upon1. Given his height, strength, and passing precision, James has used the skip to force defenses into an answerless problem: how to fortify the lane against the freight train that is King James while not giving up open threes to shooters hunting just those shots, especially in the corner.

The Jazz crave those shots as much as every other team in the league, maybe more. They named the spot Happy Valley for Ingles after all.

Utah’s two primary ball distributors last season, Rubio and Ingles, don’t really have that pass in their respective bags of tricks. They’re far more likely to penetrate deeper into the lane, to use finesse and feel and, well, not speed to sucker defenders deeper into the paint and then try to make the pass at the last moment. 

The problem is teams are anticipating those passes, which is feeding into Utah’s turnover problems early this season. 

As good as Rubio and Ingles are as passers, they have some common limitations: neither are fast or quick by NBA standards; they don’t frighten a defense with their ability to apply constant pressure on the rim (which forces weak-side defenders to dip toes into the paint); and neither has a cannon of an arm, and believe me, it takes strength to whip off those one-handed skip bullets LeBron’s become famous for.  

Mitchell ticks all these boxes. He was a standout pitcher in high school for crying out loud, which is obvious given the zing he gets on this dart despite being in the air and off balance.

Mitchell puts more pressure on the rim than any other Jazz ball handler. Defenses build help schemes with the express purpose of trying to keep him from finishing around the hoop. That comes at a cost to tight coverage on Jazz shooters.

Mitchell’s ability to skip the ball to the very corners, quickly and with accuracy, offers help defenders the same devil’s bargain LeBron has presented over the years: give up open threes or leave a teammate to be eaten alive on a constant assault on the front of the rim.

Mitchell is a really gifted passer

While he may not always make the right decision with the ball — something that comes of being a 22-year-old combo guard figuring out how to be a full fledged superstar — it’s rarely because he doesn’t see something important. 

Take this beauty (yup, another skip pass).

Not only does Mitchell make this pass after a quick spin (which is not easy), he isn’t bailing himself out by throwing to a spot. He clearly focuses on Ingles, who has slid into the corner following Derrick Favors’ slide toward the elbow, as soon as he completes his rotation. He knows where his teammates will be and delivers a spot-on pass. 

Mitchell has good awareness and vision, but he also has a delicate touch to draw upon when needed. This oop to Favors is so soft serve it’s creamy.

Ingles won’t be catching teams by surprise this season

Through his first four seasons in Utah, Ingles’ career high for assists in a game was eight, which he’d reached a single time.

He matched or exceeded that 14 times last year. For long stretches of the season, particularly when Rubio struggled or was injured, Ingles became the default orchestrator of Utah’s offense. He proved far more adept at it than anyone anticipated, perhaps even the Jazz coaching staff.

This season, teams are prepared for Ingles to initiate offense out of the pick and roll. They aren’t falling as readily for his coy tricks and artful meanders to the basket, which last season drew defenders out of position, allowing Ingles to get shots for himself or teammates. Now, they’re moving at his pace, hedging against late passes and odd angle shots at the rim.

The result is the Aussie is coughing up nearly a full turnover more per game than at any previous point in his career while his assists are down from last season. 

Mitchell already has a slightly higher assist percentage than Ingles, despite being in a weird chuck-it-if-I-touch-it mode in the first two games of the season. By year’s end, expect him to supplant Ingles as the team’s second-leading assist man2.

More opportunities for assists

Finally, there simply may be more shots going up this year than in the past, which means more opportunities for assists. 

The Jazz have become the league’s poster franchise for plodding up and down the court. Last season they ranked 25th in a league of 30 teams in pace, which was, believe it or not, a high gear. They ranked dead last the previous three years.

Thus far this season, Utah is ranked 16th in pace. That’s about as average as possible, and for the Jazz average is blazing fast.

If they continue their current pace of 102.83 possessions per game, that would mean nearly six more possessions a contest than last year. Expect Mitchell to use at least one of those extra chances per game.

Add it all together and I think we’ll see Mitchell come into his own as a distributor much like he did last year as a scorer. 

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *