Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is already an elite player, but a couple tweaks to his offensive game could make him better for longer
Everyone already knew this coming into the season. Donovan Mitchell is an NBA star at age 23. He is the clear-cut top scoring option for a playoff team, averaging 24.7 points per game on 43 percent shooting from the field. The last time a Utah Jazz player scored that much was 20 years ago, when Karl Malone averaged 25.5 points per game.
Mitchell is good enough to create his own shot in a pinch, rather than relying on an entire offensive system to manufacture looks. His extra athleticism and 6-foot-10 wingspan help in all other areas of the game, giving him the ability to make some impressive double-clutch shots and finish lobs with a one-handed tomahawk slam.
Mitchell came out of the gates hot this season, scoring at will on opponents. His strong finish to the FIBA world cup carried over into the regular season, and he was checking off every box he was supposed to improve on from his first two years, namely:
- scoring more efficiently (near 50/40/90 territory)
- playing better defense
- playing a more well-rounded game
The offseason additions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley were made with the hope to take pressure off of Mitchell, so he could be more efficient and focus on defense. But with the overall team offense struggling as a whole, the Jazz have had to rely on Mitchell more than ever. His usage percentage and minutes per game at a career high, and despite the increased volume his turnover rate is better and his shooting efficiency hasn’t suffered. Not yet at least.
If you exclude his hot start to the season, Mitchell has shot 40 percent from the field, and his overall +/- in that stretch is a -4.3. Thanks to his hot start to the season, this recent cold stretch hasn’t bogged down his efficiency compared to his rookie and sophomore years. His field goal percentage is right in line with last year’s despite the uptick in usage and shot attempts.
What is the cause for Mitchell’s season being a tale of two halves thus far? Part of it can be attributed to the longest road trip of the season, and part of it can be attributed to shooters going through hot and cold streaks. It happens all the time.
But what I’m proposing is that Mitchell’s scoring breakout of the first ten games was never sustainable in the first place. He was taking far too many mid range and long two-point shots, but nobody seemed to care as long as they were going in.
Well, now they have stopped going in as frequently, and the Utah Jazz season is inching closer towards its breaking point. It is time for Donovan Mitchell to adapt to the modern NBA.
James Harden is putting up ridiculously good numbers this year, and he does it by avoiding those low-percentage shots. His shot-selection chart shows that he either takes a three, or drives to the rim for the bucket or foul. It is terrible to watch how iso-heavy the Rockets’ offense is, and I personally don’t like how easy it is for the superstars to draw fouls in the modern NBA.
But you can’t deny that Harden is one of the all-time greats at his craft. He along with the Rockets organization have cracked the code for ultra efficient offense, namely getting to the rim, shooting and making three pointers, and getting to the charity stripe.
As for Mitchell, here are some numbers on his shot selection:
His free throw rate is nearly identical to last season’s, and his three point attempt rate is down from 40 percent his rookie year to just 30 percent this season. He takes 52.1 percent of his shots from the mid range (3 feet away from basket to the three point line). Ben Dowsett of the Forbes magazine pointed out that Mitchell is one of the league leaders for floaters attempted this season, and explained how that his hurting the Jazz offense.
Here’s how Mitchell compares to other scoring combo guards across the league:
DeMar DeRozan: 71 percent mid range attempts, .517 eFG%
Donovan Mitchell: 52.1 percent mid range attempts, .492 eFG%
CJ McCollum: 48.9 percent mid range attempts, .518 eFG%
Bradley Beal: 39.3 percent mid range attempts, .523 eFG%
Devin Booker: 37.3 percent mid range attempts, .574 eFG%
Zach LaVine: 34.9 percent mid range attempts, .523 eFG%
James Harden: 20.3 percent mid range attempts, 53.7 percent eFG%
Of all the combo guards on that list, DM has the lowest effective field goal percentage at 49.2 percent. This number has to go up if Mitchell wants to be considered one of the best guards in the league. Leading your team in scoring by way of mid range buckets is comparable to drawing water from a drying up well. It will work for a while, but opposing defenses will learn to keep letting him shoot those while cutting off his passing options, and here’s why:
Even when Mitchell is hitting those shots, the defense would rather allow that than three pointers, free throws (Mitchell is a career 80 percent free throw shooter), or a dunk that swings the momentum of the game.
When he hits cold spells, his mid range bread and butter won’t score a fraction of the points per possession as James Harden’s attack. Even though Harden shot 11 for 38 from the floor on Monday night, he still got to 50 points thanks to his parade to the free throw line.
Furthermore the mid range game milks too much time out of the shot clock, and when Mitchell gets trapped, too many times the only alternative is for him to try dump it off to one of his teammates without turning the ball over. Even when he gets the pass off, that means someone has to shoot a contested look with the shot clock winding down.
An example of a player that revolutionized his offensive game is Andrew Wiggins. In 2017-18, his scoring average nosedived almost six points per game from the previous season, and he wasn’t too skilled at anything else to contribute on the court. He signed a max contract extension preceding that awful season, and quickly fell out of favor with Timberwolves fans for being a minus whenever he was on the court.
This season, Wiggins has redeemed himself, scoring 24.9 points per game (a career high), and the Wolves are in the thick of the playoff conversation right now (I previously had the Wolves pegged to finish 12th in the west). What made the big difference?
The Maple Jordan has taken 41.1 percent of his shots from mid range, as opposed to the 51.1 percent he took in 2017-18. Although his free throw attempt rate is down from last season, his three point shot is falling more consistently while jacking up six treys a game.
The good news for Mitchell is that he is averaging a career high in PER (player efficiency rating). If you don’t know what that is, it’s basically a stat that takes into account a player’s all around game, portraying how efficient (or inefficient) that player is for winning basketball. It is so much more than just shooting efficiency.
In other words, Mitchell is finding ways to be effective other than scoring. He’s getting his fingerprints all over the game, and has the third highest PER on list of combo guards above. It seems like his time spent on Team USA around Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr is paying off. Imagine how good Mitchell can be if he adds a modernized scoring attack to his already well-rounded game.
If Mitchell continues to play the way he has, he will be an All-Star player someday. He’s been fabulous on and off the court from his rookie year, and Adam Silver even went as far as calling him a “commissioner’s dream” in October. But if Mitchell chooses to adapt his game more to the modern NBA, he can be more than just an all-star. He can be the best shooting guard in the NBA.
*All stats are a courtesy of basketball-reference.com