Combine Mike Conley’s on-court struggles with the fact that the Jazz continue to win with Mitchell at point guard while he’s out with a hamstring injury, and one thing becomes abundantly clear — it’s time for Mitchell to start at point guard.
Donovan Mitchell as the Utah Jazz’s permanent point guard?
It’s not so far-fetched, really …
When it comes to point guards, Jazz fans have high standards — and rightfully so. Coming out of Gonzaga in the 1984 NBA draft, the Jazz selected John Stockton with the 16th overall pick in the first round. Nineteen NBA seasons later, Stockton would find himself atop the list of all-time NBA assist leaders with 15,806 of ‘em — Jason Kidd is in second 3,715 assists behind him.
To date, the first active NBA player you’ll find on the list is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chris Paul in seventh position with 9,389 assists — and counting, of course. Back in February of 2019, after dishing out 11 assists as part of the Houston Rockets against the Dallas Mavericks, Paul passed Mookie Blaylock on the all-time assist leaderboard to then occupy the eighth position.
“I don’t like saying never, but ain’t nobody catching that. I don’t know who the statisticians were, who used to do the stats in Utah, but ain’t nobody catching that.”
So yes, you could say that Stockton’s set a high bar (or short shorts) for point guards in Salt Lake City.
That said, if ever there was a player to come along who could — in his own unique way, of course — give Jazz fans something new and exciting about the point guard position, it’d be Mitchell. The strangest part of all of this, though? Nothing about Mitchell says “point guard.”
Coming out of Louisville, Mitchell’s draft profile listed him as a shooting guard. Teams scouted him as a shooting guard. Dennis Lindsey drafted him as a shooting guard. Furthermore, following suit, the likes of all-knowing NBA tools such as ESPN, CBS Sports and Basketball-Reference all have clearly branded him as a “shooting guard.”
The problem with slapping this kind of label on Mitchell’s forehead, however, is a failure to take into account the changing nature of the NBA. Well-documented is the fact that today’s NBA is a “positionless” league. Though an outlier, LeBron James can play (and defend) all five positions. Centers are no longer true big men; instead, they’re expected to step out and knock down threes.
The point guard position is no different.
The league’s best point guards aren’t as much play-facilitators as they are playmakers. Think about it — All-Star-caliber point guards like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook are score-first point guards.
In fact, during the 2018-2019 season, each of the aforementioned point guards finished the regular season comfortably as a top-20 scorer in the league. Westbrook had the lowest scoring average, still managing to nab an average of 22.9 points per game.
And while your grandfather’s “stock,” pass-first point guards still exist in today’s NBA, they’re certainly not seen as a hot commodity amongst general managers — everyone’s looking at you, Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball.
Jokes aside, take Ricky Rubio, the Jazz’s point guard of yesteryear, for instance. In spite of great hair, a thick beard and averaging his career’s third-best scoring average at 12.7 points per game in his final season with the Jazz, he was a simple, no-brainer swap for Mike Conley this past off-season at just over 21 points per game during the 2018-2019 campaign.
Speaking of Conley, he plays a key role in the argument for Mitchell as the Jazz’s new starting point guard. While Mitchell continues to make a push for his first All-Star appearance with career highs in points (25.2), assists (4.2) and rebounds (4.6), not only is Conley averaging the third-worst plus-minus of his career at -1.5, he’s missed 11 of the Jazz’s 33 regular season games.
Here’s the real kicker, though …
During the 11 games he’s missed, the Jazz are 8-3 with Mitchell starting at point guard in all 11 contests. Player stats, advanced analytics and “smart guy” NBA takes aside, the bottom line is this: when Mitchell takes over at point for the Jazz, they win basketball games.
The time has come for Mitchell to permanently take over as the Jazz’s starting point guard. What should happen when Conley returns from injury, you ask? That’s a (tough) conversation for another day. In the meantime, however, as long as Mitchell continues to start at the one, the Jazz will keep winning basketball games.
Step aside, Stockton — there’s a new point guard in the Beehive State.