You likely don’t need us to remind you, but here goes anyway: Donovan Mitchell had an absolutely phenomenal rookie campaign.
The opening salvos of the Louisville product’s career were breathtakingly explosive, with Mitchell showing serious bounce off the dribble, exceptional three-point touch and an ability to carry his team, the Utah Jazz, late in tight games. He averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.4 triples nightly, helping lead Utah to a 48-win regular season and the second round of the playoffs.
Mitchell’s play was so eye-popping, as a matter of fact, that we have to go back 14 years to find the last rookie 2-guard to make a similar first-year impact – and that was a future Hall-of-Famer in Dwyane Wade.
According to NBA Math’s Total Points Added metric, here’s how the two explosive ball-handlers paced in comparison to each other after their respective Year-1s:
Over their respective first seasons, Wade and Mitchell had nearly identical TPA scores (50.7 for the Heat staple versus 57.9 for the 22-year-old Jazz star), as exemplified by the graph. Where the blue line stops and the black line shows an increase, that’s Wade’s second-season jump in TPA.
That’s because after his first year, the Miami Heat legend made what’s known as the superstar leap. The 2004-05 version of Wade became an utter two-way force, averaging 24.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest while shooting 47.8 percent from the floor, and 76.2 percent on nearly 10 nightly free-throw attempts. He garnered All-Star and 2nd Team All-NBA honors for his contributions, and if not for a costly rib injury during the Eastern Conference Finals against the reigning champion Detroit Pistons, there’s a good chance Wade would have led Miami to the Finals as a sophomore, too. (Prior to the injury, the three-time champion was unstoppable in the postseason, putting up 29.1 points and dishing out 7.1 assists nightly over 12 outings.)
Simply put, Wade went from a promising prospect in his first year to a bonafide star in his second. So what we want to know is: Can Mitchell take a similar leap in 2018-19?
There’s reason to believe he may, but, of course, that means there are a few things the Jazz guard has to work on this offseason.
For starters, Mitchell’s playmaking needs to improve. Among the 25 players who ran at least 800 pick-and-roll possessions last season as the ball-handler (including plays that ended in passes), Mitchell ranked fourth-worst in efficiency according to Synergy Sports, producing a mediocre 0.909 points per possession (PPP) on such looks. Part of the issue is that Mitchell had a tendency to get tunnel vision with the rock in his hands; if he had the ball, especially as the shot clock became an issue, his first, second and third instinct was to try and score. It’s a commendable weakness, truth be told, as it shows Mitchell’s unabashed want to be the guy for Utah, but it’s a deficiency nonetheless – one he needs to start to remove from his game if he wants to take the next step.
The following clips show it probably won’t be too difficult of a fix for Mitchell to make, since they’re simple dishes he’s just not seeing:
Pick-and-rolls aside, Mitchell’s tunnel vision also displayed itself on plays where he drove the basketball. Among players with at least 500 drives last year, Mitchell’s pass rate – 26.3 percent – was 10th lowest, trailing the likes of Kent Bazemore and Jonathon Simmons, two defense-first wings who aren’t exactly known for the distribution skills.
Again, they’re not the most complicated, Magic Johnson-level passes Mitchell isn’t seeing. More like, his mindset once he gets a full head of steam requires a slight adjustment:
Good players get buckets; great ones do so while using the threat of shrewd-yet-simple passes to keep defenses off-kilter whenever they have the ball. It’s the latter archetype Mitchell has to blossom into to truly turn the corner.
As far as his bucket-getting prowess goes, there are a few areas Mitchell needs refinement as well. He was a decent finisher around the basket as a rookie, converting 61.7 percent of his paint chances, a higher rate than Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook. That was part of the reason Mitchell was able to surprise so many as a first-year player. Coming into the league, there was concern about his finishing ability because, as a prospect, he showed a propensity to take off of two feet rather than one when going up for layups and dunks, a death sentence for guards trying to score over the trees down low. He managed to correct that and thus, became a 20-plus-point-per-game scorer as a rookie.
However, his finishing still needs to get better from another spot on the floor: the non-restricted paint area. Only 31 players attempted at least 200 shots from that location, including Mitchell, and 22 shot a better rate from there than the young Jazz star’s 39 percent. Too often, Mitchell would drive the ball and take off just a click too soon, making many of his scoring attempts exponentially more difficult than they had to be.
Just observe the two clips here:
There’s a blatant difference between the first example – where Mitchell put his head down, drove it, picked the ball and took off at the appropriate time, culminating in a simple lefty layup through light traffic – and the second – where he rushed his finish and ended up bricking an ugly floater. Two more steps in the latter clip and he would have had a far easier finish because the only guy in his way, Salah Mejri, was already backing up to defend against the threat of a Rudy Gobert lob.
It would help if Mitchell, who shot under 34 percent on floaters last year, according to NBA Savant, bettered his touch from outside the restricted area, but more than that, it’s really about him pulling up from the floater area as infrequently as possible, and instead, attacking the basket with cutthroat aplomb. That would even help him improve another part of his game – his foul-drawing capacity – in the process. Mitchell attempted merely 3.8 free throws nightly as a rookie, with a 21.8 percent free-throw rate – a lower clip than ball-handlers like Shelvin Mack (23.4) and Raul Neto (23.2), who aren’t exactly known for their ferocity as rim-attackers. Mitchell, an excellent 80.5 percent shooter from the charity stripe, needs to get to the line more often for his efficiency to see an uptick.
Of course, there are ways in which the Jazz can help Mitchell, as well.
For one, according to Synergy, Mitchell had the 11th-most field-goal attempts (197) in short shot clock situations (under four seconds) league-wide, which undoubtedly had an adverse effect on his effectiveness since those types of shots have such a low success rate for anyone, let alone young contributors. That stat would also help explain how Mitchell shot 34 percent from three for the season, a below-league-average mark, despite ranking in the 96th percentile as a spot-up shooter. On looks with his feet set, the former Cardinal was downright deadly; but when forced to throw up off-the-dribble heaves from beyond the arc with the shot clock set to expire, his accuracy and efficiency plummeted, pulling down his percentages across the board.
As the only true perimeter scorer on Utah’s roster, at least with Alec Burks in and out of the lineup due to injury, it made sense why Mitchell had to take the brunt of those types of shots. But now with a healthy Burks, as well as a returning Dante Exum, the Jazz may be able to afford splitting up those late-clock looks, thus taking some of the load off of Mitchell.
All in all, as if the 2017-18 regular season wasn’t enough, Mitchell proved how special he is in last season’s playoffs, where he put up a ridiculous 24.4/5.9/4.2 stat-line over 11 contests against elite competition.
But with improved playmaking, foul-drawing aptitude and overall shot selection, Mitchell could take a massive leap in 2018-19, and make a real push at All-Star and maybe even All-NBA honors along the way.
He’s that abundantly talented, both in a tangible and intangible respect.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.