Has Donovan Mitchell stagnated?

Donovan Mitchell burst onto the NBA scene as a sprightly 20-year-old rookie with the Utah Jazz. However, his extraordinarily fluid transition from collegiate ranks to the pros was largely unforeseen. Mitchell drew ire from scouts and analysts alike for his irksome tendency to settle for inefficient, archaic mid-range jumpers as a Louisville Cardinal. Also, standing at just 6’1″, there were concerns that Donovan’s measurables may inhibit him from impacting the game as a two-guard (his natural position). As a result of the skepticism regarding Mitchell’s potential, he was selected 13th overall in 2017. As we all know, though, the Connecticut native proceeded to decisively prove the cynics wrong during his maiden season in Utah.

A rookie Mitchell led the 2017-18 Jazz in scoring with 20.5 points per game and did so on solid efficiency for a newbie. Serving as the primary scoring option with an exceedingly high usage rate (89th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass), Mitchell shot 43.7 percent from the field and 34 percent from deep. To boot, the dynamic rook finished in the 62nd percentile among combo guards in points per shot attempt. For comparison, this ranking eclipsed that of then Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan.

Mitchell’s rookie campaign was statistically one of the greatest in modern NBA history— but his impact went deeper than the stat sheet. The Jazz were winning, and without their franchise cornerstone Gordon Hayward no less, who departed in free agency during the summer of 2017. Mitchell salvaged what was inititally anticipated to be a humdrum, insignificant season in Utah.

The green and blue won 47 games, which placed them as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder were awaiting Utah in the opening round. Donovan balled out, though, and willed his team to victory, as the Jazz came out on top in the series 4-2. Mitchell compiled 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game on 46.2/36.4/92 shooting splits in the first playoff series of his career. Utah ended up bowing out to the Houston Rockets soon after, but the season was a colossal success regardless.

Fast forward to the present, and the jury is out on whether Mitchell’s gotten noticeably better since his spectacular rookie stint. In fact, some have gone far enough to say that he has stagnated (hence the title of this article). Does this claim have some merit to it, or is it simply hogwash? Well, in order to figure out the answer, let’s delve into Mitchell’s performance on both ends of the court this season.

Defense

Believe it or not, Mitchell was lauded as a physical, multi-faceted defender at Louisville. After all, he came up with 2.1 steals and 0.5 blocks on a nightly basis during his second and final year with the Cardinals. For his impact as an on-ball irritant, Donovan was named to the ACC All-Defensive Team as a sophomore.

Mitchell starred on the defensive end at college, though unfortunately this success has not translated to the next level. It is a commonly held belief that he has actually regressed as a defender since initially entering the league. Case in point: Mitchell’s career-worst 109 defensive rating this season. Additionally, his defensive box plus/minus of -0.5 (a calculation of a player’s defensive points contributed per 100 possessions compared to a league-average player) serves as confirmation that he has a ways to go if he wishes to regain his collegiate status as a stout deterrent.

Mitchell suffered from mental lapses on defense all too often this season. At times he looked frazzled and unsure of where to position himself. The clip below accentuates this reality. Notice how Mitchell completely loses sight of Gary Payton II on the break, who makes a smart read and sprints ahead of the pack for an uncontested layup. He should have realized that Payton was his responsibility, as teammate Mike Conley was preoccupied with the ballhandler.

Mitchell’s cognitive slip-ups were not limited to the open court. In this sequence, the Boston Celtics orchestrate their half-court attack, and once again Donovan can be found in no man’s land. He believes that he is covering Gordon Hayward, but when Jaylen Brown makes a clean catch for an open triple, only then does Mitchell realize his fatal mistake.

The opposition buried 35.9 percent of their three-pointers and 51.3 percent of their two’s when defended by Mitchell, both concerningly effective rates. It’s evident that he is currently a below-average defender in the NBA, and considering his diminutive stature for his position, Donovan is facing an uphill battle if he desires to improve significantly on this end.

Offense

On a brighter note, Mitchell, who sits 14th in the league in scoring (24.8 points), put together the best offensive season of his pro tenure. The 23-year-old achieved career-highs in shooting percentage from the field (45.3 percent), deep (36.4. percent), and the charity stripe (85.9 percent). Mitchell finally earned a spot on the all-star team, and make no mistake about it, he will participate in many more when all is said and done.

Donovan’s jumper has gradually evolved over the past few years to the extent that he’s now a lethal scorer from the outside. Mitchell is an especially accurate marksman when operating in catch and shoot situations. He took 2.9 catch and shoot treys per contest and buried 42.4 percent of them.

He gets excellent lift on his shot, as can be seen in this snippet. Here we get a view of an exceedingly rare corner three-pointer from Spida, who only launched 61 in 2019-20. It’s head-scratchingly confusing as to why he did not let loose from the corners more often. They are the shortest three an NBA player can take, and Mitchell converted on an otherworldly 50 percent of his tries from the right corner.

While Donovan deserves praise for his much-improved shooting touch, it’s at the rim where he shines the brightest. Mitchell was practically automatic up close, sinking 61.1 percent of his looks in the restricted area. Only 32.7 percent of said buckets came off of assists, meaning he has no issue creating scoring opportunities for himself. It is Mitchell’s unique combination of speed, eye-popping athleticism, and body control that cements his place among the NBA’s best finishers.

Donovan’s driving prowess is summed up in the clip above. He manages to save what was a stagnant possession by splitting the defense and slamming down a thunderous dunk in the grill of Mike Muscala.

Number 45 dismisses Frank Ntilikina, a terrific on-ball defender mind you, as if he’s a toddler. Being able to endure physical wear and tear while driving is a shared trait among upper-echelon rim attackers, and Donovan is no exception.

Mitchell has elevated his offensive game to superstar-caliber heights. He’s the whole package on this end, plain and simple. I’d be anything but astonished if he led the league in scoring one day, the youngster is that special.

Verdict

Has Mitchell’s defensive impact stagnated or even deteriorated in some aspects since his pro arrival? Absolutely. The once held belief that he’d make his mark in the NBA on the defensive side seems to be fading away. Yet, Mitchell’s seismic offensive growth over the past few seasons is why he has not stagnated in general. Donovan’s ascension into a super efficient, high-volume scorer is what should prevent Utah faithful from labeling him as unimproved.

Published by Jesse Cinquini

A 20-year-old aspiring sports journalist who is majoring in Communication with a concentration of Multimedia Sports Journalism.

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