Donovan Mitchell Is the Lifeblood of the Utah Jazz Offense

No NBA rookies are relied upon like Donovan Mitchell in Utah. Due to that reliance, Mitchell, in some ways, plays with a sophistication beyond most first-year players.

In the absence of a single rookie guard, the Utah Jazz cratered. This is a good team but a curious one, somehow still vying for playoff real estate in the West despite two separate injuries to Rudy Gobert. At times, Utah will jam up the works of some of the league’s best offenses with attention to detail alone, as if wielding their discipline as a weapon. On others—as on Wednesday night against the Thunder—their clear limitations fester when exposed to open air. Try as they might, the Jazz spun their wheels to a nine-point first quarter en route to a 79-point outing. The reality is this: Utah doesn’t stand a chance against functional opponents without Donovan Mitchell.

It is difficult to overstate how odd a development this is. Mitchell was selected late in the lottery by a playoff team, plucked at No. 13 on the premise that the pro game might suit him better than the college game did. We can already say with the utmost certainty that it does—so much, in fact, that Mitchell could cast off the yoke of the NBA’s "pay your dues" pecking order to immediately become Utah’s leading scorer.

Mitchell arrives at that standing by talent and necessity. Any question as to whether his game could handle the creative load of a first option has been asked and answered. The extent of Utah’s reliance, however, is unlike that of almost any other rookie-team relationship in recent memory. Since 2000, NBA teams have played out 540 individual seasons—18 distinct campaigns for 30 teams. Only in seven of them did another rookie average as many shots as Mitchell is taking right now.

In almost all cases, those high-usage rookies shared responsibility for the offense with a teammate attempting a comparable number of shots. Damian Lillard had LaMarcus Aldridge. Blake Griffin had Eric Gordon. The closest thing Mitchell has is Rodney Hood, a sixth man who has missed nearly a third of the season to date. No one involved has any delusion of this being a healthy team dynamic. Mitchell spends a lot of his time doing things he isn’t yet equipped to do all that well, in large part because the Jazz don’t really have any better options.

It’s for that reason that Mitchell seems tethered, narratively speaking, to Gordon Hayward. So much of Mitchell’s role serves to fill the void that Hayward left behind—the need for a versatile, do-it-all creator to connect veteran teammates without dominating the ball. Mitchell has a knack for it. His average time of possession, per NBA.com, is comparable to that of backups like D.J. Augustin, Cory Joseph, and Dejounte Murray, even while playing a full 30.1 minutes per game. There isn’t much pounding to his game in his current context; many Jazz possessions whirl through the hands of the other four players before Mitchell finally slices into action.

Once he does, Mitchell is a force. His drives are among Utah’s best options to actually budge a defense. With even a subtle hesitation, Mitchell can open up lanes that force a rotation, triggering the kind of systematic passing that scores some member of the Jazz an open look. Utah is short on the kinds of shooters who could properly exploit that momentum, though they’re even shorter on the kind of dynamic talent that could create it in the first place.

Mitchell, in some ways, plays with a sophistication beyond most rookies. There are subtle responses and counters in his game that other guards take years to learn—the difference between getting a pull-up jumper or a layup after being chased off the three-point line. But no first-year player can fully escape his inexperience. Mitchell has a sharp sense of timing, but not necessarily of space; so much of his game is predicated on straight-line drives that he often lets bigger, slower defenders off the hook. To understand where Mitchell is as a player is to know that he can let Celtics center Aron Baynes stonewall him on a drive:

And, in the very same game, streak past Baynes and another doubling defender with apparent ease for an and-one:

One can see shades of a younger Lillard in Mitchell’s game, and even something of a young Carmelo Anthony in his circumstances. Melo came into the league as a go-to scorer for an eventual eighth seed, offering the Nuggets an anchoring influence. Mitchell, in his own way, does the same. Relying on Mitchell allows more occasional shooters like Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, and Ekpe Udoh to bring other significant skills to the table. It offers a taste of volume scoring for a team that needs it. Mitchell—a 42% catch-and-shoot three-point shooter, per NBA.com—could easily play a cleaner, more efficient game if he were working alongside a star rather than trying to impersonate one. Instead, he drives headlong into pick-and-rolls he’s only now learning how to navigate.

Behind every wild shot Mitchell attempts is a wisp of tantalizing potential. We’ve seen Mitchell take enough jumpers to see the smooth, sound mechanics of his shot when he sets his feet and how they might eventually translate to his off-the-dribble game. Given the dual threat of Mitchell’s shot and drives, the gradual refinement of his floater—currently in its embryonic stages—could transform his game. There will be plenty of time to rein in Mitchell when the roster justifies it. For now, the most important thing he can do for the Jazz is to press.

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