Donovan Mitchell put up a career high 41 points last night against the New Orleans Pelicans. In doing so, he set a Utah Jazz franchise rookie record in points, became the 1st rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to score 40 or more in a game, and, most importantly, led his team to a comeback victory against the New Orleans Pelicans.
With a night like last night it’s hard to use even more superlatives to describe Mitchell. He’s the amazing Spida-man, after all. But Donovan Mitchell is doing something that is just unheard of: he’s leading Utah to wins and has the Utah Jazz in the seven spot in the Western Conference. The only other rookie who is leading their team to wins and playoff contention is Ben Simmons. Safe to say, Ben Simmons has a year of NBA training under his belt even though he hadn’t played a game before this season. Donovan Mitchell? He’s just learning on the job and he looks like an NBA veteran.
Many Jazz fans will say that they saw this coming all the way back in summer league. It was in summer league that he looked like he was a four year veteran. It was in summer league where he locked down Jayson Tatum on the defensive end, stole his lunch money, and got Tatum to lose his cool. It was in summer league that he scored 37 points in a single game. For me, it was seeing him have the confidence to turn a summer league layup line into a dunk contest only missing one flashy dunk out of his many attempts.
His coaches spoke about him like he was a star in summer league:
“The kid is like a state senator. If you meet him, you want to vote for him.”
- Zach Guthrie
“From the time I’ve met him, to every time I’ve watched him play, he’s just better. That’s rare. He’s tough. He loves the game. And he’s willing to learn. Every time a coach gives him tools, it’s like he’s applying. I just think he’s gonna be a great player.”
- Baron Davis
NBA players and coaches are starting to take notice as well.
“The rookie had a hell of a game. He dominated from start to finish. Man, what didn’t he do? To be that in control of the game—very impressive.”
- DeMarcus Cousins
“That little m*****f***** is good. That dude is a rookie. He’s the best rookie in the NBA. ... That m*****f***** is out there leading a team as a rookie.”
- Austin Rivers
"We know what kind of competitor he is.”
- Luke Walton
Many fans are going to read pieces by national writers today that talk about how Donovan Mitchell has inserted himself into the Rookie of the Year race last night, but that’s not completely true. He’s been in the race all season, just because people didn’t recognize it doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. Last night with his 41 points, he overtook first place. That’s not something to say light because this rookie class is stacked.
Take a look at the 2017 NBA rookie class, just take a look. It’s deeeeeeeeep. There’s a wide array of talented players like Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith, Kyle Kuzma, and John Collins. That’s why saying Donovan Mitchell is lead horse in the Rookie of the Year race feels like blasphemy. It’s okay, they’ll catch on.
Soon they’ll see that only Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are actually leading their teams in contention. One can add Ben Simmons to that list if they believe that Ben Simmons is actually a rookie (technically, he is, but he was drafted last year and has spent the last year and a half with NBA coaching and training staff).
Then there’s the issue of surrounding talent. Jayson Tatum and Ben Simmons are lucky to have some very talented guys helping them out. Jayson Tatum has Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. Ben Simmons has JJ Reddick and Joel Embiid. Donovan Mitchell? His team is the walking dead.
For the last 3 weeks, Donovan Mitchell hasn’t had the luxury of an All-Star at his side; it’s just him and a bunch of castaways. He has a now resurgent Derrick Favors at center, a consistently inconsistent Rodney Hood, a written off Alec Burks, and an underperforming Ricky Rubio as his supporting cast. Joe Johnson has been out most of the season nursing a wrist injury, Rudy Gobert went down with a bone contusion, and Dante Exum had T.J. Warren land on his shoulder ending his season. Donovan Mitchell is running this show and has shouldered a responsibility most NBA players can’t do: push their teams into playoff contention.
Donovan Mitchell, if he continues this brilliance, will be Rookie of the Year, yes, even with Ben Simmons doing Ben Simmons stuff in Philadelphia and Jayson Tatum putting in big time minutes in Boston. As we talked about before, they have help. They also have the advantage of playing in a big market. The 76ers are the NBA’s darlings despite having the same amount of wins as Utah. Boston is always going to have more attention. Ask Gordon Hayward, that’s why he went there after all. The big market draw. Hell, next year’s possible Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic has more hype around him, and he’s in Europe.
Donovan Mitchell has the uphill battle of playing in Utah. When Tracy McGrady was asked if he had seen Donovan Mitchell play this season he responded with, “Where’s he play? In Utah? There’s still an NBA team in Utah?” (This after Utah ended his playoff hopes two straight years in a row, one of those times after he guaranteed a victory.) There’s a stigma to Utah. There just is. That’s a big thing to overcome.
But there’s something else that is masking Donovan Mitchell’s brilliance to a larger national audience: the Utah Jazz’s pace of play.
Other high scoring rookies such as Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma benefit from playing at some of the league’s fast paces. The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphis 76ers play at the 2nd and 4th fastest paces in the NBA, respectively. The Utah Jazz? They play at the league’s 27th slowest pace. What does that mean? It means their numbers get an extra bump from a few extra possessions while Donovan Mitchell’s get suppressed.
By extrapolating all rookies’ numbers who have played in 20 games or more from a Per Game ratio to Per 100 Possessions, the Rookie of the Year race looks like it should belong to young player from Louisville.
Donovan Mitchell leads all NBA rookies in points at 27.7 points per 100 possessions, and he’s one of the best at steals at 2.2 steals per 100 possessions. He’s shooting 36.8% from three for the season despite starting the season missing most of his attempts.
What’s even more remarkable is at a Per 100 Possessions ratio, he’s not just one of the best rookie scorers, but one of the best scorers, period, in the NBA. Among NBA players who have played 20 games or more at Per 100 Possessions, Donovan Mitchell is the NBA’s 23rd best scorer. Donovan Mitchell, a rookie, is among the league’s best. In his last 10 games, he jumps up to 12th, ahead of Kyle Lowry, Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Klay Thompson.
During Utah’s five game winning streak Donovan Mitchell has averaged 21.8 points per game on 47% shooting from the field while shooting 47.5% from three. Yes, that’s correct. He’s averaging 3 rebounds and nearly 5 assists a game. Donovan Mitchell is not just playing the best ball out of any rookie in the NBA right now, he’s playing some of the best ball out of anybody in the NBA right now.
Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Kyle Kuzma are going to get all the attention because of—cough, cough—big market love, but the best rookie in the NBA right now isn’t near a coast or headlining a wide array of national television games. He’s putting in work in the mountains. Utah Jazz fans will enjoy the national coverage that Donovan Mitchell is getting, but they don’t need to be told he’s one of the best in the league. They already knew that months ago.