Donovan Mitchell wasn’t supposed to be “the guy” his rookie season. Expectations for the season were low ... and then Summer League happened. Donovan looked like the best player on the court and got the best of Jayson Tatum. He went on to have one of the most remarkable rookie seasons in recent history, and led the Jazz to a series win over a star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder team.
His sophomore season started off slowly, and defenses were sending double- and triple-teams his way regularly. Utah’s offense just wasn’t clicking, but at the turn of the calendar year, it seemed like a switch had flipped for Donovan. Maybe he was finally 100% healthy (he had suffered a toe injury in the playoff series vs the Rockets and couldn’t train in the offseason). Maybe he noticed something while studying film and was able to make adjustments. Or maybe he was just pissed off and determined to do better.
Whatever it was, Mitchell played like a man possessed in the final four months of the season. From January 1 until the end of the season, Donovan put up 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game on 44.6/41.4/81.5 shooting splits. His jumper looked smoother, more balanced. He seemed more composed. And perhaps most importantly, he started drawing fouls at a much higher rate (6 FTA per game after January 1).
For context, 28-year old Damian Lillard, a four-time NBA All Star, just recorded a 26/7/5 season on 44/37/91 shooting splits (and coincidentally, 6.4 free throws per game - a mark Donovan nearly matched post-January 1).
Mitchell has done all of this without a “sidekick” on offense. For two years, Donovan has stood alone as the only consistent offensive playmaker. Defenses sagged off the likes of Rubio, Favors, and Crowder to stop Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell from owning the paint and the game.
Justin Zanick made sure that changes this season. Utah desperately needed shooting, so Zanick acquired some deadly new weapons to deploy in Quin Snyder’s offense. Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah’s two most note-worthy additions, shot 36.4% and 42.5% from 3-point range, respectively.
Utah has had significant roster turnover in the last 12 months. To give you an idea of how drastically different the roster is, here is the combined shot chart for the players that are no longer with the team (Jae Crowder, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Thabo Sefolosha, Kyle Korver, and Grayson Allen):
And here is the combined shot chart for key players either remaining with the team or who’ve been added via trades or free agency (Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Jeff Green, and Georges Niang):
In those charts, green is good (the darker the shade the better it is) and red is bad (darker shades being worse than lighter shades). There is a stark contrast between those two shot charts. It’s pretty easy to see how much more room Donovan has to work with now. And not only is improved shooting going to makes things a lot easier for him in terms of shot creation and attacking the paint, but he has two teammates who can score 20+ on any given night. That takes a lot of pressure off of him, and defenses will no longer be able to freely double team him without paying dearly for it. It should also give him more energy throughout the course of a game, so expect more highlight plays on defense this season.
Imagine this. Donovan Mitchell has the ball in his hands. Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic are in the corners (where they shoot 44.4% and 49.5%, respectively). Mike Conley is above the break on the weak side of the play (he shot 35.2% on above-the-break threes last season, and was a solid 39.8% in catch-and-shoot situations). Rudy Gobert, the #1 volume pick and roll finisher in the league over the last 3 years, sets a ball screen for Donovan Mitchell. What does a defense do? Do they play it straight up? That leaves Mitchell and Gobert 2-on-2 downhill towards the rim, which is death for the defense. Do they help off the corners? Mitchell has the vision and passing ability to hit either corner. Does Conley’s man cheat from one pass away and swipe at the ball? That opens up backdoor cuts, kickouts, and “blender” potential for Quin’s Euro-style offense.
Utah has the offensive firepower - at least on paper - to score points without having to “manufacture” them, and more importantly, without having to solely rely on Donovan Mitchell to attack the defense and create shots. Any one of Conley, Ingles, Bogdanovic, and Mitchell can initiate the offense as the ball handler, and the defense can’t ignore any of them. That’s huge not only for Donovan, but for the entire team. The game-to-game variance should now be less volatile, because all three of Utah’s volume scorers being “off” on the same night should be a much more rare occurrence than Donovan being cold (or not having any secondary scoring help), as we saw many times last season.
There is one area in particular, though, where I think Donovan will make the biggest jump this season. And this is perhaps the one area that separates a good scorer from an elite scorer, and an all star from an MVP candidate: free throws.
Over the last two years, when the Jazz have played “small ball” (“stretch four” lineups), Donovan has been significantly more efficient and has drawn fouls at a much higher rate. With the post-January 1 trend of 6 FTA per game, Mitchell has the potential and opportunity to attack defenses in space and he very well could average 7-8 free throws per game, which would put him among the league’s elite scorers in terms of both volume and efficiency.
Donovan was already a problem for NBA defenses when they could freely double him. Now Utah has the firepower to actually make teams pay if they cheat on defense. Mitchell is an unselfish player and should see his assists per game steadily climb over the course of the season as he gets better in the pick and roll.
This is likely Utah’s best shot at a finals appearance since 1998. Donovan knows that. And I think he’ll continue the post-January 1 trend of playing like a man possessed. After all, it is almost Halloween. Who doesn’t love a good possession?