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How Donovan Mitchell can win MVP

Spida is a Top 20 player, but what does he need to do to be a Top 10 guy or even an MVP?

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69th NBA All-Star Game Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Mitchell’s explosion in the playoffs at the Orlando bubble felt like a coming-of-age where he left the “young with potential” crowd and into the elite club. But that run was a short-lived seven games and, for all the spectacular moments like the 2020 playoffs we’ve seen from Mitchell in just three years, it’s clear he’s is still outside the upper echelon of players in the NBA.

In ESPN’s preseason Top 100 ranking of NBA players, Mitchell came in at 18th. And for all the hate that list (probably deservingly) got, that’s right around where Mitchell probably is. He’s a clear top 20 guy, top 15 depending on who you ask, but very much outside the top 10.

There’s plenty of room to grow for the 6-foot-1 guard, and at just over 24 years of age, his true prime is still on the horizon. So let’s look at where Mitchell can improve so he can be the best version of the Spida.

Wait, is being the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference after 14 games is grounds for Mitchell for MVP discussion? No, the six-game win streak the Utah Jazz are currently on is not the impetus for this analysis. And being completely honest, Mitchell is not going to win the 2020-21 MVP Award. There are significant gap between his impact and the guys who are actually in the MVP conversation. So let’s look at the specific areas where Mitchell is lacking that puts a gap between him and the NBA’s highest individual honor.

Shooting Efficiency

It’s been documented before that Mitchell is ahead of the curve for young guards in terms of shooting percentages at the shot volume Mitchell’s been putting up in the early part of his career. In the 3-point era there are 42 guards who have had a career usage rating above 25 in their first three years while playing at least 4,000 minutes — Mitchell being one of them. And among those high-usage guards, Mitchell ranks in the 90th percentile in effective field goal percentage and the 74th percentile in true shooting. He’s kept ahead of the curve by consistent improvement throughout his career.

The biggest shooting improvement thus far is his percentage from 10-16 feet with a jump from 37.4 percent his rookie year to 48.9 this past season. Mitchell has made smaller but likewise notable improvements in the 3-10 foot range (38.0 as rookie, 41.4 last year) and on 3-pointers (34.0 to 36.6).

Mitchell’s improvement is commendable, but it needs to continue. There can’t be stagnation. He may be ahead of the curve for young guards, but he remains behind the NBA’s best. Among all qualified players with a 25+ usage in 2019-20 (also 42 players), Mitchell was in the 27th percentile in eFG% and the 34th percentile in TS%.

Free Throw Rate

Free throw shooting itself has never been a problem for Mitchell. For his career, he’s sitting at 82.3 percent on shots at the charity stripe, and he made 86.3 percent last year — good for 23rd in the NBA and fifth among guys who attempted at least 300 free throws. The issue for Mitchell is getting there more often. For guys who shoot free throws at percentages around as high as Mitchell’s, these trips to the line are easily their most efficient way to score. Based on that 86.3 percent mark from last year, Mitchell’s free throws would generate 1.726 points per two free throw trip to the line. For reference, his dunks yielded 1.576 points per shot.

But for as productive as Mitchell’s free throw trips were, he didn’t get there nearly as much as his high-usage peers. His free throw rate was .240 last year (a number that is almost smack dab on his career rate), only good for the 18th percentile among the 2019-20 players with a 25+ USG%. Many of those at the top (whose FTr is closer to a .500) were MVP candidates like James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Luka Dončić (LeBron James was at .292 last year, a career-low, but he’s usually been a little under .400 the last five years and close to .500 in his prime).

Getting to the line more is something of an art, though not always a pretty one as those who have watched Harden know full well. But there’s a lot of value in the efficiency of those shots and the knock-on effects drawing lots of fouls can have on a defense. Mitchell has the shiftiness and body control to learn this art, it’s just up to him to get it done.

Become a better passer/playmaker

There’s an ongoing debate on whether Mitchell should become the official point guard on the depth chart and bring in more size in the backcourt. Yours truly staked his claim on this topic back in March of 2019, Tony Jones made his own appeal back in August, and it’s a question visited again on SLC Dunk as recently as November. But no matter what decision is made going forward, Mitchell must develop more elite point guard skills to maximize his potential.

Last year there were 17 players (excluding a couple of low-minute outliers) had a usage percentage above 30 and Mitchell ranked 15th in that group in AST% with the two gentlemen behind him being Joel Embiid and Zion Williamson. Mitchell’s AST% to Usage ratio of 0.67 was good for just the 17th percentile.

This isn’t a product of Mitchell playing alongside point guards his whole career. Per Cleaning the Glass, when was the point guard on the floor for the Jazz last year, Mitchell’s AST% was 23.9. A +4.8% rise from when he’s at SG, but it’s a number that falls short of the MVP candidates that sit in the mid-30s to high 40s in AST%.

As of now, we’ve seen a lot of good things from Mitchell’s passing, but not at the level he needs to be if he has any MVP aspirations. Vision of kick-out and drop-off targets is something Mitchell has greatly improved on. He’s usually seeing passes and is willing to make them, but accuracy is still a problem for him at times. He doesn’t quite have pick-and-roll passes down as well as he ought to. Working with Rudy Gobert for the next four seasons minimum, he’ll need to work on lobs and pocket passes more to perfect their PnR one-two punch.

Finishing at the rim

Per, of the 71 players who attempted at least 200 shots in the restricted area last year, Mitchell ranked in the 45th percentile in FG% with his 60.6 mark.

This may be one of the few things I’m not confident Mitchell can truly improve in because there are factors beyond his control. He’s a 6-foot-1 guard and guys that short have a hard time being elite at rim finishing. There were 12 players last year listed under 6-foot-3 in that crew of 71 players with 200 RA shots and the average percentage among them is 57.8. Mitchell was actually third in this group behind Derrick Rose (63.5) and Dennis Schroder (62.8) so he’s good for his size but not good in an overall sense.

It also doesn’t help that Mitchell isn’t a great leaper off one foot. He can rise with the best off two feet but those two-foot jumps require a runway that usually isn’t there. His 6-foot-10 wingspan is just about the only thing that allows him to be close to average.

Going back to free throw rate, drawing fouls may be one thing that may help Mitchell’s finishing. Only 3.7 percent of his attempts around the rim drew fouls per Synergy Sports, good for 56th among guards with at least 100 rim attempts. On drives into the paint that aren’t as promising, instead of throwing up an ineffective and/or wild layup or floater, getting a whistle will turn many of the bad attempts into the hyper-efficient free throw trips from Mitchell.

2020 Playoff Mitchell was all of these things

The crazy thing about pointing out all of these shortcomings is that in the 2020 playoff bubble, Mitchell did most of these things. His shooting percentages blasted through the atmosphere with a 50/50/90 split, his AST% was up to 25.6 (still on the low end for superstars but a much more acceptable mark), his free throw rate was up to .369 and he made 67.4 percent of his shots in the restricted area.

The caveat of looking at his playoff performance is that two things are guaranteed to drop from Mitchell’s playoff explosion: his usage of 37.5 and the overall shooting splits. But if those were the only things to drop (so long as they land in improved territory compared to last year) and Mitchell carries over everything else, I’m sure he would take it as would all of Jazz Nation.

The 2020-21 season so far

A fairly poor start has left Mitchell behind in several of these areas. His scoring is down slightly from 24.0 to 23.5 (something to keep a close eye on in terms of improvement given his PPG has increased year-by-year for his whole career) as is his free throw rate which currently sits at .212, (previous year was .240 in case you didn’t remember).

Finishing inside the restricted area is where Mitchell has lost the most from last year. He’s down to 47.9 percent on those shots, a mark that would be by far the worst of his career (worst full-season percentage is 59.0 in 2018-19). He’s also had 12.7 percent of his attempts inside the RA blocked which is also a career-worst rate.

Even with the downturn in shooting at the rim, Mitchell’s shooting is kind of up in an overall sense. His 3-point percentage is up to 38.5, though his overall percentage is down thanks to his shooting inside the arc.

While his scoring has gone down, Mitchell has increased his passing numbers. His assists are up slightly to 4.9 per game and his AST% is at a career-high 24.5.


Which of these areas does Donovan Mitchell need to improve in the most to be a legitimate MVP candidate?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    (77 votes)
  • 34%
    Free Throw Rate
    (183 votes)
  • 32%
    (171 votes)
  • 12%
    Finishing at the Rim
    (66 votes)
  • 4%
    (26 votes)
523 votes total Vote Now