Donovan Mitchell is a score-first player. He’s put up more than 20 points per game every season of his young career. He has been criticized as a one-dimensional player, a chucker, a one-trick pony. He’s heard all of that before, even from some very big names, but none of that gives credit to his most underrated talent. Donovan Mitchell is an unbelievably gifted passer, and it’s time we talk about that.
That may sound wrong to some people. Passing is not at all what Donovan is known for. Over his career, he’s normally produced about four assists per game. For someone who handles the ball as much as he does, that’s a pretty low number. It’s as I said, he’s a score-first player. A lot of young stars take many years before they truly adopt the pass as a weapon in their arsenal. Donovan may be the same way. It may also have something to do with Quin Snyder’s offensive system, as it seems no individual player generates a ton of assists when playing for Quin.
What I’m talking about, however, is not Donovan’s volume of passes, but rather his passing ability. His vision, his technique, his skill. These are the things that should excite Jazz fans. Mitchell’s potential as a passer is sky high, and he’s been showing it more and more.
Donovan has shown it off at times when he’s had to be the point guard for the team. During these last two games with Mike Conley out, Donovan has made a visible effort to be a distributer. The result: 20 assists over the last two games. The man can pass the ball.
Donovan Mitchell sees the passing lanes. He sees the easy ones, and he sees the nearly impossible ones. This season, Quin Snyder has implemented a bit more cutting within the offense, particularly with Bojan Bogdanovic as the cutter. Donovan Mitchell has shown the ability to see the cut, wait for the opening, and throw darts to the cutter.
Look at the way he waits for the right moment. Sometimes that moment is early, sometimes it is late, but Donovan can throw passes with such accuracy and speed, that he can fit them into very tight windows of time.
Also worthy of note is Mitchell’s ability to use different angles to get the ball around his defender. You’ll see that in many of the clips in this breakdown. Mitchell’s creativity with the pass is up there with the best in the game.
Donovan’s vision is perhaps most often utilized in his kick-outs to shooters. When he drives, he draws so much attention from the defense. Now these reads in the below video are pretty simple. He drives to the hoop, the corner defender rotates to help, Donovan kicks to the corner. Every player in the NBA can make that read. What’s impressive about this is his manipulation of the defense.
Watch those two clips again. In the first play, Donovan drives, sees the rotation, and throws the bullet pass immediately. He has hardly set foot in the paint before he passes that ball. He does it so quickly, using one hand straight off the dribble, that the defense hasn’t even finished rotating to the center before the ball is gone to the corner.
In the second clip, Mitchell sees that the defense has learned from their mistake. Bogdanovic’s defender hasn’t rotated as aggressively, so Donovan forces him to do so. He takes an extra dribble, jumps explosively, and then uses his athleticism and long arms to find a passing angle and make yet another quick and accurate pass to an open shooter in the corner. Bojan’s defender tried so hard to stay home and not leave his man open, but Donovan left him no choice. He had to help. And the second he did, Mitchell burned him.
Arm Strength, Speed, and Accuracy.
If Spida Mitchell has a signature pass, it’s the full court baseball pass. Mitchell grew up playing baseball first, and basketball second. That fact is evident at times on the court.
Donovan slings one handed passes at lightning speed all over the court. His ability to throw fastballs with such distance, speed, and accuracy may be the best in the league. He throws baseball pitches in transition or the half court, with the right hand or the left, even falling out of bounds. It doesn’t matter. He sees a target across the full court, and he hits that target with a 90 mph strike.
Mitchell’s full-court dimes aren’t limited only to one armed flings. He also utilizes standard chest passes and even overhead passes.
That overhead pass takes an incredible amount of strength. And to hit his man in stride like that, it makes him look like a soccer player on a throw-in. Not many players can make that pass.
If those aren’t impressive enough, watch these next ones. In these situations he has a defender in front of him, and can’t use his favorite baseball pass motion. So he alters it in a way that he can throw these lasers from a higher release point.
This is just pure sorcery. If a hook shot and a fastball had a baby, it would be this pass. Take note of how quickly Mitchell goes from dribbling casually to releasing the pass. Watch the reactions of the defenders guarding him on-ball. They were not at all ready for Mitchell to have made a pass. A normal player would first gather the ball, and then pass to the teammate. Donovan Mitchell is not normal. He gathers and passes all in one smooth motion. This early timing allows him to make use of passing lanes that most players don’t have the option of using.
Donovan Mitchell is an artist at work. When he is truly in the zone, he improvises in some mind-blowing ways. In this first clip, Mitchell drives in the lane, rises for a layup, changes his mind, and casually decides to turn his body all the way around and pass to the man he knows is in the corner. The fact that he could do all of that while in the air speaks of his elite athleticism, but also of his ability to make split second decisions.
In the same game, the defense attempts to trap Mitchell far from the basket. In this situation, most players look for the pass to the nearest man. The easy, safe pass. Rather than doing that, Donovan takes his time to see where the open man is. He knows that he can sling a pass at high speed to any spot on the court. So he waits until he sees his opportunity, then he does what he has to in order to get the pass off. He jumps and chucks a bullet of an overhead pass. The power he gets on that throw is astonishing. And once again, the ability to throw that with such accuracy is not normal.
Spida also shows off his creativity with his use of unique passing angles. When he’s in traffic, swarmed by defenders, but he sees an open man, he has an incredible talent of finding ways to get the pass through. Watch some of the different ways he does this.
Mitchell’s 6’10” wingspan helps him find ways to wrap the ball around defenders. He frequently misleads defenders with his eyes. He uses everything he can to maneuver these passes through tight defense.
When I say that Mitchell has elite passing vision, this is what I mean. He sees angles that others don’t see. In this clip below, Jusuf Nurkic is defending Mitchell perfectly. Using his size and positioning to deny both the shot and the pass. So what does Donovan do? He slips the ball over Nurkic’s shoulder, nearly hitting him in the face with it. Who in the league makes passes in close quarters like that? Who even thinks of throwing the pass through that tiny window?
Reading the Defense
I think this is the area in which Donovan has improved the most over his first few seasons. While decision-making is not always his strong suit, he does show flashes of potential as a floor general. Here we see him running the Utah Jazz bread and butter, the pick & roll with Rudy Gobert. Defenses know that the lob to Rudy is the first option on this play. They know that is what they need to defend first and foremost. But they also have to be wary of Mitchell’s ability to drive and create his own shot. Donovan’s best skill may be his unpredictability off the dribble. He frequently uses changes of speed, changes of direction, and all kinds of fakes both with the ball and his eyes. When Donovan is able to read the defense and react to their movements, he can get burn them every time.
In this play, Mitchell takes on two All-NBA defenders, and makes the play look easy. In fact, it was easy. Because he moved them to where he wanted them. He kept Jrue Holiday behind him, and effectively out of the play, forcing Brook Lopez to guard both Jazz players. Mitchell once again used his signature one-handed gather and pass. This forces Lopez to make a decision quicker than he wanted to. Either attempt to block Mitchell’s pass (or shot, as far as he knows), or jump back to Rudy and hope to recover in time. His reaction was actually pretty impressive, but it didn’t matter. Donovan’s quick and off-rhythm pass is too fast for Lopez to stop. By the time he got his hand up to challenge, the ball was already past him. Easy dunk for Rudy.
In the above clip, you can see Donovan direct traffic for his teammates and create an open shot in transition. The first thing he does is direct Mike Conley to the left corner. Then he immediately looks the other way for a pass to the opposite corner. The defense reacts to his movements, and too many players rotate to the right. Mitchell sees the miscommunication, and quickly makes the easy pass to the corner.
Donovan Mitchell draws a lot of attention from defenders. When he drives, rim protectors help aggressively. Watch what happens when he keeps his eyes up and looks for passes out of these situations.
The next evolution of Donovan’s offensive game is to punish the help defense regularly. When he is looking for the pass in these situations, he is un-guardable. Teams focus their defense on stopping his scoring, because they know that’s his first goal. When he has his eyes up and looks for those passing lanes, he becomes that much more dangerous.
We sometimes seem to forget that Donovan is only 24 years old. He leaped into stardom as a rookie, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still have unrealized potential. He’s still getting better every year, and he still has plenty of room to grow. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he has reached a plateau. As he continues to grow as a player, and improve as a decision maker, he just might become one of the best passers in the game. Pair that with his lethal scoring, and you’ve got yourself one of the best offensive players in the NBA.