NBA growth is often thought of as linear.
Comments from analysts such as, “He just gets better every year”, or “Wait until he hits his prime”, or “2nd year players are always better” reinforce this idea of steady, year-by-year improvement.
The truth is growth of NBA players is NOT linear. Each season brings it’s own challenges and a players’ career takes many paths with factors of health, team, skill, and personal progression.
Growth is jagged in real-life, with quick turns and drastic oscillations. It’s not until a large sample of work is collected and results are smoothed can you decipher the direction and shape of the growth.
You don’t see many steep growth curves like Donovan Mitchell’s first season. Bursting onto the scene as the #13 pick, he made a big splash in the regular season and cemented his status as a rising star in the playoffs, winning a 1st round series against the OKC Thunder.
His path to superstardom, however, hasn’t been as straightforward and timely.
He hit a sophomore slump, struggled in consecutive playoff performances against the Houston Rockets, and depended on fellow teammates Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert for winning impact.
Plateauing as a top 25-35 player would’ve been nothing to balk at. Such play will make you hundreds of millions, earn you a handful of All-Star appearances, and get you moderate post-season success.
It was clear Mitchell wanted more for himself.
His 4th year in the league saw remarked improvement in every area offensively. He finally put together a season of league average efficiency, his passing reached a new level of consistency, and his offensive impact reached career high levels by numerous metrics.
It was the first sign of real superstar trajectory. We now have our second indicator, this season, in year 5.
Donovan has put together an incredible season of efficiency, finding himself 2% above league average true shooting percentage on over 22 TSA/gm. Take a look below at how that compares to other stars around the league:
Certainly, there are a number of names missing from the above list, namely Kawhi Leonard and Zion Williamson who are sure to dot the top of this list.
Others may cite James Harden and Jamal Murray, though their roles are changing out of primary offensive creator by joining Brooklyn and the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., respectively.
The fact is, the league is so loaded with talent there’s always a group of 20 players vying for the top spots every year with constant movement. While Lillard, Doncic, Davis, and George struggle to hold onto their “Top 10 Player” status this season, DeRozan, Morant, Mitchell, Young, and LaVine are coming for those spots.
Compare what Donovan Mitchell is doing this year to his first 5 seasons in the league (below):
Donovan found himself a good deal below the ideal grouping for efficiency of top players, only Russell Westbrook being less efficient over that 4 year span.
But as mentioned previously, last year was a big improvement and whose trajectory this season is built off of. Take a look below at how Donovan has progressed in efficiency since his rookie year (below):
You’ll notice this growth isn’t linear. It’s full of sharp peaks and valleys. But you’ll also see the peaks are getting higher and the valleys are never quite as low. Fitting a linear trend confirms Donovan is progressing in the right direction, aided heavily by the last two seasons.
The fact that Donovan is finally checking the efficiency box on his resume is the ticket to perpetually joining this 20 player group, ever vying for a streak in the coveted top 10 list of players.
This season he may have his shot, with an All-Star starter spot up for grabs (Zach Lowe penciling him in alongside Steph Curry) and already being talked about nationally for an All-NBA slot.
The beauty of entering this ~20 player list of superstars is the ability to leap frog into the top group at any point and, like Lillard and Jokic of seasons past, stay there perennially.
Mitchell finds himself ranked exceptionally well across the gamut of advanced impact metrics, indicating his improved positive impact independent of floor-raising teammates like Gobert and Conley.
Donovan Mitchell Ranking in Advanced Metrics
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As exciting as the team is and the stats confirm Utah’s legitimacy as a title contender, it’s Donovan Mitchell being his best self that’ll carry them to the promised land. As concerning as the perimeter defense and non-traditional big minutes appear to be, ultimately it’ll be up to Donovan and his improvements to be the deciding factor.
Given how he’s entered the tier of superstardom this season, there’s certainly worse components to rely on.