I used to identify myself as a fast driver. I guess my speeding tickets might tell you the same. Contrary to my mother’s advice, I’d ask myself, “If the point of making my drive isn’t to make the commute from point A to point B faster, then why drive at all”? Of course speeding is generally looked down upon, but everyone’s already going five-to-ten miles per hour over the speed limit on the Utah freeways anyway. I wasn’t necessarily wrong when it came to my justification either; getting through the next yellow light, passing the slower car in front of me, or zig-zagging through tight lanes until I’d find a stretch of open road are all easy and quantifiable ways to cut down drive time. Recently, though, I’ve been trying a novel idea - I’ve been going the speed limit.
It’s funny, until you shift down your speed you don’t realize just how mildly your quick driving is actually affecting your drive time. You also begin to notice something else - while other drivers are waiting excitedly until the next point where they’ll have to hit their brakes and maneuver their way back up to their desired speed, your drive is actually quite painless. Before, I’d often find myself groaning at the slow drivers in front of me or anxiously slamming on the gas when a light flips to yellow. Now, I watch cars fly by mine up to the car in front of them, and I’ll get slightly entertained when their red braking lights pop up - because there’s nowhere to go. Going slower, I’ve realized, has undone all of my roadblocks and opened up my own driving lanes where I can make decisions at my desired pace. I often find myself accidentally passing those who’ve passed me simply because I’ve decided against the necessity to rush from stop to stop.
Donovan Mitchell came into the NBA as a bit of a quick driver… in the basketball sense. He’d full-throttle his metaphorical car until he reached the rim, and then throw up a bizarre shot that went in, honestly, more often than it should have. He was young, quick, head-strong, and would impose his will as much as he could. Mitchell, however, ended up collecting a title of “inefficient”, landing a league-worst percentage at the rim in his earliest years - and in those years Utah consistently was a playoff team because of its league-best defense; and in spite of its league-average offense.
On June 19th, 2019, Utah looked to fix those offensive issues by moving a number of defensive-oriented pieces for Mike Conley. Utah’s offense not only improved, but Mitchell himself increased his shooting efficiency from league-average for his position to better than seventy-one percent of guards, and his assisting percentages rose at similar rates. Mitchell would also increase percentages at the rim and draw more fouls per attempt.
Conley entered the NBA a decade-and-a-half ago. He played his sole year in college alongside former number one draft pick Greg Oden - for context, Oden hardly played in the 2010’s, let alone the 2020’s. Pre-draft, Conley found himself described as “playing the point guard position like a 30-year-old veteran”, saying “Conley would weave with the basketball through the lane, going between defenders, crossing the ball over to switch hands, and using his body to shield the ball”. Even in his youth, his skillset was primarily based in his control, pacing, and decision making. Conley has since created a 15-year career out of being a “slow driver”.
When Conley arrived in Utah, Mitchell was there to soak up as much knowledge as he could, and it showed. Mitchell would weave in front of defenders, hold them on his back, and play with the space in front of him. In the extra seconds, he’d better read defensive reactions and find open shooters or ways to attack the space allotted. He’d give time to his roll-men to position themselves for a lob or a rebound. Mitchell still maintained and used his quick burst - but only did so when it was totally to his advantage, otherwise, he’d slow down to the pace of the game. By slowing down, he was more in control of himself and he was more in control of the offense.
This development was both fun and exciting to keep track of, despite a bit of a sour ending. The end of that journey, however, would sprout opportunity for another - Collin Sexton was seen by many as the primary returning piece in Mitchell’s eventual relocation to Cleveland.
Sexton is similar to a younger Mitchell in many ways, but I’d argue he’s more athletically gifted and less controlled in his play - even when comparing Sexton’s fifth season to Mitchell’s first. It’s rare to see Sexton make a first step that is too slow to beat his man, yet it’s common to see him barreling towards the interior defense to eviscerate the advantage he’s created. Once he’s created an advantage, he’s eager to reach the next point of attack. He’s often like myself as a car-driver, diving through a yellow light, weaving through opponents, or finding himself lurching into the next roadblock.
It’s interesting to see this particular roadblock again, six years after Mitchell was drafted and five after Sexton. The irony is that it’s not a roadblock on the court - a big seven-footer lurking in front of the rim - it’s a roadblock of the mind. You don’t have to do anything once you’ve created your advantage. Let the defense react, and react to their reaction - you’ll find an exploitable pocket growing and you can capitalize on that in a number of different ways. Let the game come to you - you’ll learn to stop rushing things that need time to grow.
Luckily, Sexton’s development seems to have a very high ceiling, with a well-defined pathway - one with a teacher that’s similarly helped a young player reach his offensive potential before. Though he’s now months removed from his 35th birthday, I see the value in Mike Conley as extending far beyond what he’ll be giving Utah on the basketball court. Though it’s not necessarily quantifiable, Conley’s mentorship feels somewhat necessary for the offensive maturation of Collin Sexton.
Among basketball circles, you often hear the cliche “Take what the defense gives you”. I think it’s similar on your daily commute to work; “Take the speed you’re given”. It’s an adage used to express the paradox of urgency - speed should be used as a tool, not as a trait. When I became a slow driver, I realized that a controlled speed undid all of my roadblocks. I found that it opened up my driving lanes, and it provided me opportunities to make decisions at my own pace. I’m tempted to believe that in Collin Sexton’s basketball development, he’ll find the same.