Donovan Mitchell’s rookie year ended with a whimper. Instead of going out guns a’blazing, he was forced to watch the final minutes of the game from the bench after an injury was sustained to his left foot. The Utah Jazz would fall to the Houston Rockets in five games, but the effects of that injury would reverberate into this season. That injury severely impacted what he was able to work on over the summer. Despite all that, he was back in training camp ready to take on an increased responsibility; however, it took a few months to meet the challenge.
That injury allowed opposing defenses to get a head start on scheming against Donovan. It didn’t help that Utah’s schedule to start out the year was the NBA’s most difficult. Even the easy teams were capable of putting up a good fight as playoff hopes spring eternal at the beginning of every NBA season. Donovan had caught a lot of teams off guard last season, but no one would be surprised in the 2018-2019 season. Due to Donovan’s injury, he didn’t have the same opportunity to improve his game as he did before his rookie year. That, in and of itself, is crazy as a rookie’s first offseason is usually packed with pre-draft workouts, press tours, the combine, the draft, and Summer League. It’s a gauntlet. But Donovan Mitchell used it to his advantage and improvement.
I had thought that while Donovan Mitchell’s injury might impede some of his opportunity for improvement throughout the offseason, it wouldn’t be a large factor because Donovan had already been incredibly successful at bleeding the rock of a short offseason. I don’t want to oversell his struggles at the beginning of the season. He was averaging 20.1 points on 18.3 shots. Shooting 41% from the field, 29% from three. He had a +/- average of only +1.9. He was only getting to the line 4 times a game. Most alarming was he wasn’t going strong to the hoop as his dunks were trending below his prior year number.
Some had even questioned if Donovan Mitchell had become too successful too fast. He after all had been everywhere during the last offseason—working with ESPN for the NBA Finals and NBA Draft, working on his signature shoe, dropping in on 4th of July BBQs. Had Donovan Mitchell stretched himself too thin?
Like any issue, the inputs for the problem are complex. Donovan struggled for a combination of factors: enhanced scouting, his injury from the playoffs, heightened attention and popularity, increased responsibility, incredibly difficult opening schedule, and injuries to Jazz point guards just to name a few. Any normal person can see their production at work dip due to outside factors and Donovan Mitchell had plenty. While I’ve listed all those as potential excuses for his early season dip, he never did.
“I’ll be honest with you, it took me some time to figure it out this year, mentally,” Mitchell said to Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune back in December. “I had struggles last year, but none like this year, and it’s really tested me mentally.”
Quin Snyder anticipated the struggles, but acknowledged that it’s one of those things a good player has to go through and experience themselves. Some struggles can be learned by proxy, others can’t be avoided. Snyder said this back in December:
“Donovan’s going to have his ups and downs. The important thing for him is no matter what teams are doing to guard him, whether they’re double-teaming him or trapping him or chasing him or going under, it’s all part of the process for him. He’s going to see different coverages and different matchups. I just don’t want him to stop attacking, because his instinctiveness is what’s going to allow him to continue to get better.”
So when Donovan Mitchell struggled he threw himself into the work and the problem. He worked with coaches, trusted his teammates, and leaned on mentors. Dwyane Wade, formerly of the Miami Heat, and Donovan Mitchell would talk hours on end. Wade mentored Mitchell and has even offered his services to workout with Donovan Mitchell after the season.
Donovan Mitchell didn’t get a full offseason so he had to manufacture the improvements he would have made last June through September in the short time between games during the regular season. When the new year hit, Donovan Mitchell tweeted out, “New year, new me.”
New year, new me.— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) January 1, 2019
Donovan Mitchell took off during the second half of the season. He averaged 26.5 points on 21 shots a game. He was shooting 44.6% from the field and 41.4% from three. He was averaging close to 5 rebounds and assists a game up from his 3 a game in 2018. His turnovers were down and he had an average +/- of +7.0.
Just like before, the reasons for it are complex. The Utah Jazz acquired Kyle Korver for additional floor spacing in December, Donovan played a lot of point guard as Dante Exum and Ricky Rubio were out extended time, Donovan was fully healthy and had confidence taking it hard to the rim, Royce O’Neale’s play improved, Joe Ingles improved in the second half, and Utah’s schedule eased up considerably. There were a lot of factors, but Donovan Mitchell capitalized on the improvements and had a stellar end to the season.
While there are many who might think he had a rough sophomore season after such a great rookie season, he didn’t. He had a great sophomore season. Donovan might be pretty hard on himself saying he has to get better—which isn’t wrong—but it discounts how many players who came out of the gate as high volume scoring guards STRUGGLED in their sophomore seasons. I mean look at this list and Donovan Mitchell had one of the highest year to year improvements in scoring, free throw attempts, rebounds, and assists on a PER36 basis. That’s pretty darn impressive.
Year 2 PER36 Improvement
What’s even more insane is we all know he didn’t hit his full potential this season. Any twitter troll throwing out Monta Ellis 2.0 or some other half-brained comparison should be put on notice. If you are to take Donovan Mitchell’s numbers after the new year into those same comparisons you’ll see that he improved by 5.3 points, 2.1 FTAs, 0.7 rebounds, and 0.3 threes PER36. 5.3 points is close to the improvement Michael Jordan made. The 2.1 free throw attempts improvement would be the highest by a high scoring rookie in their sophomore season ever (in the three point era). 0.7 rebounds would be the same. Donovan Mitchell was a few reasonable “what if’s” away from a sophomore season for the ages. He would have joined a very exclusive group of NBA sophomores had he averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists a game for an entire season.
While Donovan Mitchell did struggle in the playoffs—something that shouldn’t be undersold—Utah ended up playing a team that is currently pushing the Golden State Warriors to their limits. The Houston Rockets could possibly even be the West’s representative in the NBA Finals. Utah was also working without Kyle Korver and somehow every role player Utah had mysteriously forgot how to shoot basketballs from beyond the three point line.
But these playoff failures cannot be learned through proxy. All the great players whether it’s Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neale, John Stockton, Hakeem Olajuwon, or Karl Malone, they all had to experience failure at the biggest stage before figuring out how to have success. Luckily for Donovan, he’s getting that experience at the very beginning of his career and not just barely getting a taste at age 27.
Outlook for 2019-2020
The best news for the Utah Jazz is Donovan Mitchell is going to be able to attack this offseason fully healthy. There was quite a bit he wanted to work on going into last offseason but was limited by his injury. This offseason he has carte blanche health. Donovan has said that he wants to get better.
Donovan Mitchell on what he needs to improve at this off-season: “Better shape. I’ll just leave it at that.”— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) April 25, 2019
This might mean Chip Cookies free product placement on Donovan Mitchell’s instagram stories might be coming to an end. Speaking as someone who gave up quite a few sweets in my endeavor to get more lean, it’s a rough sacrifice, but a worthwhile one. On a more serious note, every NBA player that comes into this league hits the realization that the difference between them and the truly elite players in the NBA is the little things. The little extra work they put in workouts, what they ingest into their bodies, and the techniques they use to recover. They go from being professional athletes to Professional athletes—capitalized. That’s the next transition for Donovan.
There’s also the question as to what position Donovan Mitchell will play in the future. With Ricky Rubio most likely on another team this summer, the Utah Jazz have a chance to move Donovan to the point guard position—as if it really matters in today’s NBA. While Donovan may not necessarily be AT the point guard position, he may be initiating the offense more a la a James Harden or Dwyane Wade.
Speaking of Dwyane Wade, Donovan has an open invite to workout with him during the offseason.
Donovan: "If you would've told me 3 years ago Dwyane Wade would be talking to me about working out this summer after a tough loss, I wouldn't have believed you. But he's right — we've got to work. … I'm really excited to get to work and to do what I've got to do."— Eric Walden (@tribjazz) April 25, 2019
We should expect to see Donovan in a lot more offseason runs since he’s healthy. Working with Dwyane Wade will be huge for Donovan. Another key factor is getting another offseason with Johnnie Bryant is going to help him really take his game to another level. Utah has a great superstar in the making with Donovan Mitchell. He got his bumps and bruises during his sophomore season, but even better, he learned from them, and overcame them. With a healthy offseason, Donovan Mitchell should be poised for a monster season in 2019-2020 with a revamped Utah Jazz roster.