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Breaking down Donovan Mitchell’s unexpected improvements

The star guard has upped his game in unique ways

Utah Jazz v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Donovan Mitchell is better now than he’s ever been before.

A quick look at his box score stats might not show that; as his points per game, three-point percentage, and other stats are down; but it’s easily visible when watching the games. Mitchell looks more in control. More patient. Smarter.

Advanced stats and metrics back this up. Mitchell is currently averaging career-highs in the following statistics:

  • True shooting percentage
  • Box plus/minus
  • Win shares per 48 minutes
  • Plus/minus per 100 possessions
  • Estimated plus/minus

What has caused the dramatic rise in Mitchell’s on-court impact?


Utah Jazz v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The most noticeable change in Mitchell’s game for me this season has been his finishing in the paint. Historically, he hasn’t been great at the rim and has been even worse in the ‘floater range’ (3-10 feet). This year, his field goal percentage in both ranges has skyrocketed. He’s shooting a career-high 71.3% at the rim and a career-high 49.1% in the floater range. Those improvements are immense and have completely changed his scoring profile. Mitchell’s overall 2P% (54.2%) is almost 7% higher than last season! There are only ten qualified guards in the NBA shooting over 54% inside the arc. Mitchell and his teammate Mike Conley are both on that shortlist.

Donovan Mitchell FG% by distance
Basketball Reference

The enormous step up in paint finishing has buoyed up Donovan Mitchell’s efficiency while his three-point shot has struggled. Now that he’s found his groove from beyond the arc, we may see some huge jumps in his percentages.

Shot selection

Utah Jazz v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Donovan Mitchell loves to shoot threes. He set the NBA record for most three-pointers made in a rookie season. He’s currently third all-time on the Utah Jazz franchise three-pointer list and climbing fast. He’ll pass John Stockton for second place in the coming weeks, and then it will only be a matter of time until he catches Joe Ingles for the top spot.

So, yes, Donovan Mitchell shoots a lot of threes. What if I told you that he needed to be shooting even more of them?

Mitchell is a three-level scorer. He likes to mix in mid-range jumpers with his threes, layups, and floaters. There’s a lot of debate in the basketball world about mid-range jump shots, but they have their place. A player who can shoot them efficiently should be encouraged to do so. Mitchell has been decent in the midrange but not consistent year-to-year. From three, however, he’s improved steadily every season. An easy solution for him to increase his overall efficiency was to replace a couple of mid-range jumpers with threes. He’s done that.

Last season, 20.1% of Donovan Mitchell’s field goal attempts came in between 10 feet out and the three-point line. This season, he’s dropped that to only 15.2%. He’s done that while at the same time increasing his three-point attempts from 42.3% of his shots to 46% of his shots. That’s right, 46% of Spida Mitchell’s shots are coming from beyond the arc, and that’s an excellent thing. Even with his early-season struggles from three, he’s still shooting well enough to make this change well worth it, and his percentage is rising quickly.


Utah Jazz v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The Utah Jazz’ perimeter defense has been an issue for a couple of years now, and part of that blame needs to lie with Donovan Mitchell. Although touted as a defensive prospect when coming into the league, he’s become almost an offense-only player.

This year, Mitchell has made a visible effort to improve on the defensive end of the court. You can see him putting in more work on D, which shows in the stats.

Jazz lineups with Mitchell ON the court:

  • Last season: 110.0 points allowed per 100 possessions
  • This season: 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions

Jazz lineups with Mitchell ON the court and Gobert OFF the court:

  • Last season: 117.3 points allowed per 100 possessions
  • This season: 110.4 points allowed per 100 possessions

This data excludes ‘garbage time.’

Of course, lineup data is messy, and you can’t really attribute everything to one player, but there are some easy conclusions to draw from this. Lineups that include Donovan Mitchell have improved dramatically on defense. The Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson pairing had been awful defensively since Clarkson joined the team. This season, lineups with that pairing only allow 105.3 points per 100 possessions, good for the 80th percentile. This can be attributed to improvements by Mitchell, Clarkson, and other players and the addition of Hassan Whiteside. Regardless of the cause, the result is great for Utah. The team's ceiling is raised greatly if Mitchell can prove to be a positive on the defensive end rather than a liability.

Despite his cold shooting to begin the season, Donovan Mitchell is a better player now than he’s ever been before. He’s more efficient, despite three-point struggles and a low free-throw rate. He’s better defensively. He’s a smarter player. And now that he’s found his shot again, the league should be extremely afraid.

Stats via,