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With Conley out, Point Donovan has been unleashed

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63 points, 20 assists in two games is...a lot like the rest of the times Mitchell has started at PG.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Conley chose a poor time for a re-surfacing of his hamstring issues from last year with the Utah Jazz entering a rather rough portion of its schedule. But in the hopefully shorter-than-last-year time where the veteran guard is out, Utah seems to be in the very safe hands of Point Donovan Mitchell.

In two games that Conley has missed, we’ve seen two statement games from Mitchell leading to a pair of wins as the Jazz enter a tough part of their schedule. Against the Indiana Pacers, he just missed out on a first career triple-double with 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds (the final stat line on game night read nine rebounds initially, but was adjusted to eight some time later).

Then, against Boston he came through in the clutch on national TV with a 36-9-4 line. In the final minutes, his superior playmaking ability led to him scoring or assisting on every single one of Utah’s final seven buckets of the game. His evolution in not just scoring, but passing is turning Mitchell into one of the league’s premier passers and an all-around playmaker.

If you wanted to include Mitchell’s performance against Charlotte — where Conley played just 20 minutes, leaving early with hamstring tightness — we’ve watched Mitchell average 31.0 points across three games along with 8.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and shooting splits of 47.7/48.4/88.9 while acting as the team’s primary ball-handler and offensive initiator.

This isn’t much out of the ordinary at all. Throughout his career, Mitchell has started 42 games at point guard (out of 240 overall starts) due to injuries to Conley and Ricky Rubio. And some of Mitchell’s more memorable performances have come in those 42 games. Of the three times he’s reached his current regular season career-high of 46 points, two of them came in contests where Mitchell started at PG.

Overall, the games Mitchell has started at the point have yielded considerably better statistical outings from him and often better team success than when he’s played the two.

Why this happens is something of a mystery because when you look at Mitchell’s Cleaning the Glass positional breakdown he’s not necessarily been better playing point guard all the time.

Donovan Mitchell plus/minus at PG vs SG

Year +/- Swing at PG +/- Swing at SG
Year +/- Swing at PG +/- Swing at SG
2020-21 +2.0 +18.5
2019-20 +4.8 +1.2
2018-19 +4.8 +8.4
2017-18 +2.0 +9.8
via Cleaning the Glass

The primary explanation to that mystery likely comes from who Mitchell plays with when he’s the point guard. Using 2019-20 as an example, when Mitchell played at point guard with at least two fellow starters, only one of the eight unique lineups had a negative point differential (the one that included Jeff Green) and on average outscored opponents by about nine points per 100 possessions.

Conversly, lineups with one or fewer starters accompanying Mitchell were outscored by around 18 points per 100 possessions. Only one of these 11 lineups had a positive point differential (Mitchell-Clarkson-Ingles-Niang-Bradley).

In 2020, it’s a fairly similar story, three of Utah’s four best lineups featuring Mitchell at point guard include at least two other starters. The star lineup among these is the Conley-less starting crew of Mitchell-O’Neale-Bogdanovic-Ingles-Gobert which has a +26.6 net rating per Cleaning the Glass.

When he’s playing alongside the best players on his team, Mitchell is often unstoppable. It probably feeds into the fact that he’s typically been among the highest scoring players in clutch situations his entire career. With talent around him, Mitchell makes things happen, though he should probably work on being a floor raiser with bench guys around him.

The topic of Mitchell playing point guard is one I refuse to let slide away, but given how absurdly well Conley has played, there’s no way such a change will or should happen. For now, it’s time to just sit back and enjoy to the fullest a top-tier guard at work. Utah’s gonna need it for this next stretch of games.