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The evolution of Donovan Mitchell as a passer

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Spida’s web-slinging highlights are just scratching the surface of the massive improvement in passing he’s made over his short career

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell makes a pass in the open court against the Golden State Warriors
Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the Quin Snyder era, the Utah Jazz have made passing a stylistic trademark. “Pinging” the ball around the court and getting the defense in “the blender” are some of the Jazz core beliefs offensively.

This season, Utah’s passing is electrifying the NBA, particularly over the past couple games.

On national television last week, Donovan Mitchell slung a half-court pass for a Bojan Bogdanovic 3 in the final minutes of their win against Boston. Over the weekend, Bojan’s leaping, behind-the-back pass to Donovan preemented a one-handed, cross-court pass for a Joe Ingles 3 in the first half against the Bucks.

SportsCenter, Bleacher Report, and even Twitter sensation World Wide Wob flooded the NBAverse with highlights of the plays! The league is taking notice of the potent, entertaining passing.

While Mitchell’s passing has made all of the highlights lately, it’s just a peek into his improving ability as a passer. Having not played PG during his college career and constantly altering his role in the NBA, Donovan’s evolution as a playmaker for others has taken time.

He’s worked extremely hard to improve at setting up his teammates (volume), taking care of the ball (efficiency), and ensuring the pass is always on the money (quality).

Last week Calvin Chappell of SLC Dunk published an incredible article with video highlights of Donovan Mitchell’s practical improvements.

Let’s now take a look at the statistical side of that growth and appreciate the journey he’s taken to become the web-slinging passer we know and love.

Volume

One of the primary critique’s of Mitchell’s game in his short career has been that he’s “only a scorer”. While scoring has thus far headlined his list of responsibilities since being drafted in 2017-18, nothing could be further than the truth that scoring is all he’s contributing.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Cleveland Cavaliers
Donovan Mitchell carves up the Cleveland Cavaliers with his passing
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan’s playmaking has always been solid, though the volume of such has been of particular focus over the course of his career.

When we discuss passing volume, what we really care about are the passes that lead to a scoring opportunity for others. While it may be tempting to just look at raw assists, a much better perspective on playmaking is potential assists.

Potential assisters are the total number of passes that translated into a FGA from a teammate. Another way to think of them are assists plus any missed shot that would have been categorized as an assist.

Take a look at the below chart tracking Donovan Mitchell’s potential assists per 75 possessions in 10 game intervals:

Donovan Mitchell’s passing over time
Donovan Mitchell’s passing over time; Potential Assists per 75 possessions in 10 game intervals
Data per NBA.com, PBPStats.com; Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

While any stretch of games certainly has an effect on Donovan’s ability to create for others with his passing, the overall trendline here is what we’re concerned with first. Donovan’s passing volume has been on a steady increase since his rookie year.

Next, take a look at the final three data points on the graph, representing Mitchell’s 4th year in the league. He’s been hovering at or above 10 potential assists per 75 possessions played, an incredible boost from the 6-7 range in his rookie year.

Growth and improvement are never linear (just look at the blue line). However, the underlying trend can tell us a lot, and in Donovan’s case, it’s showing exactly what the eye test does: he’s passing the ball so much better.

Efficiency

Mitchell has improved as a passer by taking the same passes and turning them more often into scoring opportunities for teammates. We’ll define passing efficiency as volume for every mistake (turnover).

Donovan has generally kept his turnover rate consistent since his rookie year, meaning that his efficiency has increased given the volume increase.

Take a look at the below chart tracking Donovan Mitchell’s potential assists to turnover ratio per 75 possessions in 10 game intervals:

Donovan Mitchell’s passing over time
Donovan Mitchell’s passing over time; Potential Assist to Turnover Ratio per 75 possessions in 10 game intervals
Data per NBA.com, PBPStats.com; Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

As you might expect, a similar trend upward. The key difference here is the oscillating nature of high followed by low. This points to some potential improvement in consistency (more on that later).

Every possession is important because its an opportunity to score. Donovan may not be reducing his turnovers yet, but the chances he’s taking are now for excellent scoring opportunities.

There’s a big difference between gambling a pass for a high quality shot versus an unproductive transfer of the ball, leaving someone else to create an opportunity.

Quality

In terms of passing, it’s not just enough to give teammates opportunities to score without turning the ball over. Good passing is also a function of quality.

Often the quality of the pass dictates the shooting efficiency. A poorly delivered pass, for example, may require side-stepping, jumping to receive the pass, or even adjusting the position of the ball upon catching it. All these and more can affect a shooter’s rhythm.

Let’s define quality as the eFG% off of Donovan Mitchell’s passes. Take a look at the below graphic tracking that data point by a general player type:

Utah Jazz shooting efficiency off of Donovan Mitchell passes over time
Utah Jazz shooting efficiency off of Donovan Mitchell passes over time; eFG% by player type
Data per NBA.com; Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

This chart may require that we consider some of the context:

  • Ideally, we would compare each of these shooting efficiency numbers to average efficiency (would allow for better year-to-year comparisons)
  • The Jazz improved their perimeter shooters the last two years, so the blue line should go up naturally
  • As you might expect, the 2020-21 data is a pretty small sample when limiting to just shots of Donovan Mitchell passes

Despite those caveats, there does appear to be some takeaways.

Donovan has improved greatly in how he’s delivering the ball to the bigs. He’s engaging the defense to give the bigs an advantage and passing the rock at the right moment. You can see that red line just skyrocketing from last season.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell passes out of a double-team against the Detroit Pistons
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Despite improving the perimeter shooters in 2019-20, Donovan hasn’t seen much improvement in how perimeter players are shooting off his passes. Definitely an area for continued improvement (more on that later).

They key here is that in terms of quality, Donovan is definitely improving on the whole, bringing it all together in his fourth year.

Season 4

Donovan Mitchell is the best offensive version of himself in this his fourth year in the league.

He’s improved his efficiency to a career best (56.7% TS), he’s getting to the free throw line at the highest rate yet (26.4% of possessions), and he’s made the passing improvements we’ve talked about thus far.

Let’s see how Mitchell’s passing volume and efficiency this season stack up to league average (see the below chart).

Donovan Mitchell’s passing compared to league average
Donovan Mitchell’s passing compared to league average; a look at volume (left) and efficiency (right)
Data per NBA.com, PBPStats.com; Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

Out of all NBA players having cataloged 800+ possessions played, Donovan is well above average in the volume of potential assists. He’s hovering right at league average for efficiency.

This is fantastic. For a combo-guard continually shifting his role from playmaking to finisher and back to playmaker, he’s achieved an impressive volume without being significantly below average in efficiency.

Let’s take a look at some passing highlights from the last few games this season. SLC Dunk’s own Calvin Chappell compiled an amazing video thread showing what tactical improvements Mitchell has made. Please read and watch!

Calvin points out improvements in vision, arm strength/speed/accuracy, creativity, and reading the defense. All of these are contributing to career best passing numbers this season.

Role

An important aspect to consider in Donovan’s evolution as a passer is recognizing the various roles he’s played in the offense.

As mentioned previous, Mitchell often oscillates between roles as a playmaker and a finisher. Much of his passing volume is dependent on the type of role he has on the court.

Take a look at the below graphic depicting Mitchell’s passing volume (blue) and passing efficiency (red) depending on his role:

Donovan Mitchell passing by role
Donovan Mitchell passing by role; a look at volume (blue) and efficiency (red)
Data per NBA.com, PBPstats.com; Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

As Mitchell shifts from shooting guard, to combo, to point guard (right to left), his volume increases, as you’d expect. He goes from 7.0 potential assists per 75 possessions when he’s on the court with multiple other lead guards (Ricky Rubio, Mike Conley, or Joe Ingles) all the way to 10.9 when no lead guards are with him.

Fortunately, as we’ve seen, his efficiency doesn’t take a hit as he increases the volume, primarily thanks to more of his passes resulting in a FGA.

As mentioned previously, Donovan is figuring out the point guard. At times, we use this as a crutch for when things aren’t going well with the team, but from a practical standpoint it’s spot on.

He’s played roughly 1/5 of his career without Rubio, Conley, or Ingles on the court. That’s not a lot of time and there’s likely a lot of whiplash with his role constantly changing, often from possession to possession.

Some may be asking themselves, “Is Donovan a PG in the future?”

Based on the above data and the video evidence Calvin broke down last week, the answer is he could be. He’s talented enough that he could be the team’s future point guard.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Utah Jazz
Quin Snyder continues to coach Donovan and the team on their roles on the league’s #1 team
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The complication lies in that it’ll take real time for him to acclimate to the full-time role and his career experience thus far (1/5 of his possessions at PG) really doesn’t make the transition extremely smooth.

If the Jazz want Donovan as the PG long-term, they may need to remove the PG training wheels, endure the short-term headaches, and prepare for the long-term rewards.

What’s next for Donovan’s passing journey

Donovan has developed into a real nice playmaker. He’s generating excellent volume, and while refinement in his efficiency and quality is still warranted, he’s settled nicely into his current, ever-morphing role.

Should Utah have a plan for him leading the team from the PG position in the future, Donovan will need fairly significant improvements in efficiency and quality.

Of 41 PGs who have played 800+ possessions and have an approximate build to Mitchell (obvious exclusions are LeBron James and Ben Simmons), Donovan ranks 38th in efficiency (potential assist to turnover ratio per 75 possessions).

Donovan needs to improve the quality of his passes, particularly to perimeter players. Just as the eFG% jumped on his passes to bigs, Mitchell needs a similar jump (to the high 50% range) on passes to perimeter players.

Such improvement is not only necessary for team success but can help vault him into superstar status as a player.

Should Utah continue his current role, we’d hope he continues to refine his passing game, though any major improvement wouldn’t be necessary for him or the team to find tremendous success.


It’s such a treat to have Donovan Mitchell wearing a Jazz uniform, and even more exciting that he’s continued to improve.

Since Mike Conley exited the game against the Charlotte Hornets, Donovan has stepped up in a big way with his impact on the team, especially with increased playing time as the PG.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell plays the hero for Utah and the villain for Boston in the final minutes of last week’s matchup
Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the game against Charlotte, the Jazz were just a +0.9 per 100 possessions when Donovan played without Mike. Since, the Jazz are a +13.2. This in no way discredits the impact of the NBA plus-minus leader Mike Conley prior to his injury. Instead, it shows just how amazing Donovan has been filling in.

Mitchell is a true leader, and man of the people and team. We should thank our lucky stars every baseball pass, every lob, and ever full-court heave that we have Spida Mitchell on the Utah Jazz.