Donovan Mitchell is scoring more efficiently than ever before, but he’s doing it differently than many expected. Over the first four years of his career, his three-point shooting steadily rose from 34% to 38.6% and showed no signs of slowing down. However, this year, he started in a severe shooting slump, resulting in a lackluster 35% from downtown. Combine that with the fact that his current free throw rate is his lowest since his rookie season, and you might wonder how he’s improved his overall scoring efficiency.
The answer is Mitchell’s vast improvement in scoring in the paint.
Despite his shot profile continuing to trend towards the modern ideals of maximizing three-pointers, he’s become a better scorer inside. His 2PT percentages are better across the board. Mitchell is shooting over 60% on attempts within 5 feet of the rim. That’s a massive improvement from his 54.6% last season. The difference in his 5-9 feet shooting is even more stark. He went from 39.9% last season to 49.2% this season.
In just one season, Mitchell has made the jump from a below-average paint scorer to a legitimate force inside. As anyone familiar with the Utah Jazz might expect, much of that interior scoring has come out of the pick & roll, Utah’s go-to play type. Last season, Mitchell scored 0.96 points per possession as a pick & roll ballhandler, good for the 73rd percentile. This year, 1.08 points per possession, 91st percentile. Mitchell’s 12.8 points per game as a pick & roll ballhandler ranks second behind only Trae Young. Of the top ten in that category, Mitchell has the highest points per possession, score frequency, and effective field goal percentage.
In other words, Donovan Mitchell is the best volume pick & roll scorer in the NBA.
Guarding Mitchell in the pick & roll is a nightmare. He’s become more advanced every year and seems to have put it all together this season. If you don’t go over the screen, he’ll pull up. If you go over the screen, he’ll probably keep you on his hip, unable to get back in front. If you manage to recover in front of him, he has a series of moves to beat you, including euro-steps, spin moves, reverse-pivots, and just straight-up bully ball. All of that is assuming he even uses the screen, which is essential to note because his defenders frequently over-commit to getting over the screen in an attempt to stay in front, so Mitchell casually rejects the screen and finds himself open. He has moves, and he has countermoves.
Donovan Mitchell has a history of flipping the switch and improving his play drastically after the All-Star break. I expect his three-point percentage to rise (43.1% so far in February). The bottom line is this; Mitchell’s ability to make shots in the paint has become elite. If he can put that together with the three-point shooting we’ve seen from him before, he’ll be one of the most dangerous scorers in the league.