Being considered “underrated” can backfire. NBA fans treasure rankings and, whether they’d like to admit it or not, are subject to groupthink: Once a player is called underrated, people latch onto the idea. And once that underrated player is officially recognized as underrated, there’s new pressure to back it up. That’s certainly been the case for Donovan Mitchell, who had a rookie campaign for the ages last season. He had the “underrated” starter kit: dropped in the draft to 13th overall, played better than every other rookie (second-year rookies perhaps excluded), and replaced Gordon Hayward, the man who broke Utah’s heart, seamlessly enough to lead the team to the second-round of the playoffs.
It became clear what Mitchell was: way better than anyone thought he would be. And so the line on his Career Potential over/under corrected itself quickly and, after a rough start to this season, he began edging toward “overrated” territory. As the ever-curious Chastity once said, “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be … whelmed?” You can be underrated; you can be overrated; good luck ever being deemed properly rated in the NBA.
Mitchell scored 12 points in Game 5 against the Rockets, a 100-93 loss that knocked the Jazz from the playoffs. Shooting 4-for-22 overall and 0-for-9 from 3 in an elimination game is a tough look. So were his final few minutes—a turnover, two fouls, and a missed 3-point attempt. That, in addition to the 35.6 percent he shot in the four games before Wednesday, was enough to bring out the overrated takes. Mitchell truthers emerged. Suddenly, he was no longer “underrated”: He was Donovan Waiters, Louisville Tyreke Evans, poor man’s Monta Ellis. Dion Waiters, Evans, and Ellis have reputations for gunning and for substandard shot selection. In those qualities, Mitchell is a kindred spirit. But Mitchell is also two years into his NBA career.
Before we continue, I’ll confess something: I am a lifelong—in recent years, to my detriment—Louisville fan. I watched Mitchell’s highlights on YouTube when he was a recruit. I saw every game of his when he was an undergrad. I very much enjoyed his rise last season, despite its corny ending devoted to the investigation of what makes a rookie.
Those are feelings; these are facts: Mitchell hasn’t even reached his rookie extension yet. He didn’t join a team in 2017; he inherited one. Even the season before Hayward left, Utah’s offense bore little fruit as it averaged the third-fewest points in the league. Without Hayward, the Jazz were considered unfertile ground. Mitchell assumed the role of first option (and often second and third options), and Utah never looked back. The problem is, the team never really looked forward, either. That same top-heavy scoring scheme carried over into 2018-19 as if it were sustainable for a 22-year-old to have the same usage rate as LeBron James. Mitchell finished the season seventh highest in that department. James Harden, his Round 1 counterpart, led all players.
In January, when the Jazz were on the outside of the playoff race looking in, I wrote about Mitchell’s situation in the context of Harden’s. At the time, Houston was without Chris Paul, and both players had the burden of carrying their respective teams offensively by themselves. Harden was the reigning MVP having an MVP-caliber season; when the first round began, he was still doing that, but now alongside Paul. (It should be noted that Harden began Game 3 a historically inaccurate 0-for-15 and Game 5 0-for-7, though the Rockets winning the clincher despite that kind of Oprah shrug–memes my point.)
Utah was dependent on a shot-happy player—a player whom Utah needed to be shot-happy—with two seasons of experience. The fault is inherently the team’s as much as it is Mitchell’s. But that’s more difficult to accept in the moment, as Quin Snyder adjusted the Jazz’s strategy to slow down Harden, and even more so when an elite defender like Rudy Gobert executed that game plan well enough to give Utah a chance despite Mitchell’s shortcomings (and well enough to bring some doubt about how Harden will perform in the next round). Yet it’s not expected of Gobert, who finished with nine points on Wednesday, to contribute to the same degree on the other end—even coming off the best scoring year of his career. Notoriously poor shooter Ricky Rubio dropping 17 points in the elimination game was a pleasant, unexpected surprise. Joe Ingles’s 3-point shooting is a supplement, not a practical second option; and Royce O’Neale, whose 18 points on Wednesday were a team-high, averaged 5.2 on the season. (Has the “underrated” party commenced yet?)
The defense of Mitchell, who scored 34 points in Game 3 and 31 in Game 4, is simple: He’s too young to rent a car. He’s still a year away from eligibility for a rookie extension. So let the line shift from under- to overrated, but don’t think that it’s permanent. In the meantime, he’ll still be no. 1 for Utah. He just can’t be the only one.