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Make Room for Donovan Mitchell in the Rookie of the Year Conversation

Plus: some encouraging signs from Gordon Hayward and Jamal Murray’s shooting struggles

Gordon Hayward, Donovan Mitchell, and Jamal Murray Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just when it looked like Ben Simmons was destined to win Rookie of the Year, Donovan Mitchell has surged like Bitcoin. The rookie guard has seized a starting role in Utah while averaging 24.4 points on a 59.6 effective field goal percentage over his past eight games.

Mitchell became the NBA’s new favorite young player after dropping 41 points on December 1 against the Pelicans. He drained monster 3s off the dribble, flashed his athleticism while scoring at the rim, created open looks for teammates, and defended well. It was like watching a young Dwyane Wade.

We should have seen this coming. But even those high on Mitchell couldn’t have foreseen the type of opportunity—which is always the toughest variable to account for in pre-draft analysis—the rookie is now receiving. “I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball. Necessity is the mother of invention,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told The Big Show last week. “We thought Donovan could take a few possessions. This many possessions? I’d be lying to say, ‘Hey, I knew it’d play out exactly how it’s played out.’”

To put the Utah rookie’s abnormally heavy workload into perspective: Mitchell has already attempted 20 or more shots six times, which is more than Wade, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Stephon Marbury, Russell Westbrook, and Ray Allen did as rookies. Even Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan don’t average as many shots per 100 possessions as Mitchell does, per Basketball-Reference. Mitchell is getting force-fed opportunities like he’s a multi-time All-Star with a top-selling sneaker.

The Jazz had the hots for Mitchell since before the Chicago pre-draft combine this past May, according to Lindsey, but were slotted to draft 24th overall. It’s common for agents to push draftees away from working out for teams at the bottom of the first round, so it doesn’t seem like they belong in that range. But Mitchell, a projected mid-first-rounder, said his agent, Ty Sullivan, encouraged him to begin his pre-draft process in Utah. The rest of Mitchell’s workouts were with lottery teams. “We don’t begrudge kids for declining workouts,” Lindsey said last week regarding Mitchell’s workout. “As much as we targeted them, [Mitchell and Sullivan] targeted us.”

Utah ended up trading the no. 24 pick (Tyler Lydon) and Trey Lyles (the no. 12 pick in 2015) to the Nuggets for the no. 13 pick. Denver had hoped OG Anunoby would fall to it, per multiple sources, but the Raptors took him one spot before the Nuggets could.

While Mitchell shined in summer league, Utah’s roster underwent changes. Gordon Hayward left for Boston. George Hill got paid in Sacramento. Utah added a pass-first point guard in Ricky Rubio, but after injuries to Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood, the door opened for Mitchell. And Jazz coach Quin Snyder deserves credit for giving him a warm welcome as he walked through it.

Snyder has a knack for putting players into positions to succeed, and he’s never hesitated to play youngsters like Lyles, Hood, Dante Exum, and Rudy Gobert. In a different environment, Mitchell might’ve ended up with an old-school coach who kept his role the same and simply elevated minutes for “reliable” veterans like Thabo Sefolosha—especially after Mitchell had three 1-for-7 performances in his first five games.

It’s the second season in a row the Jazz have managed to overcome injuries by utilizing Snyder’s ball-movement-based system to generate on- and off-ball actions. A positionless approach that utilizes multiple ball handlers turned out to be a perfect fit for Mitchell, who doesn’t quite have the pure passing skills of a point guard or the size of a shooting guard.

Mitchell improved his ballhandling ability by adding crossovers and change-of-pace dribbles as a sophomore at Louisville, and he has continued to hone his craft this season. His better handle has allowed him to stroke shots off the dribble at a more efficient clip. Although he’s played only 27 games, Mitchell has flashed superstar potential through his ability to score against any type of defense. His next test will be doing it against defenses game-planning specifically to stop him.

Mitchell scored only 12 points on 4-for-17 shooting in Saturday’s 117-100 loss to the Bucks. It was Mitchell’s seventh game with at least seven shots and a field goal percentage below 28 percent (only Lonzo Ball, Mike James, Marcus Smart, and Wesley Matthews have more this season, per Basketball-Reference). Shots won’t always fall, which makes it crucial that Mitchell improve his at-rim finishing. He’s able to get into the paint with a quick first step and some nifty hesitation moves, but he’s a predominantly right-handed finisher who glides to the rim. His moves can be predictable, and on Saturday, the Bucks sat on that right hand and blocked two of his six shots in the restricted area. The next step in his development is mastering his left hand and learning to absorb contact at the rim and draw fouls.

But his progression also opens up questions for the rest of Utah’s roster. If Mitchell develops into a primary ball handler, the Jazz would be better off targeting a floor-spacing guard to put next to him. Dante Exum could fit the bill if he can stay on the floor. Rubio will be an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but a change may be in order sooner, regardless of Mitchell’s recent pro-Rubio response to a fan:

Hood would theoretically be a great fit as a 2-guard next to Mitchell, but the fourth-year wing can’t stay healthy; he missed two October games with a lower left leg strain and sat out the past seven games with left ankle soreness. It’s not the first time Hood has dealt with leg injuries: He’s suffered a deep bone bruise on his left knee and plantar fasciitis in his left foot. On the right leg, Hood has dealt with a hamstring strain, plantar fasciitis, a hyperextension, a bone contusion, an LCL sprain, and an Achilles tendon strain. The Jazz were wise not to re-sign Hood prior to the rookie-extension deadline for that reason, but they still need to find additional sources of scoring as last week’s losses to the Bucks, Thunder, and Rockets showed.

Before the season, we thought Hood would be the breakout star in Utah. Now, he may wind up spacing the floor for that guy.

Could Gordon Hayward Return This Season?

It’s been only 55 days since Gordon Hayward broke his leg five minutes into the 2017-18 season, but Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub on Thursday that Hayward is “a couple weeks away” from being out of the walking boot. That seems fast, but maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised.

Despite the gruesome nature of the injury, the initial reports said had suffered a “clean” break and was expected to make a full recovery. Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told the Boston Herald that Hayward suffered a “clean” break, while WCVB’s Mike Lynch reported Hayward suffered no ligament damage and that surgery was “as good as doctors could hope.” No timetable for a return was set.

Here’s the interesting part: Lynch also said on October 18 that the best-case scenario for Hayward’s return to the court was March. That seemed silly considering the severity of Hayward’s injury. But on October 21, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he chatted with Hayward about “how to approach the next five months” of his recovery. Stevens later retracted his statement and said there is no timeline and the expectation was that he’d miss the season; Hayward and his agent both said the same. But “five months” from the time of his statement is mid-to-late March, as Lynch reported.

On Friday, Hayward openly admitted a return this season is in the back of his mind. “I’m definitely pushing to get back as fast as I can, while making sure that I still have a lot of good years of basketball in me. And coming back early and hurting something else is not part of that plan,” Hayward told The Boston Globe. “So I’m making sure that if I come back, I’m one-thousand percent confident in myself and my leg. I hope more than anything I can play this season. That would be awesome.”

Celtics fans on Twitter and Reddit didn’t put much stock into a Hayward return this season—until Hayward’s wife Robyn posted a photo of him not wearing his boot on December 6. Ainge’s boot update last week and Hayward’s comments to the Globe will only fuel hope that Hayward can suit up for Boston again this season. The Celtics have the best record in basketball, but their 11th-ranked offense needs to get better. No team could make a better in-season acquisition than the Celtics could if Hayward makes a return.

Broken Arrow

Jamal Murray dribbling around Lonzo Ball at the end of Denver’s win over Los Angeles earlier this month was cool with me. But you’d think Murray, of all people, would have a soft spot for the struggling rookie. Murray was projected as a sharpshooter after shooting the lights out from 3 at all lower levels, including draining 40.8 percent of his 3s as a Kentucky freshman. But Murray has hit only 33.3 percent of his 453 total 3-pointers through 108 NBA games, excluding heaves. Only Dario Saric and Nicolas Batum have shot a worse percentage on more than 450 3-point attempts since the beginning of last season, per Basketball-Reference. So what’s wrong?

Usage comes to mind first. Murray shoots 26.2 percent on pull-up 3s, which is below average, and 37.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, which is about average. A better shot profile would help his percentage, but even then, his catch-and-shoot percentage isn't anything special. How about range? Murray is comfortable from the right corner, where he’s hit 52.5 percent of his 3s. From the left corner, his numbers drop to 30.9 percent. And from above the break, he shoots 31.7 percent. If Murray’s shooting prowess is a matter of getting stronger and extending range, that’s great, because his numbers should improve in the future. But what if it’s something else?

Murray has a gorgeous shot. It’s compact. He’s able to balance himself midair because of excellent footwork and body control. He gets the ball out quickly and knows how to create space using screens. There’s just one flaw: His release point is low, and it could be the cause for his unimpressive shooting success.

Per Synergy, Murray has shot just 27.9 percent when “guarded” on catch-and-shoot jumpers compared to 42.2 percent when he’s open. It’s normal for players to shoot a worse percentage when they’re covered, but Murray’s differential is quite extreme. The solution for Murray could be to slightly raise his shot pocket to have a higher release. He’s certainly capable with his soft touch around the rim and his elite 89.9 percentage from the free throw line. If his shot doesn’t develop, next time, he may be the one getting dribbled around.