Donovan Mitchell was widely labeled as an athletic guard with defensive upside in the lead-up to the 2017 NBA draft. Knowingly or not, Mitchell only fed into the idea by the way he answered questions after pre-draft workouts.
“It starts on the defensive end,” he told reporters in Utah in late May. “I think the most important thing, as opposed to being a 1 and 2 on offense or defense, is being able to guard guys as quick as Russell Westbrook, but then the size of Klay Thompson.”
In that same interview, Mitchell, who played two seasons at Louisville, talked about how he tries to find opportunities on offense but didn’t focus on creating shots for himself. Predraft reports touted his athleticism and potential on defense. His offensive game had promise, but it was mostly described as “a mixed bag” by draft experts.
“Defense travels,” he said. “Offense comes and goes.”
But the Jazz, whether they knew it or not when they traded up to no. 13 overall to draft Mitchell, needed his offense to come ASAP. Gordon Hayward’s departure for Boston left a void 15.8-field-goal-attempts-per-game wide. The Jazz still possessed a formidable team on paper, but as they found out early in the season, they lacked an offensive focal point.
In the first 11 games of the season, Ricky Rubio averaged over 12 shots a game. As The Ringer’s Danny Chau pointed out, that trend was a death wish. In their past six games, however, that number has dropped to 7.8 shots a game. Coincidentally or not, the Jazz, who face off against the Thunder on Tuesday, have won six in a row.
Despite preaching defense, Mitchell began his career by chucking away. But lately, he’s been hitting more shots than not. Over the past five games, Mitchell is averaging 25.2 points on 53.6 percent shooting. He scored 24 points against both the Bucks and the Clippers, and posted a career-high 41 points against the Pelicans on Friday. Overall, he’s averaging 16.6 points per game on 15 shots per game. Only two players in the 3-point era have averaged at least 14 field goal attempts per game and at least six 3s per game in their rookie season, per Basketball-Reference. Damian Lillard is one of them. So far, Mitchell is the other.
Mitchell’s stat line isn’t the only thing comparable to Lillard. There’s shades of Lillard’s nimbleness and force in Mitchell’s basketball DNA. But Mitchell’s athleticism and wingspan are better than Lillard’s, and though the Blazers point guard already knows how to run an offense, Mitchell has already flashed the potential to do just that.
Mitchell’s usage rate of 28.3 percent is a tick above what LeBron James’s was during his rookie season in Cleveland. And even though he’s being allowed to hoist up shots at will in an offense thirsty for scoring, Mitchell’s shot distribution is modern-NBA-friendly: 72 percent of his field goals have come either within three feet of the basket or from behind the arc.
Mitchell is shooting 41.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-point field goals, and has more points per game on pull-up shots (4.9) than any other rookie (and he’s in the top 30 in the entire league). His motion is already as smooth as it is quick:
Mitchell drives to the basket like a gliding frisbee. The defender in front has the tough job of trying to catch — or stop — him, but as Mitchell extends his frame and uses his 6-foot-10 wingspan to move past the defender, he slips the ball quickly up toward the basket for a layup.
Mitchell’s first step and hesitation moves are already so polished that, in what seems like one motion, he can begin to pull up for a jump shot, change his mind, divert the ball back onto the floor as the defender rushes up to him, and blow by him to the rim. Look at how flat-footed he leaves Jusuf Nurkic on this play:
Mitchell plays with a reckless abandon that’s made even more enjoyable by his natural athleticism.
Donovan Mitchell can get up a little bit. pic.twitter.com/1DM96Fqwhl— Dave DuFour (@DaveDuFourNBA) December 1, 2017
But even as Mitchell carves out a place in the NBA as an explosive scorer, he seemingly hasn’t lost sight of what got him to this point. Mitchell and the Jazz weren’t in action on Sunday, but Louisville was. Mitchell was watching — and giving advice.
Defense first, always.