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Donovan Mitchell Is the Jazz’s One True Star

Utah is facing an uphill battle against Houston, and if Rudy Gobert can’t decode the Rockets’ offensive attack, the series could show how the Jazz can reshape their team in their rookie’s image rather than their star big’s

Two images of Donovan Mitchell, dunking and smiling Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Donovan Mitchell exceeded even the most optimistic projections as a rookie. The no. 13 pick in the 2017 draft is coming off a star-making series against the Thunder, in which he averaged 28.5 points a game on 46.2 percent shooting. Part of his success comes from the unusual situation he landed in: a playoff team with a ready-made foundation looking for someone to fill the hole created by Gordon Hayward’s departure in free agency. All Utah needs Mitchell to do is get buckets. His teammates take care of the rest. The next step for the Jazz is figuring out how to build a team around their rookie sensation, a question their second-round series against Houston—which continues with Game 2 on Wednesday—will help answer.

Playoff teams rarely give a rookie this much responsibility. First-year players who get minutes for a contender are typically defensive-minded role players like OG Anunoby in Toronto. Even Jayson Tatum had a below-average usage rate (19.4) in Boston before a wave of injuries created a bigger role for him. Mitchell had the third-highest usage rate (29.1) of first-year players who logged at least 2,000 minutes in NBA history. Most of the other seasons near the top of that list came from players in rebuilding situations, like the Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr., who had a usage rate of 28.9 on a 28-54 team.

Utah would have floundered without Mitchell, but he’s not yet its most important player. Everything the Jazz do still begins with Rudy Gobert, the 25-year-old center favored to win Defensive Player of the Year. The Jazz suffocated the Thunder by shuttling penetration to Gobert, who covered up the rim and never allowed Russell Westbrook to get into a rhythm. Oklahoma City had an offensive rating of 100.7 in the series, which would have put the team dead last in the NBA in the regular season. The only time the Thunder got anything going was when Paul George and Westbrook got hot from the perimeter in games 1 and 5, and the two couldn’t sustain those percentages over the whole series. But for all the advantages that come with Gobert’s presence, he can’t generate his own offense. That’s where Mitchell’s emergence has been vital.

The key to Mitchell’s success in Utah is his ability to score in minimal amounts of space. Most young guards with his athleticism and explosive ability are more like Smith: ball-dominant players with inconsistent jumpers at their best when attacking the rim. That wouldn’t work on a team that starts Gobert, Ricky Rubio, and Derrick Favors, since defenses routinely pack the paint to dare them to score from the perimeter. Mitchell came into the league with an effective 3-point shot, shooting 34 percent from 3 on seven attempts per game this season and making more 3s (187) than any rookie in NBA history.

Mitchell fits the profile of a classic shooting guard. At 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, he doesn’t have prototypical height for the position, but he makes up for it with a massive vertical and a 6-foot-10 wingspan that allows him to shoot over most perimeter defenders. He scores without dominating the ball: He was in the 96th percentile among players leaguewide as a spot-up shooter. The only 20-point scorers this season who averaged fewer touches per game than Mitchell (61.2) are LaMarcus Aldridge, Kristaps Porzingis, and a who’s who list of the league’s best 2 guards: C.J. McCollum, Paul George, and Klay Thompson.

Mitchell’s not just a catch-and-shoot player, though. He can also create his own shot, and he’s deadly when pulling up for 3. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he was in the 75th percentile of players leaguewide at shooting off the dribble, on a healthy sample size of 432 possessions. Mitchell torched the Thunder on those shots, particularly in Game 6, when he closed them out with 38 points on 14-of-26 shooting. There’s only so much even an elite perimeter defender like George can do to stop a guy who’s draining pull-up 3s from way behind the line:

What makes Mitchell even more unusual is how polished he is on defense. He’s the rare 21-year-old with an NBA-ready frame, and he has the strong base, quick feet, and long arms to slide among multiple positions. He spent nearly as many possessions guarding Westbrook (73) and George (123) as he did Corey Brewer (165) in the first round. Gobert’s presence inside makes his life easier on that side of the ball, but he could thrive in any defense. Mitchell has the tools to be an effective interior defender in a switch-heavy scheme, used in much the same way that James Harden is on the Rockets.

The only real hole in Mitchell’s game is that he’s not an instinctive passer, which was the knock on him coming out of Louisville. Mitchell averaged 3.7 assists on 2.7 turnovers a game this season, an indication that he’s making good decisions on the floor. He’s just not always looking to pass, which isn’t unusual for a gifted scorer operating mostly on instinct. Mitchell can score whenever he wants: He can beat most NBA defenders off the dribble, and he’s athletic and creative enough to finish in traffic. The next step for him is leveraging that ability to make his teammates better.

It wasn’t a huge issue for Utah during the regular season, because it surrounded Mitchell on the perimeter with Rubio and Joe Ingles, who combined to average 10.2 assists a game. The two veterans controlled tempo, distributed the ball, and allowed Mitchell to focus on scoring. With Rubio out with a strained hamstring for Game 1 of the Jazz’s second-round series, Ingles was often the player who initiated the offense and got them into their sets. While they weren’t as efficient without Rubio against the Rockets, the bigger concern is what happened on the other end of the floor.

Houston scored 110 points on 45.1 percent shooting, a repeat of what happened in Utah’s second-round sweep at the hands of Golden State last season. Harden and Chris Paul, like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, are elite 3-point shooters who can score without challenging Gobert at the rim. The Rockets and Warriors also put more shooting around their stars than the Thunder do, further stretching out the Jazz defense. The limitations of building a team around Gobert become obvious in those types of series: He can’t hang back in the paint, he’s not quick enough to extend out on the perimeter, and he doesn’t have the offensive game to punish a mismatch against a smaller defender.

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder spent most of Game 1 searching for effective lineup combinations. Gobert and Favors were a dominant pairing against the Thunder, with a net rating of plus-23.9 in 132 minutes, but they had a net rating of minus-33.7 in 14 minutes against the Rockets. Utah’s best lineups were the ones that most resembled Houston’s, with three shooters spreading the floor for Mitchell to work in the two-man game with either Gobert or Favors. While Mitchell doesn’t need much space in the half court to score, opening up the floor makes it easier for him to read the defense and find the open man.

Mitchell still has a long way to go when it comes to running the pick-and-roll. It’s an essential ingredient in the game of every elite guard, and it’s one of the hardest skills in the league to master. He was in the 53rd percentile of scorers leaguewide in the pick-and-roll this season, and he was in the 44th percentile when you include the passes he made out of the play. Part of the issue is that he spent so much time this season next to non-shooters at the 1 (Rubio) and the 4 (Favors), allowing defenses to pack the paint against him.

The Jazz should put more 3-point shooting around Mitchell going forward, but that’s about the only prerequisite for a member of his supporting cast. He’s already one of the most versatile players in the NBA: an elite athlete who can shoot 3s, defend multiple positions, and create his own shot off the dribble. There aren’t many players with whom Mitchell wouldn’t fit. The only thing he can’t do is run an offense full-time, but that’s a skill few young players possess when they enter the league. Even if he doesn’t improve much as a passer, his ability to threaten defenses off the ball still makes everyone around him better.

Mitchell’s emergence has changed the timetable of Utah’s franchise. Houston and Golden State are the class of the Western Conference, and as long as those two teams can spread the floor with five 3-point shooters, there will be a ceiling on how good a team built around Gobert can be. If Snyder can’t find an answer in this series, the Jazz have the financial flexibility to make changes. They have only six players under contract for the 2019-20 season: Mitchell, Gobert, Ingles, Tony Bradley—a promising big man they acquired in a trade with the Lakers, who picked him at no. 28 in last year’s draft—and two 3-and-D players in Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale.

While Salt Lake City has never been a free-agent destination, having a young star like Mitchell locked up for the next decade should make it more attractive. The Jazz did a textbook job of rebuilding after they traded Deron Williams in 2011, but they never found a true franchise player. Hayward made one All-Star team in seven seasons in Utah. Gobert has never made one. Mitchell might become a perennial All-Star as soon as next season. The Jazz have their cornerstone, and it shouldn’t be hard to fill in the pieces around him.