Donovan Mitchell takes a while to get going. It’s been that way his entire career, even at the University of Louisville. Twelve games into his sophomore season, he was shooting his 3s below the 30 percent mark; in the 21 games that followed, he was the team’s surest outside shot. Mitchell had a historic first campaign with the Utah Jazz that sparked Rookie of the Year eligibility debates in his defense, but he christened it by hitting only five of his first 25 shots in his first three regular-season games. He’s always had a knack for finishing strong, which made caping for Donovan Mitchell through his second-year struggles easier early on. But now, with exactly half of the Jazz’s regular-season games in the books after a 114-102 loss to Milwaukee on Monday, Utah is seeing the downsides of relying on a sophomore who has stagnated this season at best and has regressed at worst.
With seven minutes remaining in the third quarter Monday, Mitchell appeared to be on his way to a career shooting night; he was 7-for-14 from the field, having hit 5-of-7 from behind the arc and sitting only two 3-point makes away from tying his career high. He was carrying his team on offense. It looked familiar.
The Jazz are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, holding on for dear life as the standings shift almost nightly; nearly every team in the West is just trying to survive, and, more likely than not, it’s been a single star keeping his team afloat. Paul George has been a dark horse MVP for the Thunder; Anthony Davis is doing everything he can for the Pelicans. James Harden, despite a rough start and a serious injury to Chris Paul, has pushed the limits of what he can do within four quarters. The Jazz are in the same position the Rockets were pre-Harden explosion—stuck without options, in desperate need of a bump in shooting, waiting for someone to save them. Harden has been that savior. He is Houston’s offense without Paul in the picture. And for nearly three quarters Monday, Mitchell was Utah’s. But the sophomore slumped in the final quarter and a half of play, hitting only one of his final 10 shots, turning the ball over twice in the final three minutes, and looking less like a Hardenesque first, second, and third option and more like, well, an exhausted 22-year-old.
Utah isn’t built in the superteam mold. Its success is dictated by effort and cohesion as a unit. There’s not a wide margin for error with that kind of formula. What little chips the Jazz had they threw in on Mitchell, the franchise’s most promising young offensive talent in decades, becoming the kind of player who could increase those margins. Without any major changes made to the roster in the offseason, the franchise was expected to pick up where it left off: as a team that hung one on the Rockets in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Jazz clearly had their man; Mitchell was a rookie running his own offense successfully, with the power of an early-aughts All-Star shooting guard and the poise of a franchise cornerstone on his second contract. He gave scorer-less Utah the toughness to hang. Even as one of the youngest players on the team, Mitchell’s presence was more befitting of someone avenging his baby brother’s bullies on the playground.
The Jazz had a Cinderella transformation last season, but that magic has yet to carry over into 2018-19. And unlike other playoff-caliber teams struggling to make it back into the top eight, the pressure to make a splash at the trade deadline doesn’t quite seem as strong for Utah. It might have already made its move—November’s desperation grab for Kyle Korver. The new acquisition is carrying out his duties as a role player; Korver’s become Utah’s best deep shooter in the regular rotation. The miscalculation wasn’t waiting to add someone like Korver; it was expecting the sum of its role players to be enough to hold the Jazz over until Mitchell’s spark returned for good.
Taking a step backward after a huge initial leap forward as a rookie is so common that there’s a popular epithet for it. Yet Mitchell’s particular situation stands out as uncommon; few players his age have the burden he does on offense, and even fewer are in position for the postseason. It’s unfair to Mitchell, but that’s OK. He’s still learning how to become an NBA player, let alone a star who can single-handedly propel a team forward. Harden has shown the league just how much one player can do for his team, but he’s had years to figure out how to accomplish that. The Jazz aren’t where they thought they’d be this year, but if Mitchell is to become the player they hope him to be, this season has been a tough, but necessary education.