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With Mike Conley Out, Donovan Mitchell Is Pointing the Jazz in the Right Direction

The arrival of the longtime Memphis point guard was supposed to turn Utah into a contender. Instead, it’s his absence that’s unlocked the team and its franchise star’s true potential.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Jazz have found a groove without Mike Conley. After a disappointing start to the season with their new floor general, they are 9-3 since Conley tweaked his hamstring on December 2. An easier schedule has helped. But the biggest reason for their surge is that Donovan Mitchell is thriving as a point guard.

Mitchell is playing the best basketball of his young career. He’s averaging more points (26.3) and assists (5.3) on a higher field goal percentage (50.0) over the last 12 games than he did in either of his first two seasons. The highlight was a brilliant performance (30 points on 13-of-23 shooting, nine assists, and seven rebounds) in a win against the Clippers on December 28:

This is the version of Mitchell that the Jazz need to be a legitimate title contender. The key to unlocking the third-year guard has been changing his position. He has never had this much offensive responsibility before. Mitchell has been a star since the day he came to Utah, leading the team in scoring as a rookie, but he has always shared a backcourt with a more traditional point guard, whether it was Ricky Rubio or Conley. Now he’s the player in charge of everything.

Positions in the NBA are really just shorthand for the role a player has in the offense. Mitchell has become the primary ball handler for the Jazz. He averaged roughly the same number of touches as Buddy Hield and Paul George in the first 22 games of the season, but he’s crept into Bradley Beal and Kemba Walker territory over the last 12:

Donovan Mitchell’s First 22 vs. Last 12 Games

Donovan Mitchell Touches Average time of possession Drives
Donovan Mitchell Touches Average time of possession Drives
Last 12 games 75.8 7.1 19.8
First 22 games 58 4.4 15.5

Mitchell is a shoot-first player at heart. Surprisingly, the one thing that has not changed with Conley sidelined is the number of attempts that Mitchell takes. He’s averaging almost exactly the same after Conley’s injury (20.3) as he did before (20.5). The difference has been the amount of time he has with the ball in his hands. A player with his skill set is much more valuable when he’s running the offense than playing a role in it.

He’s not as threatening to an opposing defense in an off-ball role. Mitchell is an average outside shooter (career 35.1 percent from 3 on 6.7 attempts per game) who also lacks size (6-foot-1 and 215 pounds) as a shooting guard. He’s not a spot-up shooter, either. Mitchell prefers to put the ball on the ground before going up for a shot. He’s shooting 44.2 percent on 9.1 pull-up jumpers per game compared with just 38.9 percent on 2.2 catch-and-shoot jumpers per game.

What makes Mitchell so special is his ability to create his own offense. He has a rare combination of speed, shooting, and driving ability. It’s almost impossible to contest his shot and stay in front of him off the dribble, especially when he’s coming around a ball screen. Mitchell is one of the best pick-and-roll scorers in the NBA, ranking in the 81st percentile of ball handlers in terms of scoring efficiency while taking the third-most field goal attempts (10.0 per game).

The best way to build an offense around a player like Mitchell is to give him the keys in space and force defenses to react to him. The 23-year-old is still learning how to be an effective playmaker, but the Jazz have made it easier for him to read the floor and find the open man this season.

The structure of their offense has changed. The Jazz signed Bojan Bogdanovic to a four-year, $73 million contract in the offseason to be a small-ball power forward, modernizing their lineup after spending years trying to squeeze two traditional big men (Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors) into the same frontcourt. Mitchell now always plays with three shooters and one roll man around him. It’s a great situation for him. Each of the four other starters in their new lineup is an established veteran in a great role for his game.

Gobert isn’t just a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s an elite two-way player. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman with a 7-foot-9 wingspan moves well for a player with his gargantuan size. Get him the ball when he’s going downhill, and he’s almost unstoppable. Bogdanovic (43.2 percent on 7.2 attempts per game) and Royce O’Neale (45.0 percent on 3.0 attempts) create space for Mitchell and Gobert in the paint and are the rare elite 3-point shooters who can hold their own on defense too.

With Conley out, the final spot in the starting lineup has gone to Joe Ingles. He was coming off a breakout season, but has struggled in a smaller role next to all the new faces this year. Since Conley’s injury, though, he’s been on a tear, averaging 15.3 points on 53.3 percent shooting and 5.8 assists. The new starting five has been dominant, with a net rating of plus-23.7 in 223 minutes. While they have been beating up on a lot of bad teams over the last month, the lineup template is also a proven formula. The same group with Jae Crowder in place of Bogdanovic had a net rating of plus-19.1 in 103 minutes last season.

There were simply too many cooks in the kitchen for Utah when everyone was healthy. Conley, Mitchell, and Ingles have a net rating of minus-1.2 in 160 minutes together this season. Remove Conley, and the other two are plus-5.3 in 681 minutes. Remove Ingles, and they are plus-7.8 in 468 minutes.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder may have to choose between Conley and Ingles at the end of games. It’s an easy decision on paper. Conley has been one of the best point guards in the NBA for a decade, and he’s far more dynamic off the dribble than Ingles. But he has struggled since coming over from Memphis, averaging some of the worst offensive numbers (13.6 points on 36.5 percent shooting and 4.6 assists per game) of his career. It has been a difficult transition for him. Conley did everything for the Grizzlies, who had no other perimeter players who could create offense. He has never had to share the ball with a scorer like Mitchell.

Ingles and Mitchell are a more natural fit. Ingles is comfortable playing off Mitchell and gives the Jazz more size (6-foot-7 and 220 pounds) on the perimeter. Conley and Mitchell are both 6-foot-1, the smallest starting backcourt among any of the top six teams out West.

Utah doesn’t necessarily need to give up on Conley. He may no longer be in his prime at 32, but he’s too smart and skilled to not find a way to contribute in his new situation. He just has to learn how to play off the ball. It’s a lot to ask for a player with his track record and pedigree, but it’s something that he would need to do at some point as he got older, anyway.

Conley has a player option for $34.5 million next season. The assumption when the Jazz traded for him was that there was no way he would walk away from that much money. But if he’s unhappy with his role in Utah, he could decline it and become an unrestricted free agent. The problem is that he may not find a good team willing to give him as much offensive freedom as he received in Memphis.

It’s not like he would never have an opportunity to run the offense if he stays in Utah, either. Snyder could stagger the minutes of Conley and Mitchell so that one of the two is always in the game, in the same way as Houston does with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The bigger problem for the Jazz is that neither of their star guards has been able to do much without Gobert. They go from a net rating of plus-7.5 in 1,072 minutes with their star center to minus-6.2 in 513 minutes without him. Utah was far more respectable when he was off the floor (plus-1.3 in 1,364 minutes) last season.

That was the trade-off in losing Favors this summer. They upgraded their floor spacing and perimeter scoring by going smaller around Gobert, but lost what Favors brought when Gobert was out. He’s an excellent two-way player who had great chemistry with Ingles on the pick-and-roll. Neither of his replacements—Tony Bradley and Ed Davis—have been able to fill his shoes.

It’s unfair to expect either to be as good as Favors. They are both good enough to fill a role on a second unit. They just need to play with someone who can make their lives easier.

That is where Mitchell comes in. To take the next step, Utah needs him to be more than a product of his environment. He has to be able to carry lineups on his own. He’s just not there yet. He goes from a net rating of plus-9.8 in 756 minutes with Gobert to minus-5.3 in 357 minutes without him.

Mitchell can be the focal point of an offense. He’s one of 16 players in the NBA this season with a usage rate higher than 30. But he still lags behind his peers in a number of offensive categories. Mitchell is no. 14 in assists (4.2 per game) in that group and tied for no. 12 in true shooting percentage (55.6), right behind Zach LaVine and D’Angelo Russell. It would help if he had a more efficient shot distribution. He’s no. 14 in free throw rate (.249) and no. 10 in 3-point rate (.303), which means that he settles for a lot of tough 2-pointers.

There are a lot of little things in his game that he can clean up. Mitchell has the tools to be one of the best point guards in the league. He just needs to become a better decision-maker, whether it’s knowing when to shoot and when to pass, or how to manipulate the defense into getting the best possible shot. Those are all things that should come as he gains more experience at the position and learns through trial and error against NBA defenses. For all his success in Utah, he’s still a young player. He hasn’t had that many reps running an offense, either. He was a combo guard in his two seasons at Louisville.

The goal for Utah should be for Mitchell to follow the same path as James Harden and Bradley Beal. They both made the transition from scorer to playmaker in the NBA, starting their careers as shooting guards before moving to point guard. It took them years to get to where they are today. But Harden and Beal weren’t much further along than Mitchell when they were 23. Harden was in his first season in Houston and just becoming a full-time starter, while Beal was averaging 20 points per game for the first time.

The Jazz need Mitchell to keep getting better. They already hit their ceiling with Gobert as their best player. He’s a big man who can’t create his own shot, and his ability to protect the rim becomes less valuable in a playoff series against a team that can spread the floor and bomb away from 3. Utah lost to Golden State in 2017 and Houston in 2018 and 2019. Gobert is one of the few centers good enough to stay on the floor against those types of offenses, but he can’t dominate like he can in the regular season.

The additions the Jazz made this offseason, despite seeming substantial, didn’t change the fundamental dynamic of their team. They are still waiting on Donovan Mitchell. Making him a point guard is the first step. Now they need him to become an elite one.