During the first quarter of the Jazz-Blazers game on Monday, Utah guard Donovan Mitchell drove past Portland’s Nassir Little. Once he had Little backpedaling, Mitchell leaned into him and threw up an awkward runner in the lane that missed everything. Nothing remarkable happened during the play. The only remarkable thing was what didn’t happen: The refs didn’t blow the whistle. Portland got the rebound and began pushing it the other way.
Mitchell isn’t James Harden or Trae Young, but he’s benefited from his fair share of cheap fouls over the years. It would have been foolish not to. The refs were giving away points to anyone who would take them. But the free ride has come to an end this season. Like many other elite perimeter scorers, Mitchell’s free throw attempts have been cut in half.
It’s hard to notice those missing points in any one game. Mitchell doesn’t look different, alternating between lighting up defenders from behind the arc and blowing past them off the dribble. The impact of taking fewer trips to the line shows up only when you look at his season numbers. His scoring average, after steadily increasing from 20.5 points per game as a rookie to 26.4 last season, has dipped to 23.2. His true shooting percentage, which also rose over his first four seasons in the NBA, is now lower than it was in his rookie season.
His dip hasn’t affected the Jazz as a whole. Their offense has declined slightly but has been less affected by the rule changes and the return of fans to the arenas than almost anyone else. As of Wednesday, Utah is the only team with an offensive rating above 115 this season, after there were seven such teams last season. The gap between the Jazz and the no. 2 offense (2.8 points) is as big as the one between no. 2 and no. 9.
The key is Utah’s relentless hunt for efficiency. The Jazz spread the floor for 48 minutes, run endless pick-and-rolls, and always look to move the ball into open 3s. They have a math advantage every night. They are second in 3-point attempts and dead last in 2-point attempts.
Mitchell leads the Jazz with nine 3-point attempts per game. That’s a lot even in this day and age. He is tied with Duncan Robinson for fourth in the NBA behind only Steph Curry, Buddy Hield, and Damian Lillard. Boosting his scoring average could be as simple as getting hot from deep. He’s shooting 32.2 percent, well below his career average of 35.9.
But even if his 3-point shooting regresses to his mean, it’d still be below that of his peers. Curry, Hield, and Robinson all have career marks above 40 percent, while Lillard checks in at 37.3. Mitchell takes that many 3s not because he’s so good at them but because that’s the role the Jazz need him to fill.
Mitchell doesn’t have the ball in his hands as much as you would expect for such a big-time scorer. Per NBA Advanced Stats, he is tied for no. 39 in touches per game (69.1) and is no. 23 in average time of possession (5.8 minutes). He shares the ball with Mike Conley Jr. in the starting lineup and runs the show on his own when Conley sits. When he plays with Conley, his job is to wait for his turn to put up shots and then put them up quickly.
That’s been his job since coming into the league. Utah coach Quin Snyder runs a democratic offensive system featuring multiple ball handlers. Mitchell started next to a traditional point guard in Ricky Rubio for his first two seasons before Conley took over.
The role made sense for him coming out of Louisville, where he averaged only 2.2 assists per game in two seasons under Rick Pitino. His college teams were built to pressure opposing ball handlers as much as possible so they could create turnovers and get out and run in transition. Mitchell was at the center of everything, flying around the court and playing at one speed.
Playing under a more methodical coach in Snyder has been a learning process. Every Jazz player has to know what to do and where to be on the floor at all times. It’s not for everyone. Jeff Green lasted only a few months before playing better in more freewheeling systems in Houston and Brooklyn.
The on-the-job training has paid off for Mitchell. He has gotten increasingly comfortable in a more disciplined setup and broken a lot of bad habits. He has increased his assists from his rookie season (3.7 per game) to now (5.1) while keeping his turnovers relatively constant (2.7 to 2.9).
The result is a player ready for a bigger role. Mitchell has thrived without Conley this season:
Conley vs. Mitchell
It’s not just Conley. Most of those minutes have also come without Gobert. Snyder usually takes out his All-Star center at the same time as Conley and ties their playing time together. Conley has played only 26 minutes without Gobert this season. Mitchell has played 264.
He no longer needs to play with an All-Star point guard like Conley or a dominant center like Gobert. Mitchell has gone from being a product of his environment to being the environment. All he needs is a big man to roll to the basket and shooters to spread the floor and he can handle the rest.
He went on a tear when Conley went down in last season’s playoffs, averaging 34.0 points on 44.5 percent shooting in five games without his costar. The Jazz collapsed in their second-round loss against the Clippers because of their defense, giving up an average of 125 points on 54 percent shooting in the final two games of the series even with Kawhi Leonard watching in street clothes.
Utah didn’t change much this season. GM Dennis Lindsey left but the Jazz tinkered around the edges otherwise, adding Rudy Gay and bringing back the top seven players in their rotation. The hope is a healthy Conley will make the difference after a hamstring injury limited him to only 26 minutes against Los Angeles.
But Conley won’t solve the problems the loss exposed. Utah built its team around Gobert, leveraging his ability to protect the rim by putting playmakers and shooters around him and counting on him to clean up the mess on defense. Los Angeles got around that by playing five-out lineups that forced Gobert to guard the 3-point line so that he couldn’t protect the other Jazz defenders.
The conversation around Gobert has it backward. His defense was not the problem despite how bad it looked against the Clippers during the postseason. It was his offense. He averaged 12.5 points per game in the series even though he was guarded by 6-foot-8 wings like Marcus Morris and Nic Batum. Gobert didn’t get played off the floor. He can still play a role against a team that downsizes against him. He just can’t punish them for it. He has to go from the foundation to part of the puzzle.
The best path forward in Utah is to give Mitchell the ball more often. Go back to that list of high-volume 3-point shooters. Mitchell is on a completely different level athletically than the other four. He’s a former dunk contest winner who can mash the turbo button at will. There are only a handful of defenders with even a prayer of staying in front of him. Mitchell is no. 14 in the league in drives per game (14.5) even though his field goal percentage on those drives (52.6) is no. 5 among the 22 players averaging at least 13 per game. Attacking the rim is where he can get back some of those missing free throws. If the refs aren’t calling as many fouls on jumpers, then Mitchell has to go where the fouls are.
Empowering Mitchell would also give the Jazz more room to fix the defensive problems the Clippers exposed. They can put more size and athleticism around him on the perimeter if he doesn’t need to play with another point guard. Utah has been using Mitchell as a wing next to a point guard when he really needs to be a point guard with wings next to him.
Of course, finding two-way wings is easier said than done when every team in the league is looking for them. Utah has to find a club willing to trade one for Conley. The best candidate is Boston, which needs a point guard to keep the ball moving next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. A trade built around Conley for Marcus Smart would kill two birds with one stone. The Jazz could give Mitchell the keys to their offense while also playing better defense around him. A backcourt of Mitchell and Smart might not be as efficient offensively but Utah has already seen the limits of an über-efficient offense in the playoffs.
There’s no rush to make a trade. The Jazz have a better net rating than last season, when they lapped the field to get the no. 1 seed. They are the no. 3 seed with a 14-7 record only because they have lost several close games while the return of the Warriors and the rise of the Suns has pushed them down the standings. The problem for the Jazz is that both teams have the pieces to downsize against them in the playoffs and expose their Achilles’ heel once again.
The fundamental issue is that Mitchell has stopped getting better. There isn’t any more low-hanging fruit for him to pluck in his current role. He already got most of it as part of his meteoric rise from late lottery pick to two-time All-Star before 25. The only way for him to go from All-Star to All-NBA and even MVP candidate is to change what he’s doing.
Mitchell and the Jazz have come far together. Utah saw his potential when few did and developed him into one of the best scorers in the NBA. The next step is turning him into one of its best players, and that will come from letting Mitchell dominate the ball. Point guards like Rubio and Conley essentially provided him with training wheels that allowed him to focus on getting buckets early in his career while they ran the offense. Mitchell is ready for the training wheels to come off.
Stats are through Wednesday’s games.