Donovan Mitchell Falling Short of Year-2 Hype, and Jazz Are Paying a Steep Price

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 28, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz handles the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 23, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The concussive force of Donovan Mitchell's rookie explosion shook the entire NBA last season. Now, roughly a quarter of the way into his follow-up effort, Mitchell's progress feels underwhelming.

That's a strange thing to say about a 22-year-old averaging 20.6 points per game as the unquestioned leader of his team's offense, but nonetheless, Mitchell and the Jazz both belong on the early short list of 2018-19's biggest letdowns. Utah has dropped three straight and four of its last five ahead of Wednesday's meeting with the Brooklyn Nets. The Jazz currently rank 27th in offensive efficiency and 13th on the other end.

So far, Utah has been nowhere close to the elite team many foresaw. Though it's overly simplistic and underplays broader problems with perimeter defense, poor outside shooting, bad luck and a litany of other issues, a team's star still shoulders an outsized portion of blame.

With Mitchell falling short of expectations, so are the Jazz.

On the surface, Mitchell's production doesn't actually look so different from a year ago. His scoring average is up a tenth of a point, and his block, steal and assist rates are all marginally better as well. After posting an effective field-goal percentage of 50.6 as a rookie, Mitchell's at 47.1 percent this year.

Don't forget, though, that Mitchell didn't become a regular starter (or his team's undisputed offensive alpha) right away last season. Start tracking his numbers after Nov. 10, 2017, when he became a regular starter, and the production discrepancy expands.

Mitchell's Declining Efficiency
2017-18 (post-Nov. 10)44.834.351.7

Several small year-over-year differences in Mitchell's shooting profile add up to a significant dip in scoring efficiency. He's taking fewer shots at the rim, essentially replacing those high-value looks with sketchier ones from 3-10 feet and 10-16 feet. What's more, he's attempting just 36.3 percent of his shots from three-point range, down from 40.4 percent in 2017-18.

In addition to an altered shot distribution, Mitchell's decline in efficiency may be tied to an increase in self-generated shots—particularly from three. After being assisted on 65.8 percent of his deep shots last year, Mitchell is only firing off setups 51.5 percent of the time now. Overall, the Jazz are assisting on 62.4 percent of Mitchell's makes, down from 67.7 percent last year.

Ironically then, some of Mitchell's struggles are the result of him becoming the type of player we all want: A Steph/Dame/Kemba defense-shatterer who'll punish anyone foolish enough to blink when he's within 35 feet of the bucket with a live dribble. An offense-creator who makes everyone better precisely because he doesn't need everyone else to make him better.

Off-the-dribble threes and individual creation are a must-have for any guard with star aspirations, and Mitchell is trying (so far unsuccessfully) to fit that profile. The shots aren't falling so far, but if they do, Utah's offense could spike in a hurry.

In light of how Mitchell succeeded getting his own looks on a big stage, it's hard to fault his approach.

Mike Schmitz @Mike_Schmitz

Impressive way for Donovan Mitchell to go out last night. Once that pull-up 3 becomes consistent, he'll be basically unguardable. Some ridiculous left-handed scoop finishes. Mitchell was my preseason pick for Rookie of the Year. https://t.co/MtXK521IH6 https://t.co/hecyakK1lZ

Of course, you could take the glass-half-empty perspective and say Mitchell isn't actively changing his shot profile as a developmental step, but is instead settling for tougher looks. There's a factor yet undiscussed that makes this rationale compelling.

Mitchell's not healthy.

That's blatantly obvious at the moment in the wake of a rib contusion that forced him out of action against the Lakers on Nov. 23. He missed the Jazz's next two games. Don't forget the right hamstring that cost him a Nov. 2 game against the Grizzlies. Or the sprained left ankle on Nov. 3, after which Mitchell had to be carried to the locker room. After only three minutes of missed game action, improbably, Mitchell returned to the floor in that contest. The ankle caused him to miss Utah's Nov. 7 tilt with the Raptors.

Further evidence something physical is up: Mitchell has just six dunks this season after jamming down 42 last year. Then again, defenses have reason to sag into the lane and defend the rim when Mitchell drives. Better to concede a lower-expected-value floater than get blown by for a momentum-swinging slam.

Diagnosing the cause of Mitchell's seeming lack of progress is hard. The evidence cuts in several directions. Conversely, it's easy to understand why progress felt like such a foregone conclusion.

When a guy drafted 13th assumes control of a winning NBA team within the first month of his career, the bar from that point on is almost cruelly high. And when that same guy seems to come up with a new scoop finish or wrong-footed flip every other week, signaling a knack for staying ahead of the scouting report, well...that's when you start getting Dwyane Wade comparisons.

Throw in the rookie record for made threes, the leading role in a postseason series win and a new NBA mark for most points scored in his first two playoff games, and you can see how hopes for Mitchell's second year ran wild. 

ESPN @espn

Donovan Mitchell out here breaking MJ's record. https://t.co/V8iOjYAEJ0

Don't forget the demeanor, either. Mitchell immediately projected professionalism and maturity as a rookie, and his situation—playing for a historically blue-collar organization that has a way of subduing individual ego—erased fears of superstar entitlement. Just look what Mitchell presented to the world after breaking that playoff scoring mark, previously held by a living icon:

Donovan Mitchell @spidadmitchell

Together Everyone Achieves More 🤐 https://t.co/gPXJh1U2TH

Basically, if you didn't think Mitchell was going to become a megastar in his second season, the burden was on you was to explain why. The alternative, that Mitchell's rise would continue uninterrupted, required almost no justification. It was fated. Inevitable. Destined.

Yet here we are.

The tie between Mitchell's and Utah's struggles is pretty simple. The thinking went: As he improved, he'd increase the Jazz's margin for error. Struggling role-players, strangely suspect team defense and a bevy of missed shots wouldn't hurt as much because Mitchell would transcend those issues. He'd fill the gaps, propping everything up until the rest of the roster came around.

Instead, he's been a reasonable facsimile of his rookie self. The margin for error in Utah remains small, and the rest of the Jazz are erring. A lot.

What's the solution? Certainly, Utah's role-fillers must start playing better in support of their star. As for Mitchell individually, the shrewdest course involves trust. Trust that what we saw last year was real and, critically, only the beginning. Trust that Mitchell's work ethic, statistical profile and unquantifiable comfort as an alpha will still lead to a leap. Trust that 17 underwhelming and injury-hit games don't negate a full 2017-18 season that screamed stardom was imminent.

Bet on Mitchell resuming his ascent, but don't overlook the lesson playing out in real time.

Don't mistake the breakout for the hard part. What comes next is always tougher.


Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Nov. 27.