Donovan Mitchell (Finally) Looks Like an All-Star

Utah's young star had a breakout rookie season, but until recently has struggled to recapture the magic.

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Jan 18 2019, 2:00pm

Photo by Jose Mendez/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Donovan Mitchell wasn’t bad until a couple weeks ago, but he didn’t pick up where he left off, either. Instead, at 22, he was an inefficient primary option on a team that was struggling to reach the high yet reasonable expectations that entirely depended on Mitchell making a natural step forward.

In December, his True Shooting percentage was 47.3, and the Utah Jazz were never better on offense than when he sat. (Between November 1 and the new year, he only made 27.3 percent of his threes while jacking up 6.6 per game. Bad!) But—cross your fingers Jazz fans—that slump appears to be over, as Mitchell has recently looked like an awesome albeit unsustainable slaughterhouse. He just won his first Player of the Week award (with Ricky Rubio out of the lineup), and has been unguardable at all three levels. Over his last ten games, Mitchell is averaging 26 points, five assists, and four boards on 45.6/41.4/84.3 shooting splits.

Mitchell still struggles to finish at the rim, in part because he’s one of the boldest and most inventive 22-year-olds you’ll ever see. He’s also unconventional, someone who likes to slow down as he nears the basket or hop off the wrong foot in an attempt to offset a shot-blocker’s timing. But given his strength, insane athleticism (let us never forget that he won the Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie, wearing a Vince Carter Raptors jersey), and ability to change speeds whenever he wants, these feel like habits he’ll eventually overcome. Most of his misses are the result of him feeling a real burden to score. They’re attempted against well-positioned defenders that have help, and shouldn’t be tried in the first place.

For every time he makes you feel like someone slipped LSD in your morning coffee...

...Mitchell belches out something like this:

But that’s all fine. Whenever he high-steps into the paint with the ball extended out and over his head, good things usually happen. And numbers aside, how many players can inject adrenaline straight into your veins with more force than Mitchell at his apex? He’s a sonic boom. The one-handed tomahawk he recently unleashed on JaVale McGee’s forehead was spine-tinglingly R-rated; the basketball equivalent to that time Bart almost killed his father and exploded his house.

It was also a prideful declaration: My sophomore slump just evaporated. Also: I’m an All-Star. Mitchell won’t make 44 percent of his pull-up threes the rest of the year (as he recently has been), but that shot's potential centripetal force can have a real impact on a defense.

Right now, defenders still duck under screens and dare him to pull the trigger. They’d rather see that than a lob to Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors, or for Mitchell to pirouette into the paint and then kick out to Joe Ingles, Kyle Korver, or Jae Crowder for an open three. But the equation changes if he keeps making them at a high rate. And the tighter defenses play him, the better chance he has to blow by and wreak havoc at the rim.

Over the last 10 games, no player is averaging more shots from drives than Mitchell. And as a general rule of thumb, anyone whose launch pad sits between the free-throw line and dotted circle is awesome:

When conducting a pick-and-roll, Mitchell combines Kemba Walker’s slipperiness with the swift strength of a boxer. He loves rejecting his screen with a filthy crossover, skiing downhill, then changing speeds on a big man who suddenly wishes he could crawl into a hole and wait for the storm to pass.

Utah’s offense has not been good this year with Mitchell running point, and going back to last season they were less efficient when Rubio didn’t play and Mitchell did. But—even though he’s fine operating off the ball, punching off a pin-down or blowing by a hard closeout that was created by his teammate’s slash-and-kick—sometimes it still feels like Rubio is a pair of training wheels stuck to the franchise player. Zero disrespect to someone who consistently makes his team better, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Utah didn’t feel much pressure to re-sign Rubio this summer. Accentuating Mitchell as their dynamic primary playmaker, with Gobert at the five and a slew of two-way snipers up and down the roster feels like a pretty good plan.

(To counter my own point, a steady diet of high pick-and-rolls is a polite request for inefficiency in today’s NBA, and even though Mitchell is unstoppable executing them in crunch time, he’ll need to attack in myriad ways over the next few years to reach his true offensive ceiling.)

In the meantime, Mitchell’s All-Star case is far from bulletproof. His slow start will be really hard to overcome—both statistically and in the mind of most voters—and the Western Conference remains a boneyard for guards. (Separating yourself from the pack isn’t easy. Look for yourself.) But he’s trending in the right direction, has the 12th-highest usage rate in the league (sandwiched between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard), and recency bias may become his best friend if the Jazz take advantage of their home-heavy schedule while he delivers 30-point shockwaves every night. Embers from that special player who bum rushed the league a year ago are really starting to glow; when Mitchell is on there’s really nothing like it.