Donovan Mitchell’s 41-point outing on Dec. 1 has turned his entire season around, and the Utah Jazz’s rookie has become a sensation.
Two sets of back-to-back 20-plus point performances in early November had showcased the potential of Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell. After slipping to 13th overall in the 2017 draft, discussions were on the rise concerning all the teams who had passed on him and if they made the right choice. After a few undesirable games, those talks quieted. Fans are fickle.
As we get closer to the new year, things have changed — so much so that Mitchell has rocketed himself up to second on the Rookie of the Year ladder.
His last eight contests have been a stark contrast to his first 12. Mitchell averaged 12.9 points a night to begin the season but was unable to put the ball in the hoop. Or a pool. Or the ocean, for that matter. Only 34.5 percent of his shot attempts fell, and that dropped to 31.9 percent when he extended himself to the three-point line. While grooming himself under Rick Pitino at Louisville, Mitchell was never a scorer whose numbers jumped out of the box score, but he was more than serviceable.
As a sophomore, he put up 15.6 points a night, and the 35.4 clip he posted from downtown was respectable. Mitchell had the opportunity to excel as a three-and-D guy at the next level. Anything more was a bonus.
Guys like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. flew off the draft board, allowing the Denver Nuggets to pick Mitchell toward the end of the lottery. Leading up to the draft, his off-the-charts athleticism and an insatiable hunger to be a stifling defender were the two most endearing qualities. Given his size (6-3) and length (6-10 wingspan), Mitchell could easily matchup against either guard spot without being overmatched physically. The Nuggets then traded Mitchell’s rights to the Jazz for Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles.
Utah, given their location and style of play, seemed like an excellent place for Mitchell’s development. They get adequate media attention but aren’t under the same microscope that stalks contenders (Golden State, Cleveland) and teams in big markets (New York, Los Angeles). On top of that, Quin Snyder has instituted a defensive-first philosophy where the Jazz’s only concern is preventing you from putting the ball in the basket. During a time where teams are spending millions upon millions of dollars on constructing offensive juggernauts, Utah’s riding to an offbeat tune.
The funny thing is that all of this could’ve never happened. Back in August, after Mitchell had torched the summer league and inked an endorsement deal with adidas, he told SLAM that he wasn’t too confident in his NBA future. A new rule was put in place where prospective NBA players won’t lose their college eligibility if they declared for the draft without hiring an agent. It allows them to experience the process, but also to return to school if the results aren’t favorable. Mitchell took full advantage of that. As he mulled that decision, he explained that Chris Paul and Paul George helped change his mind.
“It’s been surreal, to be honest,” said Mitchell after working out with the two stars. “I know it’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to describe. I worked out this past summer with Paul George and Chris Paul, and they were really the ones who convinced me to keep my name in the draft. We had talks and they said, ‘Look, you’re good enough. Just go out there and show it.’ [The NBA] was a thought, but I didn’t think it would happen this fast. It’s crazy to me that I’m here now.”
Back when Mitchell said this, I don’t think he imagined scoring 41 points in just his 23rd game as a professional. But that’s what went down. On Friday, Dec. 1, Utah was at home and facing the New Orleans Pelicans without Gordon Hayward (who’s in Boston) and Rudy Gobert (who was dealing with a knee injury). New Orleans, on the other hand, has Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, two All-NBA guys who have created a behemoth that was combining for 50.7 points and 23.5 rebounds a night heading into that game.
Mitchell, who turned 21 in September, made 13 of his 25 shot attempts and wriggled his way to the free throw line 11 times. It was a breathtaking performance. His threes were falling with Stephen Curry like consistency, and the effortlessness was impressive. The Pelicans’ guards had a hard time staying in front of the slick Elmsford-native, and it wasn’t rare to see a defender on Mitchell’s hip as he converted an open layup. At the time, he became the 18th player this year to have a 40-point game. (An interesting and probably useless stat that’s semi-related to the sentence that preceded this one: during 1998, only 15 guys eclipsed the 40-point benchmark for the whole campaign.)
The last rookie to surpass 40 was Blake Griffin in 2011. Some other notable names are Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan. That’s nice company.
For December, including his 41 against the Pelicans, Mitchell’s scoring average has ballooned to 25.8 — a full 10.4 points ahead of second-place Lauri Markkanen. (If he were to average that for the entire season, it’d be the second-highest scoring rookie campaign in the three-point era, trailing Jordan’s 28.2). He’s failed to reach 20 points on two occasions, and both of those were horrid shooting nights.
Even with the blemishes, Mitchell is connecting on on 49.4 percent of shots overall and 40.0 percent of his threes; for good measure, he’s dropping in 87.5 percent of his free throws. Because of how strapped the Jazz are for offense, coach Snyder has given Mitchell full reign to create buckets and not worry about anything else. Mitchell’s average of 4.0 assists doesn’t jump off the charts, but it’s third behind Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons.
When watching rookies, it’s vital to give them time. Some will take longer than others to get acclimated to the professional level; others will adapt almost immediately. There are a ton of NBA fans who give up too quickly on rookies and start throwing out takes that don’t make sense. With Donovan Mitchell, it was easy to give up on him when he was slumping, but it’s also easy to overvalue him when he’s on his high horse.
It’s only been 30 games, and that outburst against New Orleans certainly helped things click. Still, there’s a lot of the season left to play. There will likely be more up-and-downs, and Mitchell will continue to refine himself. There is, however, one thing that’s for sure — should Donovan Mitchell maintain this level of play, the Rookie of the Year race will be much more entertaining than last year.
Start a conversation with me on Twitter