Every year, there seems to be a rookie in the NBA who doesn’t get selected in the first 10 picks, yet goes on to make the teams that passed on him look silly. Last year, that rookie was Donovan Mitchell. Drafted 13th overall by the Denver Nuggets and subsequently traded to the Utah Jazz on draft night, Mitchell wasn’t on the radars of too many people coming out of the University of Louisville. With the Cardinals, he averaged just under 16 points a game on nearly 41% shooting from the field his sophomore season. While those numbers are solid for an NCAA basketball player, they normally don’t warrant a high draft pick.
Fast forward less than a year, and Mitchell is leading the Utah Jazz to the playoffs. The NBA’s 2017-18 Rookie of the Year award runner-up posted averages of 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He did so while converting on 43.7% of his field goal attempts, knocking down 34% of his triples and finishing fifth among starting guards in defensive rating. Raising his scoring numbers in the playoffs, it appeared the Jazz had a future superstar in Donovan “Spida” Mitchell.
The “sophomore slump” is something thrown around by pundits of any sport. It occurs when a rookie experiences a good amount of success his first year, then fails to replicate that success the following campaign. In Mitchell’s case, this was no different. Though not as extreme as most second-year drop-offs, he certainly hadn’t been the same player through the end of the 2018 calendar year. Neither was his team, which was sitting one game below .500 as of December 31 after winning 48 games the year before. Overall, things weren’t going smoothly for the Jazz.
Then… something clicked. Whether it was Mitchell’s “New year, new me” tweet, Ricky Rubio & Danté Exum’s injuries, or a newfound mentality, the Jazz have been a much better team in 2019. This includes their best guard, Mitchell. 8-2 in their last 10 games and winning five consecutive contests, the Jazz currently hold the final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. A lot of this has been largely due to Mitchell’s improved play. Take a look at the table below:
|Last 7 Games||29.7||4.1||5.1||0.471||0.423|
|9 Games in January||27.2||4.0||4.9||0.458||0.422|
While Mitchell is just one of 17 qualified players to average at least 21 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game this year, he is 17th on that list in PPG and FG% & is near the bottom in three-point efficiency. Since the calendar has flipped from 2018 to 2019, though, he’s raised his scoring average to 27.2 points, hauled in four boards per contest and has assisted on nearly five buckets a night.
The most important parts of the chart above are the former Cardinal’s shooting percentages. Knocking down nearly 46 percent of his shots from the field and shooting over 42% from deep, he’s been phenomenal in 2019. Speaking of phenomenal, Mitchell’s performance lately was enough to earn him last week’s Western Conference Player of the Week award.
This is all including two sub-20 point outings, an 8-24 shooting night and a 7-23 one. The offensive burden has been on Mitchell since last year, but he’s been able to handle it while maintaining efficiency in the last few weeks. It’s no coincidence that during Mitchell’s nine-game hot streak, Utah is 7-2.
Playing the league’s toughest schedule by far through 46 games, the Jazz should only improve as the season goes on. Whether Mitchell will continue to do so himself remains to be seen. He will not remain the team’s starting point guard once Danté Exum and Ricky Rubio return to the court. It’s likely he won’t convert on well over 40% of his three-point attempts for the remainder of the year, either.
This isn’t to say Mitchell will be a bad player if he reverts to his October-December self. That version still managed to put up 20 points a game and was one of the best defending guards in the league. But if Utah wants to insert itself back into the playoff picture and be taken seriously as a threat, it needs “Spida.” Donovan struggled to put the ball in the hole with efficiency to start the season but if the tweet above was any indication, his scorching-hot nights may not be coming to a halt anytime soon.