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Donovan Mitchell is the kind of player you have to actually watch to fully appreciate

The Jazz rookie shows an uncommon ability to read the game as it happens. Just ask the Thunder.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever I think of Donovan Mitchell, I also think of Sam Hinkie. Not because Hinkie is directly connected to the fanbase that’s teamed with Mitchell’s own to turn the Rookie of the Year debate into a hellscape, but because of something Hinkie said to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard in his first interview after he left the 76ers.

“Why do we watch basketball games front to back?” Hinkie rhetorically asked. “Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?”

Hinkie is invoking what behavior economist Daniel Kahnemann calls the availability heuristic, which suggests that we overvalue whatever our brain can most easily access. In basketball, isolated highlights, like dunks or crossovers or difficult shots, are the most available pieces of information we have to assess a player. We often draw too many conclusions from them.

The availability heuristic certainly can distort well-meaning analysis in all fields, including basketball. We’ve all defended a bad shot because the previous four bad shots happened to go in. We’ve all derived too much meaning from a third missed open shots in a row because we can’t escape the memory of the first two clanking off the rim.

But Hinkie’s suggestion, while interesting, is a bridge too far. As long as we keep score within a 48-minute sample, it is a skill for a player to manage their own availability heuristic in the stressful environment of a basketball game. It’s an even greater skill to also successfully amplify the negatives of the availability heuristic in their opponents.

To put this in plain basketball terms: this is reading the game. Reading the game is Donovan Mitchell’s most impressive skill, especially given his experience level. He learns from his mistakes and is able to quickly process difficult concepts like defensive schemes, momentum, and the game’s overall flow. He accounts for what’s actually happening and adjusts his approach to fit whatever his team needs.

To understand how those skills manifests themselves, we actually have to watch the games. In order. As they were intended. Only then can we see how a rookie put away the Thunder time after time, especially with a 38-point performance in Game 6.

Learning from mistakes

Mitchell’s Game 6 was the breakout moment of these playoffs, but I want to focus on sequences from earlier in the series.

Take a look at these two plays from early in the third quarter Utah’s Game 3 win.

On this first one, Mitchell comes off a baseline curl designed to get him in the middle of the floor. To the naked eye, it looks like it’ll work, but Mitchell hasn’t fully internalized OKC’s coverage plan or their heightened effort level. He rubbed off Rudy Gobert casually, allowing a sprinting Corey Brewer to catch up.

At the same time, Mitchell failed to recognize that Russell Westbrook was ready to pounce in the driving lane like a lion tracking his prey. Russ jumped into position, Mitchell lost the ball, and OKC converted a fast-break three the other way.

OKC led by three at this point and had scored 10 straight points. The long-awaited switch flipping the Thunder kept promising us they held in reserve was finally being unleashed. They were wrestling control of the game and series.

Here’s what happened on the very next possession.

OKC was clearly in one of those stretches where they suddenly morph into eager beavers chasing the ball. As Mitchell popped off Rudy Gobert’s flare screen, Corey Brewer sprinted to the ball, the same way he sprinted off that curl the previous play. That time, Mitchell was not prepared for Brewer’s aggression.

This time, he was. He gave Brewer a hard jab step that sent Brewer flying the other way.

By the time Brewer could regain his balance, Mitchell was dribbling the other way into a wide-open three.

In the stat sheet, that two-play sequence reads 1-1 from the field, three points, a plus-minus of zero, and a 50 percent turnover rate. Watch the two plays out of order, and the immediate adjustment Mitchell — a rookie, remember — made in real time is lost.

But add in the context of the game — a 1-1 series, the game slipping out of their control as OKC flipped the proverbial switch — and that shot was worth so much more than three points. That can only be fully internalized by watching the game as Mitchell experienced it: start to finish.

By the way, the Jazz never trailed the rest of the game.

Solving the defense

The knock on Mitchell is that all these subjective skills don’t add up to an efficient player. Mitchell did average more than 20 a game this season, but needed 17 shots to get there. His overall true shooting percentage is 54.1, which is OK, but also 10th on the Jazz and barely ahead of Ricky Rubio. It’s been even worse in the playoffs, even though he’s supposedly broken out.

Because of that, his critics argue, any heroics are cancelled out by all the possessions he ends unsuccessfully. Since there are only so many possessions in a game, why celebrate someone who wastes a ton just because they rescue a few others?

But this line of thinking downplays Mitchell’s ability to read the game. Jazz assistant coach Johnnie Bryant put it best a beautiful piece on Mitchell’s film study by ESPN’s Tim MacMahon:

“One thing about him is he’s not afraid to try things and really apply it,” Bryant said. “That’s something that’s rare. A lot of guys want to stay in their comfort zone. He has the ability to go out there and apply it.”

In other words: Mitchell is willing to internalize an L on a certain possession to learn from it later. Those plays where he tries stuff out drag down his scoring efficiency, but end up being valuable later on. You can’t be great at reading the game without being willing to make mistakes.

Take the second half of Game 2 against Oklahoma City. The Thunder engineered a 17-point turnaround in the third quarter, mostly by swarming Mitchell off the ball so he couldn’t catch it and planting a series of bodies in his line of sight when he did.

He began making some adjustments that didn’t initially bear fruit. At the 2:36 mark, he snagged a rebound and immediately attacked Brewer by going away from the screen. Brewer swatted the shot out of bounds, and Mitchell immediately apologized to Royce O’Neal because he missed the obvious kickout pass.

Two possessions later, Mitchell again noticed OKC loading up to trap him and hit Brewer with a tight crossover to surge the other way. But Raymond Felton plugged the gap off Dante Exum, and rather than make the kickout pass or even acknowledge Exum, Mitchell forced a floater that missed.

At that point, Mitchell had just eight points. He was making mistakes. He was forcing it. But he had identified four vulnerable areas in OKC’s defense.

  • It was overaggressive.
  • It needed time to set up.
  • It was overloaded to the direction of the screen.
  • It assumed Mitchell wouldn’t even look to pass.

Over the next 13 minutes, Mitchell scored 20 points and led the Jazz back from a double-digit deficit. In the process, he addressed all three of those weaknesses he observed from the Thunder’s hounding third-quarter strategy.

He attacked quickly before OKC could set up its defense.

He went away from the screen to attack.

He used their aggression against them with pass fakes like this one that momentarily froze Patrick Patterson and created space to pull up.

He fixed the very mistake he made on that non-pass to Exum, trusting Rubio to hit this pivotal shot.

When the Thunder started to tone it down to adjust to Mitchell’s adjustment, he adjusted again by using the space given to change speeds and freeze defenders.

And then he shut the game down with this beauty.

Mitchell’s final stat line read as follows: 28 points on 25 shots, 0-7 from three, two assists to four turnovers, and a plus-minus of +4 in a seven-point win. Strip that from the context of the order of the game, and that looks like exactly the kind of line Mitchell’s detractors relish. A lot of brilliant moments, but a lot of unproductive ones, too. Thank heavens for his more efficient teammates that were able to use their limited opportunities more productively!

But without the mistake-filled first 35 minutes, the Jazz don’t get the final 13. Mitchell tried stuff out, saw the results, and adjusted in the most important game of the Jazz’s season.

You tell me which stretch of the game was more important.

By the way, this is all backed up by the numbers

  • During the regular season, Mitchell posted a mediocre 51 percent true shooting percentage in the first half of games. In the second half, that number was up to nearly 57 percent. Only one high-usage guard — Lou Williams -- had a larger positive differential between their first- and second-half true shooting percentages this season, and most of players actually go the other way.
  • This all happens despite Mitchell’s usage rate surging from just under 26 percent in the first half of games to nearly 32 percent in the second half. Usually, players are less efficient when they end more possessions, because they take more difficult shots. That is not the case with Mitchell.
  • When Mitchell was in the game during the fourth quarter this season, the Jazz outscored opponents by an average of 11.4 points per 100 possessions. Among guards that played at least five fourth quarter minutes per game, only Chris Paul and C.J. Miles had higher on-court net ratings.

These trends have held up through six playoff games.

  • Mitchell’s true shooting percentage is up nearly four points in the second half of games, despite his usage surging from 23.5 percent to more than 41 percent.
  • He is assisting on 12.2 percent of Utah’s possessions in the fourth quarter and turning it over on just 5.2 percent of those plays.

We only see this phenomenon in context

To take this back to Kahnemann and Hinkie, it’s true that the availability heuristic dominates this exercise. Mitchell, after all, is a rookie. Maybe the many times he displayed remarkable on-court aptitude this year will fade from our collective memories as his career progresses and his rookie season goes further in the rearview mirror. Maybe the narrative will outpace the facts. Maybe it already has.

But as long as basketball is played by human beings that are subjected to the same availability heuristic as we are, we do ourselves a disservice by divorcing player evaluation from the context of actual games.

To steal a line from another Pulitzer Prize-winning behavioral economist named Richard Thaler, they’re also humans, not econs. Thaler made the distinction in his book Nudge, which contrasts the accepted economic theory of the time — people make decisions based on calculated analysis that coldly considers costs and benefits without feeling — with how life actually works. This theoretical person that doesn’t actually exist is known as an “econ.” The people that actually exist — who actually make decisions while being subjected to every human bias you could think of — are humans.

Basketball players are human. They play a game in order while being forced to make infinite decisions with limited information. In that context, the players who are able to make the most accurate judgments with that limited information are valuable in a way we can’t understand unless we watch the game as they experience it.

Only then can we understand how they get more information, how they link that limited information together appropriately, how they plant seeds of misinformation in their opponents to make them subjected to human biases like the availability heuristic, and how they decide when in the game is the right time to actually act on these insights.

Only then can we understand and appreciate Donovan Mitchell.