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Donovan Mitchell can be the superstar the Jazz need by becoming more ruthless

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For the Jazz to be the best in the West, Mitchell needs to take his game to another level. Can he do it?

A collage of Donovan Mitchell photos from the Utah Jazz and Team USA superimposed over a backdrop.
Donovan Mitchell has to raise his game to another level for the Jazz to be a true title contender.

Donovan Mitchell’s team needed a rebound, and he was ready to do anything necessary to get it. Before Turkey’s Cedi Osman could react, Mitchell’s chest was above his head. By the time he jumped, Mitchell’s fully extended right arm was batting the ball out of the sky. Before he could process losing one of the most important rebounds in Turkey basketball’s history to a guy seven inches shorter, Osman watched that same player step through a trap and find Jayson Tatum standing well beyond the three-point line.

This is the ruthlessness Jazz fans have come to adore out of Mitchell. “Enter, Spida-Man Mitchell,” read the recap from SB Nation’s Jazz site SLC Dunk, referencing his ubiquitous nickname while evoking images of Peter Parker swooping in to snatch an innocent child from a collapsing building. That the rebound came in the game’s most important moment is exactly the point. Few players period, much less ones Mitchell’s age, are better at erasing 39 minutes and 50 seconds of spotty play with one Holy Shit! sequence.

The thing is, those 39 minutes and 50 seconds of spotty play count, too. In that time, Mitchell shot 3-12 from the field, struggled on defense, and committed a back-breaking turnover on the previous possession. Gregg Popovich benched him for most of the ensuing overtime, despite his pre-tournament status as the co-star of the team along with Kemba Walker. Did that clutch rebound save a poor performance, or merely obscure it?

This is the challenge of properly rating Mitchell. He has all the bona fides of a cornerstone player. He can score at all three levels. He’s willing to pass and possesses excellent vision. He takes over when he feels he must, but also functions in a team setting. He galvanizes the fanbase with signature moments, both glamorous and blue collar. He has elements of prior stars’ signature style, aggregated to create his own. He’s high-flying, but also smart enough to adjust to the flow of games. All that means he implants many unstoppable moments and games into our memory, such as his 27-points-in-three-quarters scorcher in the quarterfinal loss to France three games later.

Yet so far, those elements have added up to something less than the sum of their parts. Mitchell’s pejorative reputation as a volume scorer is more than fair. Of the 38 players that ended more than 25 percent of his team’s possessions while on the floor last season, Mitchell ranked 31st in true shooting percentage, 29th in effective field goal percentage, 34th in two-point percentage, 28th in player efficiency rating, 29th in win shares per 48 minutes, and 24th in free-throw rate.

Now is the time when the Donovan Mitchell star equation needs to add up. The Jazz took off the kid gloves this summer, trading significant future assets for 32-year-old Mike Conley, then handing 30-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic a four-year, $73 million contract. Mitchell and the Jazz are suddenly overflowing with elite spot-up shooting, a wide open floor, and secondary playmaking after having significant deficiencies in all three during his career. With the NBA landscape resetting after a wild free agency period, the Jazz have picked the perfect time to level up.

But for Utah to be a serious title contender instead of merely a paper tiger, Mitchell has to actually play like the star guard he occasionally mirrors. For that to happen, Mitchell must follow the path another electric young guard walked.

Nine years ago, third-year point guard Derrick Rose fielded a question about his ambition during the Bulls’ preseason media day.

”The way I look at it, why can’t I be the MVP in the league?” Rose said. “Why can’t I be the best player in the league? I don’t see why not.”

The claim was outlandish at the time. On Oct. 26, 2010 — a month after he put the thought of winning MVP in the public’s head — Rose was listed with 18/1 odds to win the award, behind a list of 11 players that included Brandon Roy (15/1), Amar’e Stoudemire (15/1), Steve Nash (12/1), and Carmelo Anthony (6/1). After Rose defied the odds to become the youngest MVP in league history, that bold preseason quote became iconic.

Rose’s production improved that season in two significant ways. One was by replacing many of his long two-point jumpers with threes. The other was by making the same change in technique and mentality that Mitchell must now make. Rose was more ruthless all the time, and not just in brief moments.

It may sound odd now, but Rose was an inefficient scorer around the hoop, the very area his skill set would suggest he dominate. He was such a gifted athlete that he jumped to avoid contact rather than seek it.

In practice, that meant he took a lot of floaters and off-balanced layups instead of on-point layups and free-throws. In 2009-10, Rose took twice as high a percentage of his shots (64 percent) from short and mid-range areas as he did at the rim (32 percent), according to Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, he scored only 4.66 points per 100 possessions at the free-throw line and shot less than 54 percent on shots classified as layups. He was just good enough playing this way to think he was maximizing his best self, but he wasn’t.

Rose spent the summer of 2010 improving his technique to address that shortcoming. In an interview with Chicago Magazine, Rose said that after watching film over the summer, he discovered that he was “picking up the ball too early.” The new Bulls’ coaching staff noticed he often drove without a plan, so Tom Thibodeau urged Rose to attack, in Rose’s words, “north-south,” and “not as much east-west.”

The difference year-to-year was staggering. In his MVP season, Rose took nearly as high a percentage of his shots around the basket (39 percent) as he did in the two mid-range areas combined (41 percent). His shooting percentage on layups rose to 58 percent, and he jumped up to 8.33 free-throw points generated per 100 possessions.

Rose was no more powerful or athletic in 2010-11 as he was in his first two years. He just applied those traits more consistently by cutting out the cute stuff. Rather than use his power to produce fancy moments, he channeled that energy into consistent, punishing pressure on the basket. That in turn made him a more efficient player, one whose collection of offensive skill and athleticism actually added up to the sum of its parts.

Those technical improvements stemmed from a change in mindset. As he told Sports Illustrated: “The best players are killers all the time.” (He didn’t say “on the basketball court,” but let’s assume it was implied).

Is Donovan Mitchell a killer all the time? He certainly is a killer some of the time, often when his team needs a hoop. But these are not the finishes of a killer. Instead, they’re the finishes of a player operating as if he gets bonus points for degree of difficulty.

These were shots Mitchell took in crunch time, but his tendency to make the simple play complicated was even more pronounced during the flow of the game.

These were the shots Mitchell fell in love with, so it’s no wonder his overall scoring efficiency plateaued. Twenty-nine percent of his shot attempts were classified as “short mid-range” (between four and 14 feet) last year, according to Cleaning the Glass. That put him in the 93rd percentile for players at his position and was more than 10 percentage points higher than his portion of shots from that range as a rookie.

That section of the overall pie was gobbled up from a combination of all other zones on the court. Mitchell ended up taking proportionally fewer shots from every other spot on the court, all so he could take more floater-range shots. How’d he shoot on said attempts? Thirty-six percent, a conversion rate lower than from any other zone.

Thirty-six percent on short mid-rangers isn’t horrible — it puts Mitchell in the 37th percentile at his position on such shots, according to Cleaning the Glass — but it’s not great. Mitchell has the capability of getting better looks for himself than this, even if he sometimes makes them.

This leads to an obvious question: why didn’t he generate more efficient shots last year?

One popular reason is that he was victimized by Utah’s cramped spacing. He had to take these shots, the theory goes, because he had no driving lanes to create anything better. This is a modified version of the who else gonna shoot line of thinking that has been used for years to explain away the low efficiency of high-usage stars.

There’s some truth to this claim — otherwise why replace the bad shooters with great ones this summer? — but the effect is overstated. If Mitchell really was a victim of his team’s cramped spacing, you’d think he’d generate better shots when the Jazz ran out lineups with more shooting in them.

However, lineup data suggests otherwise. In both seasons, Mitchell has been more efficient and taken fewer short mid-range shots with notorious non-shooter Ricky Rubio in the game than with him on the bench. Even more significantly, Mitchell was actually more efficient and took fewer floater-range attempts with both Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert on the floor, as opposed to just one of them.

(It should be noted that the opposite was true when Mitchell was a rookie. Still, the data clearly doesn’t show a consistent trend of Mitchell performing better without those two bigs clogging up the paint).

The reasons for Mitchell’s inefficiency have more to do with Mitchell himself than his surroundings. In particular, his technique is surprisingly poor for someone with his level of athleticism. Like pre-2010 Rose, Mitchell picks up his dribble far too early, though for a slightly different reason. Whereas Rose often looked to pass too early, Mitchell starts his shooting motion too soon. He thinks that he can cover all this ground with two steps and a gather and finish on balance, but he simply can’t. He’s a 6’3 guard, not Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James.

The whole point of taking two long steps after the gather dribble is to set up the defender with the first step, then tap-dance around or bulldoze through them with the second. That’s why the Eurostep is such a devastating move: it pulls the defender one way, then goes back the other. But by picking up his dribble so soon, Mitchell removes the setup effect of that first step.

That makes his drives a lot easier to defend than they should be. Canny defenders can hang back knowing that no matter how large that first step is, it’s not going to cover enough ground to force them to react. Without that reaction, the second step that’s supposed to go around or through them is functionally useless. That’s why Mitchell second step is often sideways rather than forward, and it’s why he throws up so much junk like this.

Mitchell’s balance at the point of attack also hurts him in these situations. He has a tendency to veer outward before advancing to the cup, rather than moving in a straight line. That’s a bad habit because it allows his primary defender to slide back into position and angle him off. It’s common to see Mitchell appear to get a step on his man, only for them to recover and force an ineffective sideways Eurostep that turns into more junk.

Even when Mitchell does get closer to the hoop, he attempts too many wrong-footed layups that lack the necessary power for strong finishes and/or drawn fouls. Mitchell’s leaping ability is second to almost none in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean he’s strong enough to negate bigs from this position.

Wrong-footed layups are an essential part of any player’s diet these days, but they’re best used for quick finishes when the offensive player already already has an angle on a rim protector. They’re much less effective when that driver is coming straight at them.

Just like Rose, Mitchell’s improved technique must also come with a change in mentality. Too often, Mitchell plays like a magician eager to show off all his tricks in a single act. Opponents don’t fear Mitchell’s diverse palette of moves. They fear his theoretical ability to put pressure on the basket with powerful, high-flying drives.

Similarly, Mitchell’s playmaking should service his hard drives, not the other way around. Subtlety is nice, but too much subtlety is counterproductive. On plays like these, Mitchell should be attacking decisively to dunk on the entire state of Texas, not trying to impress them with a side-to-side tap-dance floater.

There’s a place for careful surveillance of the court, but Mitchell is too athletic to be playing so indecisively. Hit the damn hole!

Put another way, Mitchell needs to be more ruthless. We know he has it in him, because he’s already shown an edge in so many high-pressure situations.

But to be the player the Jazz need to be taken seriously as a title contender, he needs to heed Rose’s words. Killers are killers all the time, not just some of the time.