The Utah Jazz pushed their chips to the center of the table and went all-in on trying to win an NBA championship this season. Utah traded two first round picks to acquire Mike Conley Jr. at point guard, and gave out a $73 million deal to Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency. The Jazz had shooting on the perimeter, the game’s best defensive rim protector, and a brilliant head coach. But for Utah to reach its lofty expectations, Donovan Mitchell was going to need to take another leap.
Mitchell had been considered a lowercase-s star since his breakout rookie season two years earlier. The No. 13 overall pick from Louisville immediately blew out his pre-draft expectations, earning comparisons to legends like Dwyane Wade and James Harden for his ability to attack the rim and stockpile scoring numbers. Mitchell was tremendous from the moment he entered the league, but there was always more room for improvement in his game. Still only 23 years old, the Jazz needed him to get there at an accelerated pace to fit a narrow championship window before Rudy Gobert’s contract expired and a veteran supporting cast became an aging one.
For most of the season, the same could be said for both Mitchell and the Jazz: they were very good, but perhaps not great enough. That’s changing in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. The Jazz have surged to a 3-1 series lead against the favored Denver Nuggets, and they’ve done it because Mitchell has gone from a star to a superstar.
Mitchell exploded for 51 points in Game 4 to give Utah the commanding series lead. It was the second time this series he’s hit the 50-point plateau. Mitchell has put on a shot-making clinic in the bubble so far, but his impact goes even beyond that. This is how Mitchell is taking his game to a new level in the playoffs.
Mitchell is mastering the pull-up three-pointer
How great has Mitchell been in this series? Consider that LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Russell Westbrook have each only scored 50 points or more once in their entire career. Mitchell has now done it twice in four games vs. the Nuggets.
Mitchell is simply red hot shooting the ball right now. He’s hitting 55.8 percent of his field goals through the first four games of this series, and he’s making 54 percent of his three-pointers on 8.8 attempts per game. That’s good for a comical true shooting percentage of 74.3 percent.
What stands out about Mitchell’s shot-making is just how difficult so many of his attempts are to defend. It’s not like Denver is giving him open catch-and-shoot threes. According to NBA.com, Mitchell is 2-for-5 on spot-up threes in the series and an incredible 16-of-29 (55.2 percent) on dribble pull-up threes. That’s a big change from the regular season when Mitchell hit 43.2 percent of his threes on catch-and-shoot opportunities, but just 32.1 percent on pull-ups behind the arc on 4.1 attempts per game off the dribble.
Dagger three from Donovan Mitchell. pic.twitter.com/8R0KKoLzms— House of Highlights (@HoHighlights) August 24, 2020
Mitchell is pulling-up from three-point range 7.3 times per game in the playoffs so far. We associate that kind of high-volume, highly efficient off the dribble shooting with players like Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry. If Mitchell has truly added the pull-up three to bag, we’re looking at a player with the total package to be one of the league’s very best scorers.
Mitchell isn’t just shooting the ball well, though. It’s what he’s doing as a decision-maker that’s equally impressive.
Denver is throwing so many defensive looks at Mitchell, and he keeps beating them
As the Jazz have decided to run pick-and-roll for Mitchell on most possessions, Denver is consistently changing up its defensive looks. The Nuggets have tried drop coverage, traps, hybrid zones, strict man-to-man, and just about every other defensive game plan you can think of. Mitchell is beating each and every one of them.
Mitchell isn’t just winning with his pull-up shooting — he’s winning with his passing, too. Mitchell has had seven or more assists in three of the four games of this series. He’s making all of the right reads in the pick-and-roll, showing impressive vision and patience as a passer. While no one would fault Mitchell for forcing his own offense right now as he’s on fire as a scorer, the fact that he’s been so poised as a decision-maker makes him even harder to defend.
Watch the way he manipulates the defense with his eyes and forces them to cover a kick-out to the three-point arc and his own layup before hitting Gobert with the lob.
No one on the weakside pulled in, Gobert rolls down the lane unimpeded by the Nuggets defense. pic.twitter.com/8OcgQAw83t— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) August 24, 2020
This time Nikola Jokic pays extra attention to Gobert as a lob threat. With the defense waiting for the pass, Mitchell coasts in for an easy lay in:
I'm not sure why Murray doesn't go under these high screens more often, he creates a two on one every time he goes over because he never gets back into the play. pic.twitter.com/pJUvNQbKTO— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) August 24, 2020
Earlier in his career, it feels like Mitchell would have attempted a floater in this situation. Now he’s feeling where the defensive pressure is coming from, knows where his shooters are on the perimeter, and makes the correct read to pass to a teammate for an open three-pointer.
It’s true that Denver has a big need for perimeter defenders without Gary Harris , but Mitchell is making it so noticeable by torching any player and any coverage they throw his way. When a lead guard has the pull-up three working but can also beat the defense with poised passing, it’s pretty much lights out for the opposition.
That’s been the case in the Denver-Utah series so far.
This is the Donovan Mitchell the Jazz have been waiting for
Mitchell had to overcome so much to have this moment. The Jazz were of course at the forefront of sports’ response to the global pandemic when Gobert tested positive and the league went on hiatus. Mitchell then tested positive for the virus himself, and there were rumors of animosity between the two stars.
When the bubble started, the Jazz learned they wouldn’t have Bogdanovic, who had to have season-ending surgery on his right wrist. They also missed Conley for the first two games in this series as he left the bubble for the birth of his son.
Not many people thought Utah could beat Denver in the first round, but it’s on the brink of happening because Mitchell has found a new gear in the playoffs. Both as a scorer and a playmaker, Mitchell is turning into the player many thought he would one day become during his breakout rookie season. The Jazz look so much more formidable because of it.