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SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell is gearing up for a run with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, and outside of a few exhibition games during the past two All-Star weekends in the Rising Stars Challenge, Mitchell has never played with a surrounding cast as talented as the one on Team USA.
So far, the results have been OK. Mitchell is averaging 12.5 points, two rebounds, two assists and one steal per game. The third-year guard is the second-leading scorer on the team behind All-Star Kemba Walker, is third in assists behind Walker and Celtics wing Jayson Tatum, and is a co-leader on the team in steals. He’s completing a reasonable 42% of his field goal attempts and 33% of his 3-point shots.
Through four exhibition games with Team USA, Mitchell hasn’t quite had the breakout many Jazz fans hoped to see; but on the flipside, he hasn’t struggled to a point of concern. Mitchell has been good enough, but could be better. He hasn’t yet made it clear that he’s clearly transcended above the rest of his upcoming peers.
So what does that mean for the 2019-20 Jazz season?
Much has been made of the Jazz's offseason acquisitions and whether or not those players catapult the team into a favorite status to come out of the Western Conference. While the new acquisitions, alongside Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert make up one of, if not, the best supporting casts of any team in the NBA, the Jazz championship hopes rest on the shoulders of Mitchell elevating his game to the level of superstar.
Over the long history of the NBA, good players win games and make the playoffs; superstars win championships.
Mitchell is making the playoffs, but he needs to take the next step. It's yet to be determined whether the new roster will hinder him in the process.
Among players who played at least half the season last year, Mitchell ranked seventh in the NBA in usage percentage. Of the top 20 usage players in the NBA last season, Mitchell was one of only three players that either didn’t make the All-Star game or win a major postseason award (Lou Williams won the Sixth Man of the Year award, while Luka Doncic was named Rookie of the Year).
Mitchell was joined by Devin Booker and Zach Lavine as high usage players without high-level recognition.
Truthfully, Mitchell is closer to the level of Booker and Lavine, currently, than he is to LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — the five players in the top 20 usage rate that have won championships.
Of those five, Curry is the only one to play for one team throughout his career. The other four have donned multiple jerseys and have either been the best or second best player on their roster, regardless of who they were surrounded by. With Curry, even as the roster in Golden State changed around him, he remained either the best or second best player on the floor most of the time.
Mitchell can improve his current high level of play with the Jazz, even amid the roster turnover.
Despite his good but not great play with Team USA, a few things must be noted when trying to make the comparison between international play and how he will be featured with the Jazz.
Team USA is still in the exhibition stage, meaning coach Gregg Popovich is clearly experimenting with lineups to see what does and doesn’t work. Popovich has gone as far as to bench Walker to start one exhibition game, despite Walker likely being the team’s most proven player. As the team moves into the tournament stage against the Czech Republic, don’t be surprised to see Popovich take a less egalitarian approach to minute distribution when the games really matter.
Mitchell isn't currently the main focal point of the offense, nor is any one player, which is common practice in international play. Mitchell regularly makes several trips up the offensive side of the floor without touching the ball and appears to feel obligated to take a shot when he does again find himself involved in the offense.
For Mitchell, who is more of a rhythm scorer than a spot up shooter, those lack of touches appear to kill his momentum. Late in games, when Team USA has needed baskets, as they did in Friday’s loss to Team Australia, Mitchell appeared to regain his composure and efficiency as a go-to scoring option.
While Mitchell’s usage rate may drop with the Jazz now that he’s surrounded by better offensive talent than he was last season, coach Quin Snyder won’t feel the need to take such a socialistic approach to the offense, which may be hurting Mitchell. Even with the new roster, this will be an offense designed to feature Mitchell’s vast and evolving skill set.
Mitchell has so far performed admirably with Team USA, but doesn’t appear to have taken the offseason leap to superstar status the Jazz will need should they hope to compete for a championship next summer. However, just because Mitchell has looked OK but not great for Team USA, I wouldn’t start worrying if his fit with the FIBA team will mirror his role with the new look Jazz.