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The early impact of the league's new rules on Donovan Mitchell and the NBA

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, talks with referee Ray Acosta (54) as the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, open the 2021-22 season at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, talks with referee Ray Acosta (54) as the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, open the 2021-22 season at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash called James Harden the "poster boy" of the NBA's new rule change to limit the amount of cheap foul calls.

The league no longer wants to award fouls for what they consider "non-basketball moves." These types of fouls are easy to spot: jumping into a defender at a non-natural angle or hooking a defenders arm to create contact.

After Harden's decade-long trip to the free-throw line by using those tactics, it's no surprise his free throw numbers have declined this season. Harden averaged over nine free-throw attempts per game during his nine years in Houston — that's down to an average of 3.0 through the first three games of the year.

"It's still basketball at the end of the day," Harden said. "No matter how much of a big deal we try to make it, a foul is a foul. It's pretty simple."

Is it, though?

While Harden's drop is among the most dramatic in the league, other guards have also seen their trips to the line decrease.

Atlanta's Trae Young averaged 8.7 free-throw attempts per game last seasons, which is down to 5.3 this season. Portland's Damian Lillard averaged 7.2 in 2020-21; he's only at 4.7 this season. And after averaging 6.0 free throws last year, Donovan Mitchell is averaging 2.5 through the Jazz's first two games.

That helps shed some light on Mitchell's odd percentages in the early part of the season. With the obvious disclaimer that it's only been two games, Mitchell is actually shooting better from outside the arc (37.5%) than inside of it (33.3%).

"I think he's played outstanding offensively," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "I feel like he's gotten in the lane and he's gotten fouled, and he hasn't gotten to the line on some of those calls."

In years past, Mitchell probably would have; however, in the first week of the season, defenders have been allowed to be more physical as they try to keep offensive players away from the hoop. Hand checking has gone uncalled and shoulder bumps have been ignored. With Mitchell playing the first two games against two of the game's most physical perimeter defenders — Oklahoma City's Lu Dort and Sacramento's Davion Mitchell — he's had a rough go in the paint at times.

"Refs weren't calling much today and it's gonna be like that sometimes," the Jazz star said after Friday's win over the Kings.

But will that just be the norm moving forward? Or is it all part of the adjustment period for officials as they figure out what works best within the new rules?

"There's a process of clarification that's gonna need to have happen," Snyder said.

Snyder has sat on the competition committee and been part of the dialogue as the league has tried to fix the growing problem of non-basketball-move fouls. Seeing guards dribble into the lane, hook a defender's arm and throw the ball up wasn't basketball — and fans had grown frustrated with such tactics deciding games. The thought was that by redefining what constitutes a foul could help the game be better.

For at least one week, it's been a success. Players jumping sideways into defenders isn't drawing whistles, and foul-hunting in the lane is often resulting in nothing more than a turnover.

But there's still a lot of subjectivity involved, too.

"That's what makes refereeing basketball so difficult," he said. "When you're talking about gaining an advantage or an impact or a lot of things, those are very difficult to judge. I think over time, players will adjust, referees will adjust, and we'll see it start to come — I don't want to say be more consistent — but I think both the referees and the players are going through the same thing.

"Sometimes you can look at that as two different parties but you can see it as kind of a collective effort to find a good place."

To help get there, Mike Conley said he's spent the first two games — as well as the preseason – talking to officials to really determine what is and what is not a foul.

"I'm trying to learn," Conley said. "Am I allowed to do this or that? Is this is a foul compared to that? Trying to find the line in which I can kind of step over it or not."

So far, everyone has seen the just about same thing: The benefit of the doubt is going to the defender.

"If someone's pushing on you, you have to push back to keep your line to the basketball," Snyder said. "Those are the ones that I think are challenging."

Snyder said it's important not to overreact to the first week of the season, too. He's confident they will ultimately get it right. What exactly "right" looks like two weeks, a month or six months into the season, however, is still to be determined.

"I don't think people realize how much film that officials actually watch," Snyder said. "Those guys, they really work at their craft — as do the players. When everybody cares, you usually get it right eventually, but it's not always an easy road."

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