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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Donovan Mitchell doesn't play like a rookie

By Andy Larsen,  |  Posted Jan 5th, 2018 @ 12:30pm


SALT LAKE CITY — In September, Donovan Mitchell turned 21. In October, he called PF Chang's his favorite restaurant in Salt Lake City. In November, the New York-raised Mitchell finally earned his driver license, after months of being driven around by fellow rookies Tony Bradley and Royce O'Neale. In December, his mother and sister traveled with him as he went on the Jazz's longest road trip of the season.

So it's hard to say Mitchell has acted like a hardened, aged NBA veteran star off the court. But when you talk to people around the NBA, that's exactly what you hear about Mitchell's NBA play: He plays like he's been in the league for 10 years, not three months.

"He’s really good. He’s really good," Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He’s going to be a force for a long time. His attitude, just the way he plays. He already plays like a veteran, he’s impressive."

What makes people say that about Mitchell? It's the versatility of his game. Most NBA rookies, even good ones, come into the league with their "NBA skills," their crutch talents that they can depend on even when making the jump to play longer, stronger and smarter opponents. But Mitchell seems to have it all; he can score in so many different ways that he keeps his defenders off-balance.

It starts with the threat of the jump shot, of course. Mitchell's jump shot seems to have unlimited range. Through 36 games, he's taken 46 shots from at least 3 feet behind the arc — more than Steph Curry this year and good for 13th in the league. He's made 15 of them, so his percentage is above league average from that distance.

"So long as you have your feet under you, you can really shoot from anywhere, as long as the arc is high enough," Mitchell said.

He also takes pull-up threes, going left or right around screens. He's taking over three of these shots per game. Caveat: he's not great at it right now, shooting only 29.4 percent. Visually, it seems like he finds much more success when he's able to take the shot while being balanced.

But the real key to Mitchell's game is his ability to get to the basket and finish in so many different ways. Look at this play: an exaggerated crossover to make his defender think he's going right, then goes left, then fakes the scoop layup finish with his right, then turns around with the easy soft floater.

Or this: here he sets his defender up by running him through the screen one way, then quickly turns all the way around to run him through it toward the middle, then hits Cousins with a Eurostep to give himself the opportunity at that right scoop finish he faked above.

Matt Harpring, the Jazz broadcast color commentator, just laughs throughout the play. How could you not? The combination of talents Mitchell shows is just silly. After the team he covers faced Mitchell three times in December, Oklahoma City Thunder beat writer Fred Katz said: "He has like 300 different types of finishes around the rim." He wasn't far off.

With all of the brilliant finishing, Mitchell's passing has taken a back seat. But some of his passes show off the level of vision and accuracy, that again, makes you shake your head in wonder. This is a great read off the drive to find one of the NBA's best corner 3-point shooters with a backhanded jump pass:

Or this blind pass to Favors cutting down the paint behind him:

The accuracy of those passes goes back to Mitchell's baseball days, he says, even the trademark velocity of the ball. "Joe's been giving me a little slack for that because I throw the ball pretty hard."

But honestly, the biggest thing that has earned Mitchell respect throughout the league is his ability to take over a game down the stretch with poise. We saw it as the Jazz faced the New Orleans Pelicans at the beginning of the month, during Mitchell's 41-point performance. We also saw it at the end of Mitchell's December, as he challenged LeBron James at the basket to score in the game's most important possession.

"He’s a player. Kid’s got a lot of game. They’ve been riding that wave all season since they realized what they’ve actually got," James said after the game. "He’s not afraid of the moment, he just goes out there and plays ball."

That's not to say there's not still work to do. Mitchell's defensive instincts to help are good, but they get him into trouble sometimes. His reads have wildly improved, but sometimes Mitchell still goes a step too fast.

But Mitchell loves watching film and is famous for devouring as much of it as possible. Before the season, Mitchell tried to watch all of the Jazz's games from last season to learn how his new team would play.

"It's easier to watch film when you don't have five classes to study for," Mitchell says.

That's Mitchell: mindset of a student, skillset of a virtuoso.

Andy Larsen,
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