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Analysis: Why is Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell struggling?

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Kyusung Gong, Associated Press

When the Utah Jazz announced on May 26 that Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell would be coming to Salt Lake City for a workout the next day in advance of June’s NBA draft, there was a good deal of surprise since Mitchell was expected to be an early lottery pick and the Jazz weren’t slated to select until No. 24.

Although the workout was closed to the media, in his meeting with the media afterward, Mitchell seemed more like an NBA veteran than a 20-year-old (he’s now 21), and Utah vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin said he was impressed with Mitchell’s performance.

Thus began the hype surrounding Mitchell, which grew when the Jazz traded the No. 24 pick and Trey Lyles to the Denver Nuggets for him, the No. 13 selection. It grew again as Mitchell dominated summer league, and expanded even more entering training camp when it became clear he would be a regular part of Utah head coach Quin Snyder’s rotation this season.

One week into his NBA career, however, the Donovan Mitchell Hype Train has slowed down considerably, as the youngster has gotten off to a very up-and-down start. Most notably, having appeared during summer league to be a dynamic player who could score at the basket, make midrange jumpers and connect from behind the 3-point line, he has struggled in all three areas.

An aggressive driver, Mitchell has often either approached the basket out of control, or once he gets to the basket, has gotten stymied by bigger defenders. This calls to mind much of what Dante Exum has experienced through his first few years in the NBA. Both players are athletic enough to get to the basket, but just need to learn how to do so with more control and then learn how to negotiate around better defenders than they have faced at previous levels.

On the plus side, there have been instances already when Mitchell has successfully made it to the rim using his athleticism and gotten an easy layup, giving the impression that once the game slows down for him, he has the tools to be pretty dynamic.

As far as his midrange game is concerned, some of Mitchell’s struggles have been a matter of just simply making or missing shots, but he does need to learn better shot selection as time goes on. There have been a number of occasions through the first week of the season in which the youngster has taken very ill-advised shots, whether out of rhythm or contested, which is counter to a Jazz offense that is centered on ball movement leading to open shots.

In all, Mitchell is 10 of 34 on the season on non-3-pointers, and his 52 total attempts is second on the team behind only Ricky Rubio. It’s probably not Utah’s objective to have him shoot that much.

As with midrange shots, Mitchell has struggled from behind the 3-point line, making just 3 of 18 attempts so far. Again, some of it comes down to simply making or missing good shots, but it will be important for Mitchell to learn better selection as the season goes on.

To be sure, as much as Mitchell has struggled to score overall, he did essentially take over during the fourth quarter of Utah’s game against the L.A. Clippers on Tuesday, scoring 15 points during the frame. Some of that had to do with him making shots he has otherwise missed throughout the first week, while at other times he had success getting to the basket for easy points.

This shows that Mitchell does have the natural tools to be an effective scorer in time.

For as much as he’s had a hard time scoring, Mitchell has been a good distributor when he has decided to be (not often enough), which is somewhat interesting given that one of the storylines surrounding him entering the season was how well he would handle point guard duties.

Through five games, Mitchell has 14 assists. Most notably for his development moving forward, he is so effective at getting to the rim most of the time that if he can learn to consistently find an open teammate when the defense collapses on him, that will make the Jazz’s offense work much better.

Mitchell’s saving grace has been his play on the defensive end. Ever since that first media session back in May, Mitchell has talked about how much he prides himself on his defense, and the early returns are good overall.

His tenacity combined with his 6-foot-10 wingspan has made him both an effective individual and team defender. Interestingly, he has more blocks (four) than steals (three), a few of which have been rather tremendous plays in the paint sneaking behind big men who are going up for easy buckets.

In truth, Mitchell’s defense is probably what is getting him as much playing time (22 minutes per game and he’s also started two contests) in place of Rodney Hood as he’s getting.

Overall outlook

Mitchell is a rookie who has played just five games in the NBA. In other words, just as the brakes probably should have been pumped more on the hype earlier this year than they were, there’s no reason to come close to hitting the panic button yet.

The fact is, coach Quin Snyder has felt confident enough in Mitchell to play him as much as he has (although he played just 13 minutes against the Suns, so that’s perhaps something to monitor closely moving forward), meaning there is at least a decently high level of confidence the coach has in No. 45. It’s been clear that the Jazz organization wants to give their prized lottery pick time to develop, and they’ve so far been willing to let him play through mistakes. Furthermore, Mitchell has shown some good things on both ends of the floor.

In essence, wait-and-see will be the name of the Donovan Mitchell monitoring game for the foreseeable future.