Donovan Mitchell tried to remain stoic, but he couldn’t quite keep a little smile from forming as the question was asked.
On Saturday night after the rookie carried the Utah Jazz down the stretch in a 104-101 victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was queried on how he is continually able to show fearlessness in late-game situations.
Yes, it’s officially become a regular occurrence for the 21-year-old to be the Jazz’s focal point at the most important times, but perhaps more notable for the youngster, he’s become one of the best late-game players in the entire NBA.
Let’s start with the scoring. Entering Monday’s games, Mitchell was ninth in the league in points per game in the fourth quarter at 6.5, with only a who’s-who of NBA stars ahead of him. When the fourth-quarter scoring stat is broken down by points per 36 minutes (with a minimum of 100 minutes played), the Louisville product rises to fifth.
During the month of December, Mitchell was phenomenal, as he finished tied for third in the league in fourth-quarter scoring, raising his average all the way up to 9.1 points over the 12 contests he appeared in. Devin Booker and Jimmy Butler were the the only two players ahead of him, while he tied with Lou Williams. Booker appeared in only six games.
Per 36 minutes, Mitchell was tops among players who appeared in more than two games.
While the Louisville product is performing well in fourth quarters generally, he’s coming up big in close contests. The last five minutes of games that are within five points are deemed “clutch” periods by the NBA, and although the Jazz have played in just 12 such contests this season (23rd among the league’s 30 teams), Mitchell is 19th in scoring during such periods while appearing in 11 of Utah’s games.
Six players ahead of him have appeared in fewer clutch games.
“I’m just treating the last two minutes as if it’s the same as the first two,” he said in response to the question on Saturday night. “You’ve just got to go out there, and if you overthink it, then that’s the first mistake right there.”
Said Rodney Hood: “We want him to keep going. We feel like he can score whenever he wants to, and when he got it going, we just want him to be aggressive, regardless of if he’s missing or making shots.”
Having discussed on previous occasions his team’s lack of players who can create their own shot, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder echoed Hood’s sentiments after the game, saying, “(His teammates) know his ability to break the line and attack is something that our team needs, and we’ve got guys that want to win, so it adds up.”
But it’s not as if Mitchell, who entered the league carrying question marks about his ability to make plays for others, has tunnel vision during the fourth quarter of games, only looking to score. He’s tied for 22nd in the league in fourth-quarter assists per game among players who have played in at least as many games as him and is tied for 13th in steals.
All of this was on display during the fourth quarter against the Cavaliers. Mitchell was credited with a steal early in the frame, scored eight points during the clutch period, including six when Cleveland was within one possession (11 overall in the quarter) and delivered a beautiful pass out of a double-team to Derrick Favors for an easy dunk with less than three minutes to play.
“There’s a confidence that he has, and I think the confidence is bolstered by his teammates’ confidence in him,” Snyder said after the game. “He’s been willing, when double-teamed or when the play dictates it, to make the right read and make a pass, and when a guy’s willing to do that, I think his teammates are even more supportive of him attacking.”
Mitchell’s play has certainly put him in line to claim Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors for December, an award that is expected to be announced later this week.