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Defensively, Donovan Mitchell is putting his money where his mouth is

Through the first third of the 2021-22 season, Jazz guard is averaging career bests in multiple defensive stats

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Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) smiles after hitting a basket in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. The Jazz won 137-130.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It’s the first quarter at the final stop of a four-game road trip. The Utah Jazz are in Washington facing the Wizards and former Jazz man Raul Neto has the ball in his hands. He looks at the defender in front of him, Donovan Mitchell. Neto fakes slightly to his right and catches Mitchell fading in that direction. Neto sprints past Mitchell for an easy layup.

Mitchell turns toward head coach Quin Snyder and raises his hand, acknowledging that it was his fault that Neto got to the bucket so easily, that he should have been better. That kind of recognition of a defensive mistake happens all the time in the NBA. You’ll see players pat their chest or raise their hand as if to say “my bad.”

That’s not a new development for Mitchell, but it is a gesture that he is quicker to make these days and one that he comes by more honestly and with more knowledge. It’s one of the things that Snyder points to when discussing Mitchell’s improvement on the defensive end.

“Donovan’s just been focused on that end as much as anything,” Snyder said. “Either taking someone out of a play or just executing defensively. And maybe the thing that I see the most is when it doesn’t happen, and he does have a breakdown. He’s the first one to acknowledge that, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do better,’ and that shows his mentality and that manifests itself in a lot of ways.”

Drafted in 2017 in large part for his defensive abilities, Mitchell started out his NBA career as an inconsistent and sometimes streaky scorer. But he quickly became the go-to option for the Jazz and by the end of his rookie season he was the Jazz’s leading scorer.

As Mitchell has progressed into one of the most dynamic scoring guards in the league, leading the Jazz to multiple playoff berths, he’s been consistent in saying that he needs to be better on the defensive end. But saying it and doing it are two different things.

One of the biggest reasons that the Jazz have had trouble in the playoffs in recent years is not because of their interior defense. They’re anchored by Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time winner of the award. Rather, the Jazz have relied too heavily on what Gobert can do and clean up. Their point of attack and on-ball defense has let them down, and Mitchell is part of it. 

“If you want to get further than we have in the past in the playoffs, we can’t always rely on Royce (O’Neale) to take every guy or every wing and Rudy to take on the best big,” Joe Ingles said. “It’s on all of us.” 

Coming into the 2021-22 season, the Jazz held expectations internally of being a title-contending team. Doubters will say that the Jazz are a great regular-season team that can’t get it done in the playoffs and to this point, they would be right. In order to make that jump and be a great postseason team, it requires more from Mitchell.

Over the most recent offseason Mitchell made it a point to focus a lot of his time and energy on improving on that side of the ball. He talked about it with local reporters during training camp and the preseason.

“It’s a big part of our push,” he said back in October. “For myself, there’s always room to grow and get better. It’s no secret, I’ve said that there’s things I need to continue to build and work on. So for me, it’s about doing that and making that jump.”

But now, a third of the way through the NBA season, it seems that maybe all that talk wasn’t just Mitchell blustering. He has taken a step up on the defensive end.

Donovan Mitchell defensive per game stats
Year Deflections Steals Defended 3pt field goal %
2021-22 2.4 1.7 31.9
2020-21 1.8 1.0 40.9
2019-20 1.9 1.0 37.0
2018-19 2.3 1.4 36.3
2017-18 2.3 1.5 33.8
NBA.com/stats

Through the first 26 games of the 2021-22 season, Mitchell is averaging career bests in steals (1.7) and deflections (2.4) per game as well as opponent 3-point field goal percentage on shots that he defends, holding opponents to just 31.9% from 3-point range.

“The amount he’s out there, he’s going to be matched up on different guys and he’s going to have to defend some really good players at times,” Ingles said of Mitchell. “And I think he’s just taken on the challenge.”

Part of the improvement for Mitchell comes from his offseason work — gaining strength and working on reactions and playing angles. Some of the improvement comes from studying film and the tendencies of opponents, something that Mitchell’s teammates have said Mitchell does more than anyone else on the team.

But by and large, Snyder and Mitchell’s teammates believe that it’s a mental improvement more than anything else.

“He’s got every attribute to be a really good defender,” Ingles said. “He’s got better and better every year. But I think he’s just taking ownership and kind of committing to it really.”

At some point, a trend either becomes a problem or it just becomes a positive trait, and at this point, Mitchell’s effort on the defensive end is not just a trend this season. It looks like he’s really upped his game, and that’s exactly what was needed from him this year.

He might very well be playing the best two-way ball of his professional career and if he continues this throughout the season and into the playoffs, the Jazz might be more of a threat than they’ve ever been.