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‘Just comes with my job’: Call it what you will, but there’s a reason the ball is in Donovan Mitchell’s hands late in close games

Having the ball in Mitchell’s hands is by design. It’s called hero ball to some but not to the Jazz All-Star guard. It’s just part of his responsibility

SHARE ‘Just comes with my job’: Call it what you will, but there’s a reason the ball is in Donovan Mitchell’s hands late in close games
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Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, right, tries to outrun Boston Celtics center Daniel Theis during game Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Boston. A late 3 by Mitchell sparked a run that gave the Jazz enough breathing room to get the win.

Charles Krupa, Associated Press

Lately there’s been some talk about whether Utah Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell is playing too much hero ball.

On the surface, it seems like this could be answered with a simple yes or no, or that some clutch statistics would shine light on the truth of the matter. But it’s not really that simple.

The term “hero ball” often carries some negative connotations. It usually refers to players who are taking and missing shots in a close-game situation. Hero ball is not going to be referenced if a player is making important game-changing or winning buckets. In that case we call them clutch.

Either way the line between the two is very thin and these terms are incredibly fleeting, especially during the regular season.

Hero ball

You know, it’s funny the way that we look at these things. Take Jordan Clarkson as an example. Clarkson has made a career out of being known as a guy who can get a bucket at any time. When people think about hero ball, it’s usually in the context of isolation plays, a player creating for himself.

When Clarkson is dribbling through traffic and hitting tough, contested shots in isolation he’s revered for his confidence and called a walking bucket, as if he’s some type of hero.

But Clarkson could string together five straight games like that, then if he has one off game he’s criticized for trying to play hero ball.

In Mitchell’s case, there are some overarching numbers that people will turn to in order to criticize his attempts to take over at the end of close games. But, the numbers that people look at can often be very reductive. 

Through the first 42 games of the 2020-21 season, Mitchell had a 42.9% usage rate in clutch minutes for the Jazz, which leads the team, but his shooting numbers in close games aren’t the best. In fact, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale and Mike Conley all have better shooting percentages when a game has a differential of five points or less.

Entering last week, Mitchell was shooting just 32.1% from 3-point range and 39.1% overall in the fourth quarter this season.

But being a late-game hero isn’t always about making the scoring play.

“At the end of the day I know what I can do scoring-wise but I’m trying to be the best playmaker I can be. And it’s not always passing to an assist. It’s reading the defense, making a play, then creating so that person can have an advantage.” — Donovan Mitchell

“At the end of the day I know what I can do scoring-wise but I’m trying to be the best playmaker I can be,” Mitchell said back in January. “And it’s not always passing to an assist. It’s reading the defense, making a play, then creating so that person can have an advantage.”

In clutch minutes, Mitchell has the highest assist percentage on the Jazz at 36.4%. And, his point about reading the defense is an important one.

Mitchell is going to be at the top of every opposing scouting report and even if he is missing shots through the course of a game, the defense respects him and they have to play him a certain way.

Both Mitchell and Jazz coach Quin Snyder have pointed out times when Mitchell has allowed himself time to understand how the defense will guard him and then exert himself at the right moment.

Remember when the mid-range was a huge part of Mitchell’s game? He’s taken a lot of that out in order to fit with the Jazz’s more efficient style these days, but in the final three minutes of fourth quarters this season Mitchell is shooting 57.1% from 10 to 16 feet away from the basket and 75% from 16 feet out to the 3-point line.

Clutch

Being labeled a clutch player in basketball sometimes takes an entire career worth of work and other times can take as little as two plays.

Bojan Bogdanovic hit two buzzer-beaters for the Jazz in the 2019-20 season and when the Jazz lost Game 7 against the Nuggets in the playoffs with Conley’s final shot rimming out, it was Bogdanovic that many were wishing was on the court to take the final shot. It took just two instances of Bogdanovic hitting a good shot for him to be labeled a clutch player.

Kobe Bryant has often been called one of the best clutch players to have played the game, but like Mitchell the numbers don’t really match up to that distinction (and really many of Bryant’s numbers are worse). What’s often missing from these late-clock, fourth-quarter stats is context, and the timeliness of a shot.

When the Jazz beat the Boston Celtics on March 16, Mitchell was having a pretty brutal shooting night. But when the game was on the line it was a late 3 by Mitchell that sparked a run that gave the Jazz enough breathing room to get the win.

In a close and physical game against the Toronto Raptors just three days after the Jazz were in Boston, Mitchell once again was not hitting. He was 0 for 9 from deep and Toronto’s defense was stifling. But he fought through the defense and got to the free-throw line often, going 15 of 16 from the charity stripe. And in the fourth, Mitchell found different ways to attack and scored eight straight points to help the Jazz get back in front.

It’s not always about percentages or even shooting. A player can be clutch, can be the hero, by making the right decision and having just a couple timely buckets that spark a run and give the rest of the team confidence. That’s really what Mitchell’s role is.

Mitchell’s job

It’s not a mistake that Mitchell has the ball in his hands in late-game situations. And it certainly isn’t selfishness.

Snyder isn’t the kind of coach that would put players in a position where they aren’t skilled or they don’t have a chance to be successful. Mitchell having the ball is by design and it’s supported by everyone on the team.

Conley, one of the Jazz’s elder statesman, is often in Mitchell’s ear near the end of games, hyping him up.

“Just trying to tell him, ‘Man you got this this, this is your game to take over, it’s your time.’ He likes to take the challenge of different parts of the game, so (my job is) being a backbone and a support system for him as he goes throughout the game.” — Mike Conley

“Just trying to tell him, ‘Man you got this this, this is your game to take over, it’s your time,’” Conley said. “He likes to take the challenge of different parts of the game, so (my job is) being a backbone and a support system for him as he goes throughout the game.”

Whether the label is hero ball or clutch or anything else, the way Mitchell sees things is that it’s his job, as a leader of this Jazz team, to put the team on his shoulders late in a game, no matter what that looks like.

“I think it just comes with my job,” Mitchell said. “It comes with the opportunity I’ve been given since my rookie year ... and sometimes shots that not everyone takes, I take as part of my role. And it’s called hero ball to some but not to me. It’s the shots I work on. ... I know what I can do late in the game and that’s that.”

Mitchell is in just his fourth year in the league, and right now he’s leading the winningest team in the NBA toward the latter part of the season and looking toward the playoffs, where real basketball heroes are made and labels are cemented in basketball history.