Donovan Mitchell, the thirteenth pick in last summer’s NBA Draft has captured the imagination of Jazz fans and the respect of the NBA’s upper echelon. Through the end of 2017, Mitchell is leading all rookies in scoring and total points, and after a December where he averaged 23.1 points, 3.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.8 steals while shooting 50.7 percent (113 for 223) from the floor and 35.8 percent from three (29 for 81), he is gaining the respect of some of the biggest stars in the league.
On December 23rd, Mitchell and the Jazz were hosting the Thunder and Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. Mitchell went toe-to-toe with Westbrook and George and refused to back down. Westbrook’s triple double (27-10-10) was too much for the Jazz to overcome and the Thunder left with a win. After the game, the Thunder’s superstar trio was joined by fellow veteran Raymond Felton at half court to greet and congratulate Mitchell. The Thunder players didn’t talk to Rodney Hood or Derrick Favors or Ricky Rubio, they were there to show respect to the Jazz elite rookie. Mitchell shot 12-for-16 from the floor for a game-high 29 points and was impressive, but what impressed me most was the way he competed against some of the top players in the league.
A week later, he found himself hosting Lebron James and the Cavs on Lebron’s birthday. Lebron was clearly motivated on his birthday, but it was Mitchell sealing the game down the stretch with multiple clutch plays while Lebron couldn’t finish his lay-up. Lebron has called Mitchell, the “Little King” on Twitter and showed all kinds of respect for him.
So what is the difference between Mitchell and what all the other rookies are doing?
Simmons is an elite athlete with size for his position that make him a match-up nightmare. Simmons is an elite finisher at the rim and has great court vision. The overwhelming weakness to Simmons’ game is his poor shooting. He is shooting 74 percent of his shots inside of 10 feet and on the 19 percent of shots he takes from 10-16 feet he shoots a miserable 29 percent. While Mitchell, Kuzma, and Tatum were picking up momentum in December, Simmons has cooled off after his torrid start. After racking up 9 double-doubles and 2 triple-doubles in his first 17 games, he had just 3 double-doubles and 2 triple-doubles in December. His overall numbers are strong, but he is sagging. He is averaging 16.6 points, 7.5 assists, and 8.6 rebounds on the season after averaging 14.1 points, 7.9 assists, and 7.6 rebounds in December. While once viewed as the consensus run away winner of the Rookie of the Year award, now he has to feel like several other rookies have caught up.
Tatum has been an elite shooter and strong defender from the very beginning. While NBA scouts saw Tatum as an eventual three-point threat, there was little reason for them or the Celtics to believe that he would come in and immediately lead the league in 3-point percentage. Tatum has been doing his damage mostly from deep and largely due to having an elite penetrator and good passing big man, setting him up for easy open shots. Playing with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford makes life a little easier for Tatum and Tatum gets to thrive in a system asking him to be a system player with a rookie-like 17.9 percent Usage Rate.
A lot of people would have predicted talking about a Rookie of the Year candidate playing for the Lakers this season, but most picked the wrong Laker rookie. It’s Kuzma who has been the Lakers’ best rookie and ranks second in scoring among rookies at 17.9 points per game. Not a great rebounder from the Power Forward position (6.7 per game), but makes an ideal “stretch 4” in the modern NBA, shooting 39 percent from three. However, Kuzma struggles with defense that sometimes keeps him off the floor.
Mitchell has scored more points in his first 34 NBA games (607) than he scored in the 34 games he played his second (and final) season at Louisville (529). Mitchell is also leading his team in scoring and Usage Rate (28.5). He is clearly the Jazz’s first offensive option and has gotten more efficient as his Usage Rate has increased. Aside from his new found scoring ability, Mitchell has at least one, “Did you see that?!?” moment every game. His explosiveness is obvious when he attacks the rim on an alley-oop tomahawk jam, but he is also smooth enough to slip past DeMarcus Cousins with a Euro-step-and-one on his way to a 41-point game (17 in the fourth quarter). He has a swagger and confidence to take over games, while also remaining humble and teachable. He engages in daily film sessions with Jazz coaches to see how he can improve different aspects of his game. Most importantly, when he goes up against the league’s best players, no moment is too big for him. Certain past Jazz players shrank when the pressure increased. Not only does Mitchell not seem to mind the pressure, he thrives taking it at his childhood heroes in the biggest moments. Still, he’s likable and charismatic enough to motivate established stars to literally line-up for a chance to talk to him after games. That means not only can this kid ball out and lead the Jazz to some wins, but he also will have the relationships to recruit other stars to come to Utah to play with him and that makes him different from any player the Jazz have ever had.
Many fans are getting caught up in the debate over who will win the Rookie of the Year award in a year where several rookies are making a case. For me, it is much more important to have a rookie who is earning the respect from the league’s best and in that race, no other rookie or no other Jazz man is even close to Donovan Mitchell.