Three in the Key: Explaining why Donovan Mitchell belongs in the MVP conversation


As part of an ongoing series at HoopsHype, we're breaking down some of the most interesting trends we have seen around the NBA throughout the season.

Of course, the name of this column is derived from basketball's three-second violation rule. With that in mind, the goal of this exercise is to find one of the most interesting subjects about the game and explain the three keys to why it is happening while also providing context on what makes it interesting.

For this edition, Three in the Key will take a look at someone that has been heating up of late. During the broadcast on Christmas, perhaps forgetting about John Stockton and Karl Malone, Stephen A. Smith called him the greatest talent in the history of the franchise. He also ranks as the NBA's best player over the course of the last month, per HoopsHype's Global Rating.

We're talking about Utah Jazz superstar Donovan Mitchell - and why he might be a little bit underrated as perhaps the game's most elite shot-creator based on these three elements:

1. Dribble jumpers


Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Almost exactly two years ago, Salt Lake Tribune writer Andy Larsen wrote that Mitchell had amazing leaping ability but that he would need to learn to keep his dribble alive to eventually have the impact he wanted in the NBA.

That was easier said than done considering one of the most challenging skills in basketball is the ability to shoot off the bounce. But even then, Mitchell told Larsen that it would be essential for the longevity of his career.

Earlier this year, in a separate conversation with Larsen, Mitchell explained that this was one of his main focuses during his workouts with skills trainer Chris Brickley (via Salt Lake Tribune):

The hard work has paid off and an ability to score off the bounce is certainly something that Mitchell possesses. However, he doesn't just have it on a small scale. He has actually become one of the best in the league. He has scored 260 points on jumpers off the dribble, per Synergy, which currently leads the Western Conference.

He trails only Stephen Curry and Trae Young for the most points on unassisted three-pointers (150) so far this season. But he is not exactly someone who is ever down his defender one-on-one - he is scoring just 1.8 ppg in isolation, which is nothing compared to James Harden, who is averaging 7.9 ppg.

While these buckets from Mitchell are classified as unassisted because they weren't scored from a pass, let's address the 7-foot-1 elephant in the room who also happens to have a 7-foot-9 wingspan.

As is customary when someone writes about Utah, it's time to acknowledge the importance of the elusive screen assist. Without a doubt, it helps for Mitchell to share the floor with Rudy Gobert, who leads the league with 6.9 screen assists per game.

Utah has one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the league as Gobert has scored 118 points when rolling to the basket (third-best in the NBA) and Mitchell has scored 399 points as the PnR ball handler (second-best in the NBA) so far this season.

When dribbling after ball screens and then taking a jumper, Mitchell has the second-most points scored and the third-most points per possession (among the 29 players with the most attempts) thus far. Only Atlanta's Young has more points and once again, only Curry and Young have had more points per possession.

He is nearly impossible to defend in the pick and roll, especially when he is running then with Gobert. Even when opponents somehow manage to go over Gobert's pick to chase Mitchell around the screen, among all players in the West, the Utah star has still managed to score the most points per possession (min: 30 poss.) and the second-most points per game.

It's clear that Mitchell is somewhere next to just Curry and Young in the NBA's Holy Trinity of pick and roll shooters.

2. Taking it to the basket


However, it's not just that Mitchell is someone who is a sharpshooter off the bounce. Part of the reason why he is so dangerous is that defenders know that he is just as effective near the rim.

Compare Mitchell's finishing at the rim to other high-volume shooters like D'Angelo Russell (52.4 percent) Damian Lillard (53.0 percent), LaMelo Ball (55.9 percent), Fred VanVleet (56.3 percent), Harden (56.4 percent) and Young (58.2 percent) in 2021-222. That's about where Mitchell was last season (58.2 percent) but this year, he has improved it significantly (66.9 percent) thus far.

Once again, his performance in the pick-and-roll has been advantageous to his success. He currently leads the league in total scoring when taking it to the basket after dribbling off the pick after ball screens, per Synergy.

Similarly, the Utah star currently trails only Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for the most points scored on drives in 2021-22. More impressive: He is also averaging more points per drive than all but one of the 70 most high-volume drivers so far this season.

Watch the way Mitchell is able to use a high pick and roll, requiring just a couple of dribbles to make his way from the perimeter to the basket after going away from the screen:

These sorts of possession make him even more of a threat on three-point attempts because defenders can't guard him too tightly on the perimeter or he can blow by them for his own looks.

According to PBPStats, in fact, Mitchell has recorded the second-most self-created field goals within ten feet of the basket. When you think about his leaping ability and vertical pop, it's not a surprise.

Put the ball in his hands, let him attack the defense off the bounce, and he is a force to be reckoned with at the rim. For as good of a shooter as he is, he is even more of an explosive athlete.

3. Putbacks


Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Another fairly interesting element of his game is his ability to climb the ladder after a miss and still find a way to throw down two quick points.

Mitchell is averaging 1.54 points per possession on putbacks, per Synergy, which is better than 95 percent of the league. One of the reasons for the increased points per possession: He does a good job drawing contact and turning what would have otherwise been a two-point possession into a three-point possession with an and-one trip to the charity stripe.

He has been fouled on 30.8 percent of putback opportunities, which is more often than all but two players (Harrison Barnes, Jimmy Butler) who have had as many putback opportunities.

Obviously, considering the fact that he is just 6-foot-1, we're never going to see Mitchell lead the league in rebounds. That's role belongs to his teammate Gobert, who will control all of the boards in Utah.

However, this season, the Jazz are still averaging an additional 8.6 points per 100 possession on second-chance opportunities when Mitchell is on the floor compared to when is not. Even if that's because he often shares the floor with Gobert, according to Cleaning the Glass, he is at least doing his part in that he is actually recording the best offensive rebound percentage of his career.

It's nowhere near the scoring productivity that he sees out of the pick and roll. They're not as built into a set offense as a dribble jumper or a drive to the basket, either. But he's putting additional points on the scoreboard as a pogo stick who can turn an offensive rebound into a bucket.



(AP Photo/Rick Egan)

Although many people think of Utah's defense first and foremost because of Gobert, Utah's offense is currently the best in the league and it is nearly five points per 100 possessions better than any other offense in the NBA. In fact, at 117.1 points per 100, they currently have the best offense in league history. That means an offense built around Mitchell is putting up record-breaking productivity and it's thanks in no small part to his elite self-creation.

Mitchell is not currently in the same tier as Curry, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant when it comes to the MVP debate. But based on what we've seen thus far, he should be right in the next tier, placed alongside the likes of Young, Chris Paul, and Utah teammate Gobert.

All statistics are accurate as of Dec. 26, 2021 and pulled from unless noted otherwise.

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