Utah Jazz

Donovan Mitchell's sophomore encore is off to a promising start

Mitchell draws from both Vince Carter and Gary Payton
Mitchell draws from both Vince Carter and Gary Payton (Getty Images)

When the 2017 NBA Draft rolled around, 12 players were selected ahead of Donovan Mitchell. By the end of the season, it became crystal clear that was far too many.

Just over a year later, only 12 players received better MVP odds for the 2018-19 season than the Jazz guard. At +5,000, Mitchell received the same buzz as Karl-Anthony Towns, who this time a year ago in NBA.com's annual GM survey was singled out as the player GMs would most want to build a team around.

Now, just six games into his second year, Mitchell is averaging 22.8 points, 4.3 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game and his Jazz are 4-2.

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It's an amazing leap in perception just over short 12 months.

So why did the hype train pick up steam ahead of Mitchell's sophomore season? Let's run through the reasons.

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Sure Not Now

Highest scoring postseason by a rookie in 28 years

Though people certainly took notice as Mitchell averaged over 20 points per game during the regular season, it was more of a neck turn or brow raise than a hold-the-papers type of achievement. Simply put, we've seen enough high-scoring rookies to make too big of a deal about it - Mitchell was the 29th rookie since the merger to top 20 a night.

It's what happened next that caused everyone to drop everything.

Some great rookies have balled out in the postseason over the years. Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan ... you can make the argument that Mitchell was better than all of them.

MORE: Breakout players in Western Conference

After torching OKC for 28.5 points per game in the first round, Mitchell came back down to earth in the second round against Houston, scoring 19.4 a night which still led the team. Altogether, his 24.4 points per game added up to the most by a rookie since a 24-year-old David Robinson in 1990.

Robinson would go on to win an MVP award, scoring title and two NBA titles. Not bad company to keep for Mitchell entering year two.

Outplaying the MVP

In the Jazz's first round series win over the Thunder, Mitchell not only went blow for blow with Russell Westbrook but perhaps most importantly outplayed the 2017 MVP in the fourth quarter of a close series.

Aside from the record-setting triple-doubles, clutch play proved to be a big part of Westbrook's MVP campaign in 2016-17. The league's leading scorer in the fourth quarter that season, outplaying Westbrook late in games is nothing to casually cast aside.

For the series, Mitchell averaged 8.3 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting in the fourth quarter. Not only were both superior to Westbrook, the only player league-wide to score more over the final 12 minutes in that round was LeBron James, who delivered perhaps the best statistical series of his career against the Pacers.

As explosive as Vince Carter?

With the 2018 All-Star game in Los Angeles, where the stars shine brighter than anywhere, it was a rookie guard from Utah that stole the show. Because of course it was. The clincher in his dynamic dunking display? A tribute to Vince Carter.

Beyond the exhibitions, Mitchell's above-the-rim exploits within actual games draw inspiration from Carter, who is considered by some the best in-game dunker in NBA history. During the 2000-01 season, in which he averaged a career-high 27.6 points per game en route to being named 2nd-team All-NBA with the Raptors, Carter dunked 44 times.

Mitchell last season? 42 in over 300 fewer minutes.

Dunking in-game as much as the best in-game dunker in NBA history at his best? Not bad for a rookie.

Elite on the defensive end

Coming out of Louisville, Mitchell profiled as an athletic perimeter pest that could wreak havoc defensively from day one. As he blossomed as a scorer, much of the attention turned away from his defensive efforts even though he turned out to be every bit the disruptor many pegged him as entering the draft.

If you were asked to single out the best defensive guards in modern NBA history, you might rattle off the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Chris Paul, five players with a combined 48 All-Defense selections.

***Lowers voice to whisper*** ... What if Mitchell is better than all of them?

Defensive Win Shares as Rookie
Donovan Mitchell 3.8 2017-18
Michael Jordan 3.7 1984-85
Chris Paul 3.5 2005-06
Jason Kidd 2.6 1994-95
Gary Payton 2.4 1990-91
Kobe Bryant 1.3 1996-97

If you trust defensive win shares, a metric designed to measure the impact of a player's contributions on the defensive end, Mitchell rated higher than all of them as rookies. To be fair, he finished with a lower steal rate than all of them and scheme certainly helps, as does playing in front of Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

But before casting aside Mitchell as merely a benefactor of playing on a great team defense, here's something to consider when talking Jazz defense.

After the All-Star break, Utah's defensive rating was 7.6 points per 100 possessions better with Mitchell on the court than on the bench, easily the best among any of the Jazz's players and over twice as large as the on/off disparity for Gobert (3.5 points better with him on).

A larger defensive impact than the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year? Not bad for a rookie.

Add it all up - the scoring, the clutch play, the entertaining style and the defense - and it's easy to see why much-deserved hype is the currency of choice on the Donovan Mitchell express.

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