On April 28, Shaquille O'Neal kept his weird vendetta against
Donovan Mitchell alive on his podcast, "The Big Podcast with Shaq."
O'Neal was discussing James Harden's postseason struggles and
managed to turn the conversation toward Donovan Mitchell's
candidacy as an NBA superstar.
“Y’all be giving out a lot of these awards to some of these bums
and I’m like, ‘What?’" O'Neal said. "For example, what did I say
about Donovan Mitchell two years ago? Everybody jumping on me and
hating and I be quiet. What’s he doing now?... Is that what
O'Neal then defended his comments in another
recent episode. This slander obsession dates back over a year
to a bizarre postgame interview on TNT.
Unfortunately, it's also become part of a larger narrative working
against Mitchell's NBA career.
Mitchell's superstar credentials have gone under the microscope
as trade rumors erupt around the 25-year-old this summer. The Utah
Jazz have failed to surpass the second round of the playoffs with
Mitchell running the show. He's a smaller combo guard at 6-foot-1
with run-of-the-mill, basic shooting splits. He played pretty
poorly in this year's first-round series loss to the Dallas
Is this a player worth mortgaging the future to acquire?
In a word: Absolutely.
Regardless of what O'Neal or any other detractors might say,
Mitchell is a certified superstar, a number one
scoring-and-playmaking option and a tier-altering presence for any
NBA franchise. He is not without his flaws, but this type of
gravitational offensive force rarely becomes available.
Let's start with the scoring and get the "inefficient" buzzword
out of the way.
Mitchell has never been among the elite shooters in the league,
but he's made strides throughout his career. Last season he sported
a 50.9% Effective Field Goal percentage on pull-up shots. That's
very good; it placed him 15th among 107 players who attempted at
least 150 such shots, per Second Spectrum.
Mitchell shot the fourth-most pull-up threes in the NBA last
season (413) and hit 35.6% of them, which was in the ballpark of
guys with better reputations like Luka Doncic, Khris Middleton,
Devin Booker and CJ McCollum. Mitchell has improved his eFG% in
each subsequent year of his career, with last year being his best
His overall three-point clip was just 35.5%, but that's because
he had a bizarre, outlier year where he hit just 34.6% of his
catch-and-shoot treys. Mitchell has never been below 40% off the
catch in any other season. It's reasonable to call 2021-22 an
unfortunate down year when he has four prior seasons of
Mitchell's average three-point shot distance was a whopping 26.4
feet from the basket, per BBall Index. A remarkable 52% of his
three-point makes were unassisted, which is in the 98th percentile
among combo guards, per Cleaning the Glass. He has one of the
toughest perimeter shot diets in the league, and has maintained a
quality mark from deep.
Then, we zoom in closer to the basket. Mitchell made a strong
65% of his shots at the rim this season, according to Cleaning the
Glass, and 80% of those makes were unassisted. In total, Mitchell
created 71% of his buckets without an assist last season, the
12th-highest rate in the NBA. Mitchell has had to manifest so much
for himself in Utah, and still manages to cobble together solid
Mitchell's volume should not diguise him as a pure scorer. He's
demonstrably better at finding shooters on the floor, in addition
to his synergy with Rudy Gobert. According to Second Spectrum,
16.3% of Mitchell's passed led to assists or free throws last
season, good for 14th in the entire NBA.
That rate was also his best of the last three seasons, and while
it's partially dependent on teammates making shots, it also shows
Mitchell is finding his guys in good positions. BBall Index also
tracks a stat called Box Creation (initially made by Ben Taylor),
which estimates how many open shots a player creates for teammates.
Mitchell's score this season was 10.3, ranking in the 97th
The vision is apparent. Mitchell is such a dangerous downhill
threat that defenses simply have to collapse on him. He knows how
the second level will step up to contain him and where the next
defensive rotation will be, as seen in the first and third clips.
He has improved at making the corresponding reads without
significantly altering his turnover rate.
Is Mitchell one of the best and most willing facilitators in the
NBA? No; he averaged a pretty mediocre 41.7 passes last season to
go with 5.3 assists per game. But there's a clear pattern of growth
that bodes well for his future in Utah or with another team.
Mitchell's volume of difficult shots often gets warped as a
ball-hog tendency. But look at who Utah has as actual well-rounded
offensive engines. Mike Conley still provides solid moments and
moves the ball well, but he has not been an attacking threat for
several years now. Jordan Clarkson is a pure scorer with jarring
peaks and valleys. Bojan Bogdanovic is transitioning to more of a
spacer role. Mitchell is wholly in another category as a player who
can both create a shot for himself while being a threat to
With all of that said, we can't gloss over the defense —
particularly in the latter stages of last season.
Mitchell really faltered on a national stage. As he struggled to
find an offensive rhythm, he continually played behind the play on
defense. Whether it was a lack of effort, confusion or something
else, he was clearly out of position and not extending himself on
several possessions against the Mavericks. And the concerns had
been rising before the postseason too.
Outside of Gobert, Utah was in a rocky defensive state by the
playoffs despite finishing the regular season with a top-10
Defensive Rating. The Jazz's defense was 4.6 points per 100
possessions better without Mitchell on the court, per Cleaning the
But if there's a bright spot, it's in his 1.9% steal rate.
Steals and steal rates tell only a tiny picture of overall
defensive impact, but within those steals, we can see promising
It's not like Mitchell is constantly losing the plot as a team
defender. In these plays, he recognized who was going to be open of
the drive, and shut off the faucet to pick up two steals. Mitchell
is strong and active with his hands to the point where he can be a
tough individual matchup for smaller guards. It's just about
consistency right now. He has the tools to be a neutral or slight
positive, and has shown defensive ability in the past. For whatever
reason, it fell apart last season.
Lastly, it's worth dispelling the notion that Mitchell does not
impact winning basketball. The Jazz boasted the best Offensive
Rating in the NBA last season. They were third in the metric in
2020-21 en route to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and
it's no coincidence that Mitchell was the offensive catalyst in
And, even with last season's playoff dud, Mitchell's career
postseason stats include 28.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists
per game to go along a 55.8% True Shooting percentage. He's not
even two years removed from a 57-point postseason onslaught in the
bubble. And he's still only 25 years old.