NBA offseason musings: Donovan Mitchell primed for superstar leap; Kemba Walker and the small-ball Celtics
The Jazz put all the right pieces in place this summer for Mitchell to flourish
A couple thoughts as we all sit around waiting for the start of NBA training camps.
Donovan Mitchell set for Year 3 leap
Comparing young players to legends is risky, if not outright irresponsible business. Every player is unique. Systems and circumstances are different. I get all that. And usually I agree with it. But the similarities between young Donovan Mitchell and young Dwyane Wade are just too striking to ignore. Supremely athletic, forceful, downhill players with a flare for the acrobatic. They even move the same on the court.
And now here Mitchell is in Year 3, the career point at which Wade lifted the Miami Heat to his first of three NBA championships. Nobody is saying Mitchell is going to lead the Utah Jazz to a title this coming season, but this is the best team he's had around him and a big-time leap is the expectation.
Mitchell took everyone by surprise as a rookie. It's a misnomer that he "took a step back" in his sophomore season, as was a common narrative throughout the 2018-19 campaign. To the eye, Mitchell, perhaps, too often tried to do a bit too much last season; his shot selection certainly wasn't perfect. There were plenty of games in which he bricked a lot of contested mid-range jumpers. But how many second-year players are expected to carry an otherwise limited offense on a 50-win team? Mitchell is still getting used to defensive schemes being thrown at him, still figuring out all the attention around him off the court, and through it all, as the primary defensive focus every single night, he still got better in just about every statistical category in Year 2.
- Points: Up from 20.5 as a rookie to 23.8 last year
- Assists: Up from 3.7 to 4.2
- Rebounds: Up from 3.7 to 4.1
- 3-point percentage: Up from 34 to 36
- Free-throw attempts: Up from 3.8 to 5.1 per game
Now Utah adds Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to what is probably one of the five best starting lineups in the league. Most of Utah's offensive struggles, or perhaps we should say limitations, the last two years could be largely attributed to a lack of overall spacing and Mitchell's burden as pretty much the only one-on-one creator. Conley, who averaged 21 points and just under seven assists last season, and Bogdanovic, who scored 18 a game on 43-percent shooting from three, address both.
In Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles, the Jazz legitimately have two of the best long-range shooters in the world. Now rather than squeezing Mitchell's real estate, help defenders will be stretched out in a way Utah's collective shooters haven't been able to demand in years past. Ricky Rubio did a lot of good things in Utah, and he became a bigger shooting threat than he was in Minnesota, but he's not Conley. Not by a long shot, pun intended.
Conley also assumes the floor-general duties, leaving Mitchell, who also has Rudy Gobert as a perpetual lob threat to occupy shot blockers, completely freed up to put his foot on the gas and attack those open lanes to the rim. It's the perfect marriage of system and star, and it could lead to a superstar leap for Mitchell.
At this time last year, everyone was ready to anoint the Celtics as the Eastern Conference favorite and a real threat to win the whole thing. This summer, it's the opposite. Boston is almost an afterthought in the East, and you won't find anyone outside of Boston — or perhaps even in Boston — who really believes this iteration of the Celtics can compete for a championship.
Personally, I wouldn't be so quick to write that in stone.
Now, do I think the Celtics are in the upper-tier of championship contenders? No. But I do think their overall talent is being largely overlooked. Just about every team in the league would kill for Boston's perimeter package of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.
Don't sleep on the Celtics as a candidate to move for a defensive-minded center by or at the trade deadline; they are one of the few teams with the assets and a clear need at a position most teams are starting to devalue. A center to bring size and toughness to that aforementioned collection of wing/guard talent would, perhaps, make Boston a true contender.
But until then, that five-man unit we just mentioned figures to be the most exciting small-ball lineup in the league. Kemba will be outsized at the point most nights, and Smart, at 6-foot-4, would be the "center" if you're scoring at home. Smart is a mini Draymond Green, and surely Boston would utilize all this length and versatility to switch most actions, but defensively it will just be about holding their water long enough to break out on the other end.
Offensively, this lineup will be incredible to watch. Every player can create offense. Every player can shoot (even Smart), cut, pass and handle (even Brown). This is going to be a nightmare to defend, and if Boston can be competitive enough defensively to keep this five-man unit on the floor in closing time, opposing coaches are going to find themselves in a real pickle: Stay big and risk not being able to keep up with Boston's speed, and go small and concede the one advantage you had in the first place.
Either way, this is going to be a really fun experiment in Boston.
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