(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Troy Taormina)
There’s a decent chance Donovan Mitchell isn’t going to win the Rookie of the Year award. Regardless of Mitchell’s definition of “rookie,” Ben Simmons is still technically a first-year player and after a historic debut season, he’s likely to take home the regular-season award. But if it's any consolation, if there were a playoff Rookie of the Year award, Mitchell would be winning it by a landslide right now.
What Mitchell has done in these playoffs has been nothing short of amazing. As good as he was during the entire regular season, he’s actually been better in the playoffs. He’s exceeded everyone’s expectations and has displayed all the different aspects of his game that make him look destined for stardom.
Obviously, Mitchell’s scoring has stood out the most this season. While he was a capable scorer in college, no one could’ve foreseen that he could be a 20-point scorer immediately in the NBA while being the No. 1 option for his team. But he was.
He wasn’t the most efficient scorer, though, and there was a sense that the youngster would finally get found out in the postseason, where opposing defenses would be able to gameplan against him. Instead, he just raised his game to a much higher level.
Mitchell was an unstoppable offensive machine against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He averaged 28.5 points on 46 percent shooting from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc. Even Paul George, who’s touted as one of, if not the best perimeter defender in the league, was unable to sufficiently slow him down.
It was truly awe-inspiring for a player in his first playoff series to be so dominant on offense. The 21-year-old rookie may only be scratching the surface of his true potential as a scorer.
Without question, the standout performance from Mitchell in that Thunder series was his epic 38-point Game 6. In a closeout scenario, he showed the killer instinct that made the likes of Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade such fierce playoff performers.
The rookie went bucket for bucket with the reigning NBA MVP in Russell Westbrook in an old-fashioned shootout. With the lights shining brightly on him, he rose to the occasion instead of shy away from it, and he eventually came out on top.
If there still were any lingering doubts about Mitchell’s ability to carry the Jazz offense in the clutch, they were well and truly eliminated in that game along with the Thunder.
After his unbelievable shot-making against OKC, Mitchell finally cooled off in the first two games against Houston. While Mitchell still scored his 21 points, he was just 9-of-22 from the field and 1-of-7 on 3-pointers in Game 1.
Mitchell wasn’t much better in Game 2 as he shot just 6-of-21 for 17 points, which was easily a playoff-low. But despite his struggles, Mitchell was still able to find a way to contribute in other ways, primarily through his playmaking. With point guard Ricky Rubio still sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Mitchell dished off a career-high 11 assists to help orchestrate a big road win.
Mitchell’s playmaking is still very much a developing part of his game. But he showed in Game 2 that he can make it a part of his arsenal should he need it. As great a scorer as he already is and can still be, it’s just remarkable that Mitchell’s offensive upside can be that much higher if he can properly grow into that role as the team’s primary ball handler.
Mitchell is already putting together quite the highlight reel in just his first playoff campaign. The number of insane circus shots he made in that Game 6 against the Thunder were particularly memorable.
However, none of those can hold a candle to his unbelievable putback slam in Game 2 against the Rockets, which you can see below. That improvised moment of brilliance is just one example of the truly breathtaking ability he’s capable of because of his amazing athleticism.
A good number of the greatest players in the game were such because they had that added bit of athleticism that could allow them to do what others simply couldn’t. Mitchell is obviously blessed with this X-factor for stardom, and if he can continue to hone those gifts, the sky truly is the limit for him.
Utah's new hope
It was right around this time last season that Gordon Hayward was playing his last games for the Jazz. While nobody knew at the time that Hayward’s days in Utah were numbered, people acknowledged that his departure would set the franchise back significantly after it had worked so hard to return to relevance.
But one year on and the Jazz appear to be just fine. They have lucked into a legit blue-chipper in Mitchell, who may have a much higher upside than Hayward. The rookie’s already thriving in the big stage of the postseason at the ripe old age of 21 and will probably get even better.
Even if he doesn't win Rookie of the Year, Mitchell has more than earned everyone's recognition as a rising young star in this league with his amazing playoff exploits.