Donovan Mitchell’s 2-Point Problem

It is unusual for a guard who shoots over 38 percent from 3-point range to end up with an eFG% barely over the .500 mark, since by virtue of guards both shooting lots of threes and a 38 percent mark being itself good for a .570 eFG% by itself, you have to be a special kind of atrocious on 2-point shots to drag your eFG% down 70 points with barely over half of your overall shooting.

Donovan Mitchell, who shoots 38.4 percent on a robust 3PAR of .432 but has just a .501 eFG% thanks to shooting 44.4 percent on two-point shots, is just that kind of atrocious from 2-point range.

Indeed, out of all 246 players currently qualified for the scoring title, Mitchell is 214th in 2-point percentage. Of the guys behind him, only Buddy Hield and Fred VanVleet have played more minutes. And none of the other players who are worse shooters from 2-point range have anywhere near Mitchell’s 421 attempts. Anthony Edwards, who is barfing out a horrifying rookie season in Minnesota, is second with 365; only Dillon Brooks has more than 300 attempts out of everyone else.

That is to say, nobody besides Edwards is shooting anywhere near the same volume of 2-point shots less efficiently in the entire league than is Mitchell. He is, quite simply, hurting Utah every time he puts up a shot inside the arc.

This is all the more maddening because Mitchell is such a good 3-point shooter. Indeed, a remarkable number of these terrible 2-point shooters are good 3-point shooters, probably because if they couldn’t shoot 3-pointers as well, there’d be no point in letting them play enough minutes to qualify for the scoring title.

Sure, there are some legit stinkers whose eFG% is way worse than Mitchell’s .501; Sekou Doumbouya‘s .395 eFG%, which wouldn’t have led the Basketball Association of America in 1946-47, stands out, as does Josh Okogie‘s even worse .390 eFG%.

But what we have is the case of a guy who, when the Jazz have the ball, should probably have a chip embedded in his neck that’s designed to give him an electric shock when he crosses an invisible dog fence installed in the 3-point arc.

Mitchell’s 2-point woes also fall into the eminently familiar statistical pattern that is easy to diagnose but hard to remedy.

It’s hard to tell what the long-term effects of COVID-19 are on athleticism, but like a few other players in the league, Mitchell seems to have lost a bit of his explosiveness after battling and recovering from the disease last spring following his likely contracting the virus from NBA Patient Zero Rudy Gobert.

He’s shooting fewer midrange jump shots, the kind between 10 feet and the arc that are smoking guns for bad shot selection. Those shots are becoming 3-pointers for him now; that career-high 3PAR has come directly at the expense of those midrange shots.

Last year, Mitchell shot 24.9 percent of his attempts as 2-pointers from more than 10 feet out, while he shot 35.2 percent of his shots from 3-point land.

This year, those numbers are 17.4 and 43.2. That is to say, the one is down 7.5 points and the other is up 8.0 points, a pretty clear and obvious verification that yes, Mitchell is shooting more of his shots where they do his team the most good.

But a pattern that started last year has entrenched itself this year and managed to get worse.

A shot from between 3-10 feet is almost always a sign that the offense failed somewhere. When a guard does it, it is almost always a sign that he drove the lane seeking to reach the rim for a layup or dunk but got cut off by the defense and was forced into a bad shot.

One need look no further than league averages. So far this season, teams are shooting 42.8 percent between 3-10 feet; they are shooting 43.1 percent from 10-16 feet, 41 percent between 16 feet and the arc, and 36.7 percent (or a .551 eFG%) on 3-pointers.

Teams that can get all the way to the rim (or within 3 feet of it, often marked as the release point for a layup) hit 67.0 percent of those shots.

Those shots from close but no cigar territory are inevitably shots forced by the defense, not designed for by the offense; you can create better 2-point spacing from farther back in the midrange, and of course you get the best bang for your buck even on the lower percentage of shots teams hit for three.

Mitchell, last year, took 16.9 percent of his overall shots inside 3 feet and 22.9 percent between 3 and 10 feet out. He hit 62.6 percent at the rim and 41.4 percent when he failed to get all the way there.

This year, he’s taken 17.0 percent of his shots from the butter zone and 22.8 percent from the fail-state inside 10 feet but outside 3 feet. He’s hit just 58.7 percent at the rim and 39.2 percent when he’s had to shoot from further out.

And again, this is all while, when Mitchell gets to simply launch from 3-point land, he’s hitting a career-best 38.4 percent of the time at a career-high .432 3PAR.

This is, bluntly, a problem for the Jazz, one that’s going to bite them hard in the playoffs when Mitchell, night in and night out, is facing better rim protectors, better overall defenses, and teams who can more effectively prevent him from becoming another catch-and-shoot 3-point specialist like the Jazz already have in guys like Bojan Bogdanovic (97.1 percent of his made 3s have been assisted), Royce O’Neale (100 percent of his), and Joe Ingles (74.7 percent.)

Mitchell, for his part, has had just 57.7 percent of his 3-pointers assisted, as he is better able to create his own shot both in transition and in the half-court set.

There are some bright sides and signs that the Jazz are starting to adjust to Mitchell’s inability to finish at the rim.

For one thing, his assist percentage is a career-high 26.1 percent, all while his turnover percentage is roughly in line with his career average of 11.7. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.8 is by far the best of his career so far, and all of that points to Mitchell becoming comfortable with the drive-and-kick game in a way he’s never been forced to become in his career to this point.

Finding Bogdanovic or O’Neale or Ingles on the perimeter could ward off the biggest hazard Mitchell now faces; if defenses can no longer collapse on his drive knowing that Mitchell will then put up a bad shot, they’ll have to stay at home on the shooters in a pick-your-poison way that opens that path to the basket back up and leads to not just more successful drives into the restricted area but better percentages when the time comes to finish those drives with layups or dunks.

Because right now, Mitchell threatens absolutely nobody once he crosses the 3-point arc. Defenses can yield him the first step, fooling him into thinking he has a path to the bucket, and then turning a .576 eFG% into a .444 eFG% in as much time as it takes Mitchell to get trapped and have to release the ball.

Donovan Mitchell has a 2-point problem, and that means the Jazz have a 2-point problem that they need to fix, and fast, before it kills them in the playoffs.