Thunder Basketball

Donovan Mitchell presents quite the challenge for OKC

Donovan Mitchell presents quite the challenge for OKC

If the Oklahoma City Thunder are going to take care of business of the surging Utah Jazz, a major focus is going to be trying to slow down Donovan Mitchell. Something the league has had a tough time doing in the last month of the season.

The Jazz have been sensational in their last 21 games —  winning 17 of those matchups. A franchise that was on the verge of disarray following the departure of Gordon Hayward in the offseason is now being led by the future of their team.

Now, Mitchell is classified as a rookie. He certainly hasn’t played like one, especially over the last month of the regular season.

In those 21 games, Mitchell’s usage rate — an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he is on the floor according to basektabll-reference.com — is an absurd 30.5. To put that in perspective amongst rookies who logged over 20 minutes a game, it is the largest usage rate since Ben Gordon with the Chicago Bulls in the 2004-05 season.

Overall, Mitchell’s usage rate for the entire season is 28.8 which also ranks just below Gordon’s mark. Simply put, Mitchell is the cog that makes the Jazz machine go.

From a Thunder perspective, Oklahoma City is not only counting on their collective defense to stop Mitchell but also the fact that rookies typically don’t fair well in the playoffs. You have heard the clichés about the postseason: The game slows down, every possession matters, what happened in the regular season is irrelevant. The “rookies decrease in production” is also among those.

Current Oklahoma City players can attest to that. Carmelo Anthony’s rookie year in the 2003-04 season was similar to Mitchell’s. The Jazz rookie is the first player since Anthony to both lead his team in scoring as well as lead his team to a postseason appearance.

When asked about what he remembers about the challenges from transitioning to the regular season to the playoffs, the typically candid Anthony described different ‘levels’ of the season grind.

“Not really knowing what to expect, to be honest with you,” Anthony said at practice. “I remember having preseason my rookie year and I’m like, ‘Oh, preseason. This is cool. This is what it is.’ Then I get to the first game in the NBA and it’s like ‘Oh, this is the NBA right here.’ And then I get to after the All-Star Break and it’s a totally different game. And then playoffs come and it’s like a whole other level. So it was different levels to that season, my rookie season, that I will always remember that guys just turned it on at different parts of the season.”

Anthony’s rookie year was capped by a quick four-game exit against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Syracuse rookie was held well below his regular season averages and even scored two points in the decisive Game Four.

Of course Mitchell has played like anything but a rookie. Billy Donovan agrees.

“Highly competitive,” Donovan said earlier today. “A guy that plays really, really hard and aggressive. A guy that’s come in and out, has had a terrific rookie year. But I would say, just his mental approach, his aggressiveness, those things.”

It is important to remember that there are other guys like Rudy Gobert (you might have heard of him) and Derrick Favors that will present many challenges for the Thunder. Stopping Mitchell can go a long way in helping Oklahoma City see the second round.

Simply depending on the factor of rookies not playing well in the postseason will not do. The Thunder will have to deal with him directly and force him into bad situations. Corey Brewer’s health as well as Westbrook’s ability to defend — like he did in Houston against James Harden — will be factors in Oklahoma City’s success against the potential Rookie of the Year.

 

Thunder Basketball
@BradyDoesSports

Brady has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder since 2016. University of Oklahoma alum class of 2014. He has worked for the Franchise since April 2018. Co-Host of the OKC-82 Podcast. Member of the Basketball Insider's Show.

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