The Thunder won the first game in their series against the Jazz on Sunday, thanks in large part to the dominance of Paul George. But if you’re looking for someone in Utah with the ability to rise to George and Russell Westbrook’s level and keep this series competitive, look no further than rookie guard Donovan Mitchell.
In his first-ever playoff game, Mitchell looked remarkably comfortable, scoring 27 points (13 more than his next-best teammate) on 11-of-22 shooting to go along with 10 boards. His night featured big slams, fancy footwork, improbable finishes in the paint, and even a toe injury that he gamely fought through.
Obviously, it wasn’t enough for the win, but a rookie guard doesn’t really have any business looking this dangerous in his first playoff game. At 21 years old, Mitchell should still need time to develop at the pro level, but instead he’s carrying an outsized share of the offensive load for his team. If his performance in his postseason debut has any precedent, it’s most likely Derrick Rose, who pushed the Big 3 Celtics to seven games in a classic first-round series in 2009.
The Thunder are not exactly at the level of those Celtics, but it’s Mitchell who’s making this four/five match-up an even series. He’s aggressive and fearless, and unlike most youths, he can actually back it up. For a kid tasked with providing so many buckets, he’s stayed remarkably efficient, as evidenced by his .506 eFG% on a quite-high 17.2 attempts per game. And even though his assists (3.7 a game) are much lower than you’d expect from a playmaking guard, the Jazz have Ricky Rubio to fulfill their passing duties. It’s just on Mitchell to finish.
Mitchell is already as important to the Jazz’s offense as Rudy Gobert is to their defense, and he’s filling the Gordon Hayward-sized hole that didn’t exist on last year’s team. And even as he agitated to get off the bench and back into the game while the Jazz staff looked at his injured toe, he showed the urgency of a player who is more interested in winning right now than acquiring playoff reps. The rest of the world might be content to wait for Mitchell to hit his stride and become a star after some seasoning, but he doesn’t seem content to delay.