As a professor at Southern Utah University, it is not surprising that many of my students love the Utah Jazz. In addition, many are also huge fans of Donovan Mitchell. So before I say anything about Mitchell, let’s just review some basics about sports and player evaluation.
Sports require emotion.
For players to excel — both with respect to training and in-game performance — it helps if the player is emotionally invested in their play and the performance of their teammates. Likewise, for fans to invest both their time and their money, it helps if the fans are emotionally invested in the players and the team.
Sports also come with numbers.
We can’t tell who won the game without numbers. And it turns out, other numbers tell us why teams scored more (or less) points. In additions, numbers also tell us which players were responsible for the outcomes we observe.
Numbers, though, can conflict with emotion. Fans of a team often develop an emotional attachment to a star player. But numbers can sometimes indicate a star is not performing well. When that happens… well, fans get a bit unhappy with the numerical analysis.
It’s important to understand, though, that objectively analyzing players is quite similar to being graded in a course. When a professor gives you a bad grade, it doesn’t necessarily mean the professor doesn’t like you (it could mean that — but often it doesn’t!). It generally just means you didn’t put enough right answers on the assignment. In a similar fashion, when the numbers say a player didn’t play well it simply means the player didn’t play well. The numbers don’t “love” or “hate” a player.
All of this needs to be remembered anytime one looks at numbers to talk about a player. And it needs to be remembered especially if you are a huge fan of Donovan Mitchell. That’s because we are about to look at some numbers associated with his play.
The Utah Jazz attempted 168 shots from the field in their first two games. Of these, 44 were launched by Mitchell. Next on the list is Joe Ingles, who has taken 27 shots. Whereas Ingles has an amazing — and unsustainable — effective field goal percentage of 91%, Mitchell has had a much harder time getting his shots to go in the basket.
In the first game of the season, Mitchell took 21 shots from the field. On these shots he scored 19 points, so his effective field goal percentage was only 45%. Then against the Golden State Warriors on Friday night, Mitchell took 23 shots. But he only scored 18 points on these shots, so his effective field goal percentage was 39%.
To put those numbers in perspective, last year Mitchell’s effective field goal percentage was 50.6%. So, he was definitely better last year. But even last year Mitchell’s shooting efficiency was a bit below average. An average NBA player in 2017-18 had an effective field goal percentage of 52.1%.
All of these numbers tell a simple story. Although Mitchell led the Utah Jazz in shot attempts last year and again leads the team this season, he has not generally been a great scorer in the NBA. And so far this year, he has shot the ball very badly.
“They’re taking away my easy looks. I just got to be able to hit the tougher shots. That’s all it is.”
So, Mitchell seems to suggest his shots were more difficult because of the Warriors’ defense. That seems like a reasonable conjecture. But his solution should be troubling to the Jazz and their fans who are thinking about this objectively (i.e. not emotionally). Mitchell seems to be arguing that the Warriors were making his shots “tougher”. But rather than concluding that maybe he should just pass to teammates with easier shots, he would simply like to find a way to keep taking those shots and make these go in.
It is important to note that academic research — and textbooks — make it clear that scoring totals drive perceptions of performance in basketball. Whether we are talking about where a player is taken in the draft, how many minutes a player plays, how awards are allocated, or how much a player is paid; the more a player scores the better they are treated. And because a player can increase their scoring totals by simply taking more shots, players have a huge incentive to take as many shots as possible.
The case of Andrew Wiggins illustrates this research. Wiggins has demonstrated one skill as an NBA player. He is above average at taking shots. His reward for this skill is a maximum NBA contract. One might think that being able to take shots is truly a valuable skill. But we have seen in the past when a star player like Carmelo Anthony leaves a team, shot attempts do not suffer. In essence, shot attempts are taken from teammates. If Wiggins, Anthony, or Mitchell wasn’t there to launch the ball at the basket, someone else would be happy to take these shots.
Given the incentives players face, it is difficult to convince players to pass on shots. Even if those shots are by their own estimation “tough”. But the Jazz would probably be better off if Mitchell shot fewer “tough” shots and his other teammates shot just a bit more. Such a move could reduce Mitchell’s odds of landing a maximum contract in the future. It might also be a problem for fans of Mitchell who like to see their favorite player shoot. But it might help the Jazz be more successful.
Again, that is the story told by the numbers. The numbers tell us that Mitchell was slightly below average as a shooter as a rookie. They also say that his first two games this year did not go well. It’s important, though, to remember what the numbers are not saying. The numbers, do not say Mitchell will not someday be the productive star his fans believe he is right now.
So far, the numbers say that Mitchell has not excelled with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, and turnovers (i.e. the factors that primarily determine wins). However, if Mitchell starts taking better shots, does a bit better job of grabbing rebounds, and cuts down on his turnovers; then the story told by the numbers will completely change. And that means if Mitchell shoots efficiently tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies, the numbers will say he played well (assuming he performs reasonably well with respect to rebounds, turnover, etc…). Once again, the numbers don’t “love” or “hate” a player. The numbers just allow us to evaluate what has happened in the past and let us know what has to happen for things to change in the future.
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