Donovan Mitchell has what it takes

·5-min read

Playing in front of a raucous home crowd that included Dwyane Wade, who at age 24 led the Miami Heat to an NBA championship, 24-year-old Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell looked like Dwyane Wade at his best in a come-from-behind Game 1 win against the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals on Tuesday night.

Mitchell has drawn Wade comparisons since his breakout rookie season in 2017-18, when he filled the lead playmaking role vacated by All-Star forward Gordon Hayward's free-agent departure. He attacks the basket like a runaway freight train still in control tilting around curves in the mountains, and he is built like one, too.

When he finally came to a resting stop on Tuesday night, Mitchell proved to be the best player on a playoff court with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and it wasn't all that close. The Jazz star scored 32 of his 45 points after halftime, erasing a 13-point deficit at the break to swing a 112-109 victory against the tired Clippers.

His 45 points came on 16-for-30 shooting from the field (6-for-15 from 3-point range) and marked a fourth 40-point performance in his last 13 playoff games. Anyone who watched from home saw the graphic: He already has as many 40-point playoff outings as Jazz legend Karl Malone — the second-leading scorer in NBA history — who did it in 193 career playoff games over 19 seasons. Mitchell, it seems, is built for bright lights.

Wade made his legend on a pair of 40-point nights in Games 3 and 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Mitchell has yet to do it on that stage, but following Tuesday night's effort, we have to start wondering just how high his ceiling is. Four years into his career, he is already the best player on the best regular-season team in the league, and he just slaughtered the first-round demons of playoffs past.

He makes 40-point playoff games feel routine. They are not. Ask Wade, who had seven in 177 chances.

“He’s already 24 years old and he’s got a lot more growth to do and he’s already a critical player in our league,” Wade told GQ's Tyler R. Tynes for a feature story on the future Hall of Famer this week. “So, I’m excited about giving back whatever I’ve learned to him so his career will be greater than mine ever was.”

That sounds like lip service from Wade, who purchased an ownership stake in the Jazz in April, but what if it's not? What if it's a reality Mitchell is forcing us to face now? We must reconsider his career in real time.

It was less than five months ago Wade's former Heat teammate-turned-TNT analyst, Shaquille O'Neal, told Mitchell in an awkward interview on live television, "You don't have what it takes to get to the next level." This after a 36-point night against a lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans team in the doldrums of January.

Mitchell replied with the straightest of faces, "All right." That's it? "That's it," he said.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is raising his ceiling in real time. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is raising his ceiling in real time. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

The hint of truth in O'Neal's motivation tactic made the exchange fall flat. Mitchell was coming off two first-round playoff exits. The first was ugly, and two of his three 40-point games last year — including a 57-point night that marked the most points in a playoff game since Micheal Jordan's 63 — came in losses. In many ways, Mitchell became the poster child for a rise in offensive statistics that often leaves us feeling empty.

How are we supposed to calibrate what counts for great scoring anymore when the seven best offensive ratings in NBA history were all submitted this season? The past three years pushed the 1987 Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, the 2017 "Super Villain" Golden State Warriors and Jordan's 1992 Chicago Bulls outside the top 10 most potent offenses ever. We are looking at basketball through a new lens in the 3-point boon.

Even by comparison to his peers, though, what Mitchell is doing is not normal. His 45 points in Game 1 were two more than Leonard and George — a two-time Finals MVP and a seven-time All-Star — combined.

There have been 39 40-point playoff games since 2019. Jamal Murray has six of them. Luka Doncic has five. Mitchell, Leonard and Kevin Durant have four. Damian Lillard has three. James Harden, Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum are the only other players with multiple 40-point outings in that span. Mitchell, Murray, Tatum and Doncic are the only players under age 25 on that list, and Mitchell is the only one still standing.

They are the new breed of scorers. What if Mitchell gets to a title first? It is not inconceivable if you have watched the Jazz all season. They were without All-Star point guard Mike Conley (hamstring), missed 21 straight shots at one point, made just 17 of their 50 3-point attempts and still won Game 1 over a Clippers team with its own title aspirations. There is room for improvement, both from Utah and Mitchell. Imagine if Mitchell starts getting to the free-throw line at the rate Wade did in the 2006 playoffs. The ceiling is the roof.

We might eventually be looking at Wade with a 3-point shot, which would make Mitchell a more dangerous weapon than arguably the fourth-greatest two guard in history behind Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Jerry West. All right. That's it. Even O'Neal has to admit now that Mitchell at least has what it takes to get to that level.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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