Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell has been sensational to start the season. The 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft has strung together some very impressive games that are making fans feel a little less glum about Gordon Hayward’s departure. Despite the Utah Jazz not being a particularly great team, the future looks bright. He has thrived in an environment that is borderline toxic for offenses. Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Ricky Rubio are not the cleanest offensive players, yet Mitchell has produced very well alongside them. He is the perfect combination of defensive capability and quality scoring that so many teams crave in this era of the NBA.
And the Detroit Pistons could have taken him.
The Pistons held the 12th pick in the draft and while Mitchell was being looked at by Detroit brass, they went with Duke guard Luke Kennard. In hindsight, this looks like a classic whiff by the Pistons. A missed opportunity to get what appears to be a young star in the league. It looks like they already flubbed the Stanley Johnson pick too, to add fuel to the fire. Can we blame Detroit for taking the sweet-shooting Kennard over Mitchell? On the outside looking in, sure. It is really easy to do, especially with the team trying to rebound from a bad scuffle. But really, the pick is justified. To put it succinctly, the Pistons need shooters in a bad way.
Even when they made the playoffs in the 2015-2016 season, the Pistons were not a very good shooting team. They were 25th in the league in field goal percentage, 22nd in three-point percentage, and 18th in total shots made. A slow pace and grind-it-out defense was the key to getting into the postseason. In that year-long sample size, it went well. They got in as the eighth seed and put up arguably the toughest fight of any Eastern Conference opponent against the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Last year, Stan Van Gundy and company tried to replicate the scenario. Needless to say, it did not go well.
It is hard to say that the Pistons were a fluke, but it certainly looked an awful lot like it. Detroit finished 22nd in field goal percentage, a slight improvement year over year. However, they were 28th in three-point percentage and took drastically fewer shots from behind the arc, a near eleven percent decrease. It does not help that they drew 24.3 percent fewer foul shots (29th in the NBA) and made 18.5 percent fewer of them (30th in the NBA). Their pace slowed even further and the offense ranked 24th in rating and 26th in points scored.
Simply put, the Pistons had no way to generate offense. In a league where shooting is vital to success, Detroit still tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. The designated “shooters” on the roster last season, in this case, the players who averaged the longest shots, were Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, and Stanley Johnson. They shot 39.9 percent, 41.8 percent, and 35.3 percent respectively. Reggie Jackson being hobbled was a factor, but even when he played his average shot distance was under 14 feet. The highly efficient Tobias Harris shot around four feet closer to the basket than those three aforementioned “shooters” and drained 48.8 percent of his shots. It goes without saying that the Pistons needed shooting, and in a bad way.
Enter Luke Kennard, who was one of the country’s best shooters in his sophomore year at Duke. He averaged 19.5 points per game with a 63.6 true shooting percentage and an offensive rating of 128.9. His effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the fact that a three is worth more than a two-point basket, was 57.9. He toned down the number of three-pointers attempted from his freshman to sophomore seasons and proceeded to knock them down at a higher clip, 43.8 percent. And sure, college play is nowhere near the level of the NBA. That is a given with any player moving up to the big time. The point is, he fits exactly what the Pistons need: a smart, efficient offensive player that is not afraid to chuck it when he’s feeling it. Now let’s look at the other player in question: Donovan Mitchell.
Unlike Kennard, Mitchell was not deemed a polished offensive player. He averaged just over 15 points per game in his sophomore season and shot under 41 percent. His shot from long range hovered around 35 percent, but nearly half of his shots were from beyond the three-point line. For comparison’s sake, his true shooting percentage was 53.4 percent to go with an effective field goal rate of 49.8. This is not to say that Mitchell was a drastically worse offensive player than Kennard, but that the Duke product had a wider array of stats backing him as an elite scorer. What Mitchell really has as an advantage is a “jack of all trades” toolbox. He was a good defender at Louisville with a 93.7 defensive rating and averaged over two steals per game. His assist percentage (16.0) was also higher than Kennard, who is more of a score-first player. Kennard was more a one-trick pony, but he was awfully efficient at it.
Thus gets into the debate of why the Pistons selected that one-trick pony over the more well-rounded player. And the answer lays in his ability to shoot. Detroit covets Kennard’s ability to shoot and spread out the floor. There was no need to take what appeared to be a lesser version of Caldwell-Pope in Mitchell (though obviously, we know as of now that is not the case). They took the calculated risk with Luke Kennard because the idea was to inject a pure shooter into the rotation. As of now, Avery Bradley sits at the starting shooting guard spot as he should, but Kennard needs to be knocking on the door. His defense is still a work in progress, but Detroit has the personnel to cover him up if needed. Figuring out a way to maximize his offensive potential will allow Kennard to blossom into the threat Detroit needs – and envisioned on draft night.
You can blame the Pistons for passing on Mitchell. It would be really easy to do, given how tremendous he has been. But Detroit had a specific need and a gaping hole in their roster that needed filling. It may look lopsided now, but given playing time Luke Kennard could be exactly what the Pistons need.
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