The Long Two: Warriors’ offensive rhythm and Davion Mitchell’s defense

Golden State Warriors, NBA, Sacramento Kings

What makes Kings rookie Davion Mitchell one of the NBA’s best on-ball defenders, and why the Warriors’ offense looks better than it did a year ago.

There’s no hotter fire for a rookie guard to be thrown into than what Davion Mitchell faced in the first four games of his NBA career. In his first professional game, the Kings’ rookie had the privilege of guarding Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, two of the deadliest off-the-dribble weapons in the NBA; two nights later, he squared off against three-level assassin Donovan Mitchell (no relation) and the Utah Jazz’s ball screen-heavy offense; the next game, he took on Steph Curry, which — how does one even begin to describe that challenge? After two nights off, Mitchell then squared off against All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker. For the vast majority of first-year players, that would be a sure way to start a career off on the wrong foot, but Mitchell, as ever, kept his balance.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a reigning NCAA National Champion and Defensive Player of the Year could make an immediate impact for a team without much backcourt defense, but the degree to which Mitchell’s relentless defensive pressure has translated is nonetheless impressive. The rookie has begun to establish himself as one of the league’s best on-ball defenders (and a regular in Luke Walton’s closing five), giving the Sacramento Kings an invaluable weapon in a Western Conference loaded with elite guards. “He is as advertised,” Donovan Mitchell said after shooting 2-of-6 on shots against Davion. “He’s physical, he’s quick, he does a lot of solid things defensively that disrupted not only myself but a lot of us. He set the tone defensively.”

What pops most about Mitchell’s defense is how difficult it is to create separation off the dribble against him. Whether in isolation or pick-and-roll, he makes his man work for every inch. He invades the personal space players often take for granted, making ball-handlers carefully protect every dribble and labor through every move, all without putting himself at risk of getting beat off the dribble.

Where most defenders lose a half-step when an offensive player shifts his momentum, Mitchell can stop instantly and change directions with them, and often even beats them to their desired spot. That’s largely due to his incredible foot speed, but also to his equally rare reaction time, lateral burst, deceleration time, hip mobility and motor. Take this possession against McCollum from Mitchell’s first game:

The right-to-left crossover after the screen is designed to leverage a defender’s momentum against him: when McCollum changes directions on a dime, his man usually keeps drifting toward the foul line. But Mitchell, like a shadow, mirrors McCollum’s every motion. He stays attached rounding the screen, turns his hips with the ball as it moves from McCollum’s right hand to his left, and squares back up to McCollum before he starts the next drive. It ends in McCollum’s ugliest attempt of the night.

Mitchell makes these plays look routine — and for him, they are — but the combination of physical traits required to pull them off is exceedingly rare. Even Curry and Lillard struggled to get up clean shot attempts on Mitchell without a screen:

Because opponents can’t separate from him, Mitchell is also incredibly difficult to screen. He’ll wedge himself between his man and the screener to avoid getting clipped, making anything but solid chest-to-shoulder contact ineffective:

But it’s not just Mitchell’s athletic gifts that make his defense special, it’s his discipline and his approach. NBA ball-handlers are too crafty and screeners too physical for defenders to get by on athleticism alone; being truly disruptive demands careful attention to positioning, technique and opponent tendencies, all of which Mitchell does remarkably well for a player with fewer than five professional games under his belt. He seldom falls for shot fakes, he talks as a help defender and he’s already one of the best closeout artists in the NBA:

He’s not quite as valuable as an off-ball defender at this point in his career. Despite good instincts and sound positioning, Mitchell’s size and short-reach will always limit his impact as a help defender and, more importantly, may prevent him from being a particularly versatile defender. And while it’s still early in his career, he hasn’t looked as sharp chasing shooters away from the ball.

It’s no coincidence that despite holding Lillard and Mitchell to a combined 3-of-13 shooting, McCollum and Curry found easier looks by trekking around the floor and making Mitchell navigate off-ball screens. He lost McCollum more than once on a basic pin-down action, and made the common mistake of momentarily losing contact with Curry:

Mitchell himself seems aware of the discrepancy between his on- and off-ball work, and on Sunday called Curry the toughest player he’d guarded yet. “He can really play the game of basketball off the ball. He’s always moving, setting great screens, cutting, getting layups, getting his teammates open,” Mitchell said. “He uses his teammates a lot, that’s one thing he did a really good job at, getting off the ball when he had to, making shots when he had to.”

It would be unfair to expect anyone — let alone a rookie — to play perfect defense against six All-Star-caliber players in four games. Mitchell will improve chasing shooters around screens as he learns to translate his knack for staying in front of the ball to staying connected to off-ball movers. For now, he’s already earned the right to go step-for-step with the NBA’s best. “It’s been fun, just guarding these guys,” Mitchell said. “They’re really good.”

The Warriors’ offense is humming again

This time last season, the Warriors were struggling to keep their heads above water. A once free-flowing offense had become a disjointed mess, held together only by the symbiotic brilliance of Steph Curry and Draymond Green. An inexperienced supporting cast failed to grasp basic read-and-react offensive principles, and without a quartet of All-Stars holding out a safety net, the Warriors finished the season with a below-average offense and missed the playoffs for the first time in Curry’s prime.

Perhaps more than any other in the NBA, Golden State’s offense is reliant upon continuity and intuition. Its efficacy depends upon not only the talent of the players running it but how those players complement one another’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses; an offense in motion is incredibly difficult to defend, so long as that motion is purposeful and additive.

Curry is a magnet, pulling defenders around the court and creating space for teammates with perpetual off-ball movement (if the NBA tracked gravity assists, Curry would perennially lead the league). Green, meanwhile, might be the second-best passing big man of all time and is a master at turning the attention Curry draws into scoring opportunities for others. Fully unlocking the offense, then, requires teammates who can take advantage of the gashes Curry creates and make themselves options when Green attacks jumbled defenses.

That made it imperative that the Warriors not only upgrade their roster this offseason but do so with players who would fit a specific system. This iteration of the team may not be more talented than last year’s, but it’s full of cerebral players who can make decisions on the fly and play within the flow of the offense. With multiple players who can create, shoot and make decisions (and with an offensive weapon like Curry around them), role players whose limitations might be more costly in other environments become dynamic, empowered contributors.

Now, when Curry draws a second defender in the pick-and-roll or relocates to the perimeter, his teammates know how to capitalize by setting impromptu screens, making the extra pass, attacking a closeout, or identifying some other advantage. That not only makes Curry more of a threat but allows his team to overcome his quieter scoring nights by playing through other threats. The ball moves freely from one man to the next, each pass an intuitive decision rather than a predetermined step. As a result, the Warriors have created the most assisted points per game in the NBA through their first four games and may already have more highlight passing sequences in that span than they did the entire first half of last season.

There are still hiccups, particularly from Andrew Wiggins, who remains too mid-range happy and still doesn’t seem accustomed to seeking out teammates. Jordan Poole often falls into a similar category, slamming his foot on the accelerator instead of making the simple play. Integrating second-year center James Wiseman and rookie wing Jonathan Kuminga (both currently injured) into the rotation could also compromise some of the team’s offensive flow.

But this is the kind of offense designed to improve with time and repetition, and the Warriors are starting from a much higher point than they did a season ago. Eventually, they’ll add Klay Thompson to the fold, giving them another player with intimate knowledge of the system and the ability to compromise defenses with his shooting and movement.

Whether that mix amounts to a championship contender can’t be known right now. Too much hinges on Thompson’s health, the consistency of unproven role players and what shape the rest of the Western Conference takes. All Golden State can do right now is continue improving, one unscripted decision at a time.

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