By: Nico Fiscella
With the first overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, should the Philadelphia 76ers have drafted Donovan Mitchell or Jayson Tatum? It’s clear Markelle Fultz is no longer the first overall pick. There has been a constant debate on who is the best player from this draft class.
Both players are only in their fourth season. However, they have become the main piece on their respective teams. Both careers have followed a similar trajectory.
The only way to find out it to break down each season Tatum and Mitchell have played, and who had the better season overall.
2017-2018 Rookie Season: Donovan Mitchell
When comparing their rookie seasons, it is clear that Mitchell was the better player between the two. Mitchell, who was drafted 13th overall from Louisville, averaged 20.5 points to go along with 3.7 rebounds and assists. Jazz fans were in awe every game watching Mitchell throw down crazy dunks and question how he made everything look easy.
Mitchell’s best game came on December 1, 2017. That night, he dropped 41 points on the Pelicans. He led the Jazz to a victory over a starting lineup that consisted of Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Jrue Holiday.
Tatum, who was drafted ten spots before Mitchell, averaged just under 14 points and five assists. His rookie season was overshadowed by the all-stars around him, but Tatum got his chance to shine in the playoffs.
Mitchell was joining a Utah Jazz team that just lost their best offensive player, Gordon Hayward, to the Boston Celtics. Before the season started, ESPN had the Jazz finishing as the eighth seed with 44 wins. With Mitchell leading the team, the Jazz ended the season 48-37 and entered the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. After an electric first round against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Jazz fell to the one-seeded Houston Rockets as injuries sidelined Mitchell in the second round.
Jayson Tatum was joining an already powerful Boston Celtics lineup. Tatum was apart of the new-look Celtics, which featured new stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics finished the season as the two seed with a 55-27. Ironically, ESPN projected the Celtics to finish as the top seed for the second season in a row but expected 49 wins for the Celtics. After Kyrie Irving went down with an injury early in their playoff run, Boston fans watched as a young Jayson Tatum carried the Celtics to a game seven loss to Lebron and the Cavaliers.
The rookie of the year award that year went to 76ers point forward Ben Simmons, who was drafted the year prior but sat out due to injuries. Mitchell received 11 percent of Rookie of the Year votes that season, while Tatum did not have over 1 percent of votes. Both Mitchell and Tatum finished their rookie seasons with NBA First-Team All-Rookie honors.
Donovan Mitchell now sits 35th all-time in points per game for a rookie, as his 20.5 sits right behind Hakeem Olajuwon (20.6), and ahead of elite scorers Bob Pettit (20.4) and Kevin Durant (20.3).
I would say Mitchell had a better rookie season than Tatum, however, some advanced stats would give the edge to Tatum.
When looking at efficiency, Tatum was a better shooter across the board, but Mitchell took seven more shots a game than Tatum. Also, when looking at win shares, Tatum technically brought more wins to the Celtics than Mitchell did with the Jazz. Tatum finished the year with 7.1 win shares, while Mitchell finished with 5. When looking at the win shares per forty-eight minutes, Mitchell finished with a below .1 win share, while Tatum had .13. To put it into perspective, an average win shares per forty-eight minutes is .1.
At the end of the day, Mitchell led an underdog Utah team that season and made himself known in the league. As good as Tatum was, Mitchell had the better rookie season.
2018-2019: Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Mitchell did not believe in a sophomore slump, as his numbers improved all across the board. Mitchell fired just under twenty shots a night, and his numbers increased to 23.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. Along with improved averages, he also increased his shooting percentages, as his three-pointer continued to gain consistency.
Donovan Mitchell had his best regular-season game of his career this year. On March 2nd against the Bucks, Mitchell had 46 points to carry the Jazz 115-111. Mitchell shot 15-32 on the night and 5-10 from beyond the arc.
The Jazz finished the season 50-32 and finished the season as the fifth seed for the second year in a row. Unfortunately, Utah was eliminated by Houston in the first round.
Tatum’s sophomore year was incredibly similar to his rookie season. Tatum finished with 15 points, six rebounds and two assists. However, Tatum was averaging three shots more than his rookie season, and his efficiency dropped immensely.
Boston finished as the fourth seed in the east and finished with a 49-33 record. After a hard-fought series against the Pacers in the first round, Giannis and the Bucks took care of the Celtics in the second round.
Not only did Donovan Mitchell improve himself, but his team also improved from the year prior. Mitchell understood that this was his team, and it is clear his sophomore season was far better than Tatum. Tatum’s efficiency was disappointing compared to his rookie season, and his team effect was not as impactful as Spidas.
2019-2020: Jayson Tatum
For the first time in both of their careers, Tatum and Mitchell were selected for the all-star game. As these two careers progressed, this is when things began to separate slightly. This season is when Jayson Tatum broke out as a superstar. Tatum jumped up to 23 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and over a steal a night. Now taking 18 attempts per night, Tatum’s efficiency was higher than the year prior.
On January 2, 2020, Tatum had his career-best game against the Pelicans. Tatum shot 72 percent from the field on the night and dropped a career-high 41 points. Impressively, Tatum only played in thirty minutes that night in a 140-105 blowout.
This was an unusual year for Boston as this was the beginning of Jaylen Brown’s breakout, Kemba Walker’s debut season for Boston and a healthy Gordon Hayward. Even with these stars around him, Tatum was able to lead the team to a four seed where they eventually lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Tatum’s performance this year earned him All-NBA third team.
Donovan Mitchell’s numbers continued to progress this year, as he finished with a final stat line of 24 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. On about the same amount of shot attempts a night, Mitchell’s efficiency improved from the year prior.
The Jazz last season finished 44-28 and again finished as the fifth seed. However, Donovan Mitchell put everything he had on the floor in an incredible seven-game performance against the Denver Nuggets.
Denver, the team that originally drafted Mitchell, ended up winning the series. However, Mitchell was the star of the series. Mitchell averaged over 36 points per game shooting 53 percent from the field and an outstanding 51 percent from three. In what was a roller-coaster season for the NBA, Mitchell went out with a bang.
2020-2021: Jayson Tatum (For Right Now)
The season is still early. Even though the Jazz are holding the one seed in the Western Conference, it is hard to look at Tatum’s numbers negatively. Tatum is averaging just under 27 points a night, seven rebounds, and four assists. The Celtics are currently led by forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Injuries and COVID-10 have damaged the team. On a night where most of the starters were out, Tatum was a one-man show and defeated the Los Angeles Clippers.
If there is an all-star game to be played, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are both essentially guaranteed a roster spot.
Jazz fans cannot be happier with Mitchell right now. Mitchell is leading Utah as the Jazz have the best record in the NBA at 20-5. He was off to a slow start. However, he has gotten back to form and is averaging 24 points, four rebounds, and five assists. With so much basketball left in the season, there is no clear “better player” between the two. When looking at team play, Utah is blowing Boston out of the water. However, Tatum has been having a better statistical year so far.
The careers of Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum are still barely taking off, as neither player has even hit the age of twenty-five.
Both are one-time all-stars and all-rookie first team, however, Tatum does have the edge for being on an All-NBA team.
Outside of this season, the Celtics as a team have had more playoff success, however, Boston has always had a higher projection than the Jazz.
Mitchell has been an elite scorer since lacing up for Utah in 2017, and he brought life to a Jazz team that just lost their best player. Mitchell has shattered every expectation set for him, and only has his sights set on the finals.
In their most recent matchup, Utah came out victorious over Boston 122-108. Mitchell shinned as he finished the night with 36 points, four rebounds, and nine assists. As for Tatum, his 23 points were not enough to keep up with the Jazz. As of right now, the only other time these two would meet again would be in the NBA Finals.
One thing is for certain. For these two, their amazing careers are only beginning.
Featured Image courtesy Rick Bowmer/Associated Press