The year after any NBA Draft is the great equalizer of new players. As teams settle in to the second year with their signees, the former victims of car popcornings and early morning doughnut runs have graduated to a new level of importance within their respective franchises.
In sophomore seasons, players begin to truly earn the trust of their teammates, coaches and fans. The first 82 games, rife with rookie mistakes and 20-plus point nights in losing efforts, are washed away by the thought that the sophomore player is part of a team’s bigger picture.
But in that same breath there is a semblance of weariness around the second-year player. “What if he doesn’t produce?” “Did we draft a dud?” For every cataclysmic outburst from players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, there are more whose second years in the NBA carry anxiety with each passing day.
The sophomore slump is real.
Right now, a pair of 2017 draftees are experiencing their own sophomore slumps. Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, two players inexorably linked by their interwoven pasts and rookie season impacts, are struggling to build upon the success of their first years.
In Tatum’s case, an increase in mid-range shot attempts has put his sophomore year on a less efficient trajectory. A statistically devalued shot among analytic circles, Tatum has bought stock in such attempts, likely from former mid-range aficionado Kobe Bryant, with whom he trained over the summer. Halfway into the 2018-19 season, Tatum has attempted shots at the rim just 111 times compared to over three times as many through 80 games in his rookie year (365).
And even though his points per game are up from 2017-18 (currently 16.2), Tatum is shooting worse from 3, down to 36.7 percent from his rookie mark of 43 percent.
Out west, Mitchell is posting stats nearly identical to his marks from last year, but on a lower shooting percentage from both inside and outside the arc. His true shooting percentage, 50.3 is down about four percentage points while leading to the same stats. Essentially, Mitchell is working harder to achieve the same result that made his rookie campaign a sensation.
Adding to the list of similarities between the two, Tatum and Mitchell both recognize their decline in production.
Tatum, and his father Justin half-jokingly agreed on the prospect of the Celtics making a trade for All-Star Anthony Davis. After the elder Tatum told Sports Hub that he’d trade Jayson if he weren’t his son, the sophomore approved, saying, “Yeah, I’d trade me too for Anthony Davis.”
Mitchell, on the other hand, plainly noted that he has yet to make a jump to the next level following a stellar rookie season.
“Obviously, the more I learn, the more I’ll get better at it,” Mitchell told the Deseret News. “But to be honest with you as far as numbers, I’m averaging basically the same I did last year, but if I can do that and not play the way I want to play, I think I can be much better for sure, so I’m not really too concerned over the numbers per se, more so the fact that I’m playing defense better, I’m making the right reads and right plays because everything else will fall into place.”
Overall, the regressions both Tatum and Mitchell are facing are symptoms of their notoriety. Where Tatum was lethal from the right corner 3 (59.4 percent) in 2017-18, he’s been pushed away from that shot this season. Instead, his mid-range attempts have increased, as teams would rather be beaten by a long 2-point shot than a momentum shifting 3.
Deeper than his own playstyle however, the Celtics have retooled away from being run by Tatum as they were last season. The return of Gordon Hayward is accompanied by the problem of fitting two offense-generating wings together.
If either Hayward or Tatum were Trevor Ariza—a 3-and-D wing who is content shuffling between 3-point lines all night—the Celtics would be fine. But, as a pair of ball dominant leaders, the offense between the two becomes a staggered partner dance in which no one leads.
Take this play from Boston’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Hayward, and Tatum instinctively retreat to the same, right-side wing. Hayward’s pass is even interrupted by the fact that he almost overestimates how far to pitch it to Tatum, only to get it right back and bonk a 3.
Or this one, in which Hayward is forced to cycle out of the play to let Tatum take Khris Middleton off the dribble. Sure, it works, but taking a contested mid-ranged jumper won’t be an ideal look come playoff time.
Coincidentally, the Celtics play better on defense with the Hayward-Tatum pair on the floor. The combined length, when coupled with Jaylen Brown posts a 94.7 defensive rating through 139 minutes played through January 8. (That same triad also posts just a 90.9 offensive rating, again speaking to the difficulties of scoring with too many wings).
Mitchell’s difficulties aren’t nearly as nuanced. As the Jazz’s only player scoring 15-plus points per game, Mitchell undoubtedly becomes the focal point when he scores 17 points on 19 percent shooting, as was the case against the Golden State Warriors in December.
On this play, Mitchell shows off his primary mode: scoring. Mitchell, known for relying on his athleticism to power to the hoop, moves lackadaisically here, stumbling into a trio of Warriors without: a) finishing at the rim, or b) creating a good look for Rudy Gobert.
Solving Mitchell’s struggles, however, becomes an exercise in purse power. The Jazz are, by all accounts, a small market team. For years they’ve relied on turning a profit through high-quality draft picks—this is how the John Stockton–Karl Malone duo came to be, as well as how the Jazz won an extra 15 games the season after drafting Deron Williams.
Thus, finding new, and willing, faces to lighten Mitchell’s load isn’t easy. If Gordon Hayward, the franchise poster boy and one-time All-Star is comfortable kicking Utah to the curb, you’d better believe plenty of other players are too.
Still, neither Tatum nor Mitchell are stuck in unsolvable situations. The former has shown moments of brilliance, like his 11-point first quarter which opened with a 5-for-5 stretch against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday. The latter has still helped Utah to a .500 record, despite the hyper-competitive, even-the-Mavs-are-good Western Conference standing in his way.
Sophomore slumps stink. But with the right foundations—like those of Tatum and Mitchell—they don’t last long.