Donovan Mitchell is playing out of his mind this season.
The three-time All-Star is playing arguably the best ball of his career so far while leading the 8-2 Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s shooting at career clips from inside and outside the arc and showing improved defensive effort. It’s early, but he’s on track to receiving his first All-NBA nomination.
On the other side of the country, Devin Booker continues to prove himself as one of the very best players in basketball for the 7-3 Phoenix Suns.
With all that being said, the Devin Booker versus Donovan Mitchell debate is as contested as ever. The two have been neck-and-neck for a while now. Mitchell wore the crown from 2019-20 to 2020-21, but Booker claimed it this past season when his all-league play for the top-seeded Suns squad had him firmly in the MVP race.
Mitchell’s sensational start to the 2021-22 campaign has reopened those conversations, and it’s time to finally come to a conclusion. I’ll be making the case for both stars and giving my verdict at the end.
Mitchell, aka Spida, burst onto the scene his rookie year averaging 20 points per game and helping the Jazz to the playoffs. There, they advanced to the second round in six games behind 28 PPG from their star freshman. In the following four seasons, Mitchell and company won 50, 44, 52, and 49 games but only managed to survive the first round once in 2021. That consistent disappointment caused trade rumblings that eventually turned into reality. Now Mitchell is headlining a very talented young Cavaliers squad that looks ready to make real noise in the East.
Mitchell has been a winner his whole career (in the regular season, at least) because he’s an offensive engine. He’s an absolutely electric bucket-getter. He’s a career 24 PPG scorer and he’s putting up 31 per contest this year.
His standout offensive facet is his finishing. His ridiculous athleticism allows him to have his way at the rim. He was in the 97th percentile of finishing talent and 93rd percentile of rim shot creation in 2021-22 (via BBall Index). He’s a one-man aerial circus every time he takes off, putting on the acrobat and strongman (89th percentile contact finisher via BBall Index) acts all by himself.
Mitchell’s all-world finishing generates some serious gravity. When he starts getting downhill toward the rim, all eyes are on him and the help defense collapses. He excels at making punch-and-spray passes, creating easy threes for his teammates. He dished out 5.7 high-value assists (layup or three-point assists) per 75 possessions in 2021-22, placing him in the 91st percentile (once again via BBall Index). While assists aren’t a perfect representation of playmaking, that number reflects the number of great looks he is able to produce using his gravity to his advantage.
Mitchell is equally as elite on the perimeter as he is in the paint. He shot 35.5% from beyond the arc on 9.8 attempts per game in 2021-22, which doesn’t jump off the page, but when you look deeper you find out just how good of a shooter he is. He was the sole creator in Utah, so the difficulty of his shot diet was absurd. His openness rating and 3PT shot quality both graded in the bottom 2% of the league last season.
With that in mind, his 45.1% success rate through the first nine contests of this season is wildly impressive. Keeping this up would elevate him into best shooter in the league talks.
The offense has never been a question mark for Mitchell. It’s the defense that has caused some to doubt him as one of the best players in hoops. His effort on that end has been lackluster at times which is honestly understandable considering the massive workload he carried throughout his tenure in Utah. Still, looking at his strength and length (his wingspan is a startling 6’10”, nine inches larger than his height), average defense at the least seems like a reasonable expectation.
While his on-ball guarding is still a work in progress, he’s contributing through defensive playmaking in Cleveland. He’s disruptive in the passing lanes and he delivers a sweet block here and there, and his 2.0 stocks per game so far is the best mark of his career.
The youngest player to ever put up 60+ points in a game, the simplest way to describe Booker is a straight bucket. He’s put up over 25 PPG for five straight seasons (assuming he keeps that number up this year), and at just 26 years old he has many more years of scorching the net to come. Unfortunately, it took him until the 2020-21 season to completely overcome the “empty stats” allegations (a frankly stupid claim, by the way). Even then, Chris Paul still got a large amount of the credit for turning the Suns into a contender. 2021-22 finally saw Booker get recognition as not only Phoenix’s best player but as one of the best in the league. He earned All-NBA first-team honors and garnered real MVP buzz. Even still, it seems Devin Booker doesn’t get all the love he deserves.
Perhaps that can be attributed to his style of play. Booker is one of the most prolific mid-range assassins in the game, an art not appreciated as much as it should be in the age of key, three, and free. Over 30% of his career shot attempts have come in that middle area and he consistently knocks down well over 40% of them. He’s methodical in his approach, stroking beautiful pull-ups time and time again while making it look easy as can be. His excellency as a shooter also extends behind the arc, especially as a catch-and-shooter. He finished in the 90th percentile of catch-and-shooters in the NBA last season (via BBall Index).
Just like his scoring, Booker’s passing won’t always jump off the page, but he makes great decisions and can find open allies almost just as well as Mitchell. He ranked in the 95th percentile of passing creation quality in 2021-22.
Mitchell’s offensive is on par with Booker’s, but it was on the other end of the floor where Booker separated himself last season. He quietly proved to be a rock-solid on-ball defender, something Mitchell cannot claim to be as mentioned before. He’s not locking down opposing stars or anything like that, but he can be relied on to put in effort and get stops which goes a long way.
After breaking down each guy’s game and case for the title of best shooting guard, it’s time to make my pick.
The best shooting guard in the NBA is Devin Booker.
However, the fun part about sports is there’s never a correct answer. If you think Booker is better, you’re right. If you think Mitchell, you’re also right. Better yet, opinions can change. I’d love to hear your take on the matter. I’m always down for a hoops discussion on my Twitter, @thebenchmobblog. Thanks for reading, see you next time!