When Leilani Mitchell joined the Washington Mystics, she anticipated she was joining the star-studded roster where her job was to just get the ball to all of the team's playmakers.
Then Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders opted-out. The extent of Elena Delle Donne's back injury recovery was revealed and Tina Charles received her medical opt-out.
All of a sudden Mitchell became one of the key faces for a shortened roster in an abnormal season.
"Leilani was a priority for us this offseason," head coach Mike Thibault said in the preseason. "We felt that, whether Kristi (Toliver) had stayed or not we wanted her to come. They could play together or she could take turns with each other but Leilani gives us the same kind of 3-point shooting we've been used to having in the last few years. She's great in the pick-and-roll with good decision making.”
Mitchell is in her 12th season in the WNBA and has won the Most Improved Player award twice. The most recent being last season at her age 34 season when she earned more minutes with the Phoenix Mercury due to Dianna Taurasi's injury.
With Toliver departing to return to the Los Angeles Sparks, Mitchell's role became even more vital to the team. In a non-COVID world, she could take the role Toliver left as the starting point guard or be a key player off the bench, backing up Natasha Cloud.
Looking for a change, her relationship with Thibault after playing for Washington in 2016 weighed on signing with the Mystics. She agreed to a two-year, $250,000 contract (according to Spotrac) providing depth to the point guard position.
"I enjoyed coach (Thibault), and I think he's great and even speaking to other players throughout the league - past and present - you can't find one bad thing that people say about him," Mitchell said during training camp. "I think that speaks volumes, not only for him as a coach, on the court with Xs and Os but just also his character as a person. He cares about us. He's going to do the right thing, and we tried to make it happen as far as me coming back after that but just with the roster and other situations that didn't work out so finally I'm back and I'm excited and I'm really looking forward to be here.”
The unique circumstances of a bubble and a condensed schedule have made Mitchell's transition, despite being the most experienced player on the roster, difficult. As of just two weeks ago, the team's starting point guard still described her familiarity with her teammates in the offense as a "work in progress." The right thing that Thibault and staff wanted for her was to set themselves up for success in 2021.
This year though, the half-court offense was struggling with movement and generating opportunities for one another. While some of those issues could be attributed to several young and new faces thrust into important roles, Mitchell also was not one filling in the offensive void. Even though she is a pass-first point guard, she has amassed 454 made 3-pointers in her career, the 15th most all-time.
Yet, her per-game averages were 8.8 points and 4.3 assists before her breakout game of the season against the Sky.
"I think she's spent so much time right now mentally trying to help her younger teammates and get them going," Thibault said in mid-August."I kind of think that's she's taking herself out of the offense sometimes by doing that. We need her to be aggressive and they'll kind of follow suit with her she does that."
After the 20 points and 12 assists against Chicago, it's all started to come together for her and the offense. In the quick three-game stretch following, her average is 13 ppg and 10.3 apg. Finally, much to Thibault's relief, she's found that balance that is needed from her in the Mystics' offense.
Winning and playing in competitive games also is much better than the alternative, but the season has quickly taken a new form for Mitchell.
"It was fun," Mitchell said after her career-high performance against the Sky. "Obviously, the end result of winning is the ultimate goal but even throughout the course of the game we were just enjoying it out there and you know there's not a lot of games where we're actually having fun. Most of the games just feel like a struggle, which of course is going to be when we have so many things we have to learn individually and together as a team."
The turnaround from Mitchell is directly correlated to the team's sudden change from 12 losses in 13 games to winning two of their last three contests. Playoffs are on the mind of the team for this season, currently sitting one game out of the final spot with three games to go. Without her surge in production, a postseason appearance simply wouldn't be feasible.
It may be too little, too late for the franchise in terms of extending their season this year. But now that Mitchell has become more comfortable in the offensive scheme and the tendencies of her teammates, it's only going to set them up for further success next year.
And as far as Thibault is concerned, that is the biggest goal the team could have this season.
“[The Chicago game] shows why we want to sign her so badly. Her character is such that, even with all the adversity we've had, she's continuing to play hard and be a good example for the younger players,” Thibault said. “Yeah, she wanted to play with those ones that aren't here but she knows that a year from now, she'll be ingrained into our team. And she'll be a big factor for what we do for the future, so I think that's just the character that she has.”