Leilani Mitchell brings smarts and scoring for Phoenix

Phoenix Mercury guard Leilani Mitchell looks for a passing option. Photo by Abe Booker, III
Phoenix Mercury guard Leilani Mitchell looks for a passing option. Photo by Abe Booker, III /

Leilani Mitchell is a woman who seeks to make use of her time.

Whether or not she stuffs the stat sheet, the Phoenix Mercury guard is a beacon of leadership. On the floor, she is averaging 8.8 points and 3.6 assists per game, offering a solid complement to the speedy Danielle Robinson or the offensive maestro that is Diana Taurasi.

“I like the style of play. I always wanted to play with Diana; she’s the best player that’s ever played our game. That’s kind of why I came,” Mitchell told The Summitt.

Her personal directive took focus in 2013, her final year as a member of the New York Liberty. Mitchell wasn’t a centerpiece of the franchise, but she was coming off a solid three-year stretch as a starter. That span included her breakout season in 2010, when she led the league in three-point field goal percentage and finished second in three-point makes.

However, when Bill Laimbeer began his Liberty coaching tenure in 2013, Mitchell encountered the proverbial crossroads. Although she started nine games that year, there were moments where she was the last option off the bench.

“That can get a bit frustrating at times when you know that you can go out there and contribute. I put that in the back of my head and thought ‘When I’m in, I’m going to make the most of my minutes.’ From that point on, I’ve carried that with me,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s minutes took a pause in 2014, when she went on leave to spend time with family in Australia. She was waived by the Liberty that year, making her a free agent. Mitchell returned to action in 2015 and signed with Phoenix. Her sharp-shooting stroke followed suit, coming in at just under 40 percent from three-point range. She also found a supportive head coach in Sandy Brondello, who admires the wits of the 32-year-old guard.

“She’s experienced. She’s smart. She understands the game. I like the ball in her hands because she makes good decisions, as long as she’s being aggressive,” Brondello said.

Phoenix guard Leilani Mitchell handles the ball. Photo by Abe Booker, III
Phoenix guard Leilani Mitchell handles the ball. Photo by Abe Booker, III /

A fellow Australian, Brondello encouraged Mitchell to concentrate her efforts on an Olympic run in 2016. Following the Games, Mitchell took a short-term gig with the Washington Mystics, but she never lost interest in Phoenix. Rejoining the Mercury in 2017, Mitchell’s experience is proving vital for a team that returned just two players from 2016.

“She’s a little bit more assertive than she was in 2015. She’s not just a three-point shooter, she’s able to get in there and finish at the basket. People look at her size, but that doesn’t matter because she’s got so much skill,” Brondello said.

Mitchell’s listed height is 5-5, but she could earn consideration for Sixth Woman of the Year. In several facets, her 2017 season mirrors her numbers from 2010, thanks to a roaring start that included seven straight games with double-figure scoring. Her production has tapered somewhat since then, but with Brondello spurring Mitchell to do more than facilitate, discounting Mitchell’s potential is a risky proposition.

“In the past, I sort of get caught up in being the point guard and making sure everyone’s involved. When I go overseas, I’m more of a scorer and more of a threat offensively,” Mitchell said. “Sandy’s really given me the confidence to bring my game.”

Although Mitchell can’t boast about All-Star Games or championship runs, she offers an example of how to handle life as a professional athlete.

“In your first couple years, everyone’s bigger, faster, stronger, it can be a bit overwhelming. You just rely on that experience and hope to share it with the younger girls,” she said.