What Leilani Mitchell brings to the Washington Mystics

LONG BEACH, CA - SEPTEMBER 14: Leilani Mitchell #5 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against Nneka Ogwumike #30 and Candace Parker #3 of the Los Angeles Sparks in game two of the Semifinals during the 2017 WNBA Playoffs at Walter Pyramid on September 14, 2017 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
LONG BEACH, CA - SEPTEMBER 14: Leilani Mitchell #5 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against Nneka Ogwumike #30 and Candace Parker #3 of the Los Angeles Sparks in game two of the Semifinals during the 2017 WNBA Playoffs at Walter Pyramid on September 14, 2017 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images) /

She’s not Kristi Toliver, but Mitchell has a chance to be a difference-maker for the Mystics

On Thursday, the Washington Mystics signed guard Leilani Mitchell to a two-year, $250,500 contract. Last season, as a member of the Phoenix Mercury, Mitchell averaged a career-high 12.8 points per game, added 4.0 assists per game, and shot 44.1% from 3-point range. This will be Mitchell’s second stint with Washington, as she played in 10 games for the Mystics in 2016 after the Olympic break.

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Entering her 12th WNBA season, the 34-year-old Mitchell has made a name for herself as a 3-point shooter. For her career, over 58% of her shots have come from beyond the arc, including 67% of her shots as a Mystic in 2016, and she ranks fifth among active players with a career 39.6% 3-point shooting percentage. That’s two spots behind teammate Emma Meesseman (39.9%) and two spots ahead of 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne (39.4%). “Let the 3 balls fly!!” general manager and head coach Mike Thibault tweeted.

In the four years since Mitchell last wore a Mystics uniform, a lot has changed for the franchise. In 2016, the Mystics finished with a 13-21 record and missed the playoffs; this time around, Mitchell joins the defending WNBA champions. And only four current Mystics played with Mitchell in 2016: Meesseman, Natasha Cloud, Tianna Hawkins, and Latoya Sanders.

But Thibault was also the Mystics’ coach in 2016, and Mitchell clearly left a positive impression.

“Leilani will be a terrific addition and perfect fit to our team,” Thibault said on Thursday. “We loved having her when she was here before and everyone in the organization is thrilled to have her back. Her leadership, ball handling, passing, and 3-point shooting will fit seamlessly with our style of play. On top of all that, she is one of the best teammates you could ask for.”

More recently, Mitchell’s 28-point, 8-assist performance against the Mystics last July couldn’t have hurt. She hit 8 of 12 3-point attempts in that game and played 37 minutes.

Mitchell’s talents will net her $127,000 this year and $123,500 in 2021, and her contract is fully protected.

The simplest narrative is that Thibault signed Mitchell as a cheaper version of Kristi Toliver, the two-time All-Star who signed with Los Angeles earlier this week. Indeed, there are many similarities, starting with their 3-point shooting. (Toliver ranks tenth among active players in 3-point shooting percentage at 38.7%.) Last year, Mitchell’s 12.8 points per game were almost identical to Toliver’s 13.0, and both players are savvy veterans with leadership experience. Mitchell has played in 33 career playoff games, including the epic semifinal series between Phoenix and Seattle in 2018, and is a member of the Australian national team.

In addition, whether or not Mitchell is hunting her own shot, her ability to distribute will be extremely important for the Mystics. Toliver and Cloud often shared ball-handling duties last year, but when Toliver was injured for the last 11 regular-season games, Cloud had to play a ton of minutes as the team’s only true point guard. Mitchell can run the offense when Cloud needs a breather or, at times, play alongside her.

However, there is more to the story than “insert Mitchell for Toliver and hope to repeat as champions.” Thibault revealed on Twitter that Mitchell “was a free agent target from the start,” suggesting that this signing was not necessarily tied to Toliver’s departure. In addition, Mitchell is listed at 5-foot-5, two inches shorter than Toliver, which may impact Thibault’s lineup decisions. (For example, playing Mitchell alongside backup guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, listed at 5-9 and just 140 pounds, would be a very small backcourt.) Finally, for all of Mitchell’s talents, she is simply not the star that Toliver is. She has won the WNBA Most Improved Player award twice, including last season, but she has never made an All-Star team and has a career scoring average of just 6.4 points.

Mitchell is certainly a good fit for a Washington team that set WNBA records in 3-pointers made and attempted in 2019. However, there are still some questions about how Thibault will use her. In honor of her 3-point prowess, here are my top three:

Will she be the 2019 Leilani Mitchell, or will she regress?

To some extent, signing Mitchell is banking on the fact that she will perform similarly in 2020 as she did in 2019. The Mystics do not necessarily need her to score 12.8 points per game, but they will need her to be an efficient scorer and a solid distributor. The issue is that it can be hard for any player to sustain the level of performance from a career-best season, especially when those improvements were large enough to merit the Most Improved Player award. For example, Mitchell first won the award in 2010 after averaging 9.3 points and 3.8 assists per game. In 2011, she averaged just 5.6 points and 2.9 assists, and her shooting numbers dropped dramatically. However, she does have nearly a decade more experience since then, both in the WNBA and with the Australian national team, so there is some reason to be optimistic that she can build off of 2019 and have a strong 2020 season.

Will she start?

The Mystics’ roster is versatile and deep, giving Thibault plenty of options at every position. On the perimeter, he could start Cloud alongside Aerial Powers and Ariel Atkins and bring Mitchell, Walker-Kimbrough, and Kiara Leslie off the bench. He could also pair Mitchell and Cloud in the starting lineup, similar to how Cloud and Toliver shared point guard duties last season. This would give him another veteran in the starting lineup and allow him to bring Powers off the bench, a role in which she excelled last season as a scorer and high-energy player. (Thibault will also likely play three forwards at times, including the Delle Donne-Meesseman-Sanders lineup that was so effective last season.)

Mitchell has started roughly half of the games she’s played in over her WNBA career, so it is likely she will adapt well to whatever role she is asked to play.

How many games will she miss?

Last season, a big regular-season storyline was that 12 players from eight WNBA teams missed at least one game while playing in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament. This year, the Olympics fall in the middle of the regular season, and Atkins, Cloud, Delle Donne, Meesseman, and Mitchell could all earn spots on their respective national teams. The WNBA will take a five-week break for the Games, pausing two weeks before the opening ceremonies to allow players time with their national teams. However, Thibault told The Washington Post’s Ava Wallace this week that Meesseman will still miss about five games this season due to overseas commitments. This begs the question of whether Mitchell will also miss games, creating a similar situation as in 2019, when Meesseman and Kim Mestdagh’s departures for EuroBasket temporarily hampered the team’s depth.

Simply put, signing Mitchell made the Washington Mystics a better team on Thursday than they were on Wednesday. She may not be the tallest or have the highest profile, but as she showed in a brief stint with the Mystics in 2016 and in several games as an opponent, she can be a difference-maker. “Leilani Mitchell is back,” Mystics owner Ted Leonsis wrote on Twitter. “… Great addition to the @WashMystics.”

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