With Diana Taurasi sidelined to start the season, it was expected that Leilani Mitchell would be needed to provide a steady ball-handling presence. That’s why it was surprising to many when the Phoenix Mercury decided to waive her.
It wasn’t basketball reasons that prompted general manager Jim Pittman to cut Mitchell. They needed to get below the WNBA’s salary cap limit and the simplest way to comply with that was to waive Mitchell and later sign her to a new contract.
“We explored every option to avoid having to waive Lei last month, but the WNBA’s hard salary cap and limited roster spots made it unavoidable,” general manager Jim Pitman said in a statement. “There was no guarantee that she would clear waivers but when she did, she became an unrestricted free agent, and our priority was to re-sign her.”
The decisions that Phoenix made when finalizing their roster cuts–like keeping third-round pick Arica Carter–made complete sense in the end. It just took time for the whole plan to become apparent.
The possibility of the team needing to waive Mitchell to comply with the league’s hard cap was not known in advance. As Alexis Mansanarez of The Athletic wrote, head coach Sandy Brondello explained to the veteran point guard prior to the start of the team’s training camp that they may need to waive her but she could return to the team if that’s what she desired.
“(Brondello) just sat me down and told me what the situation was going to be probably about 10 days before I was coming to camp,” Mitchell said. “She just said if you want us to cut you now so you can have a training camp somewhere else, we can, or if you want to be in Phoenix, you can come and do the training camp and in the end, we’ll have to waive you and just hope that another team doesn’t pick you up so we can bring you back.
“I wanted to be in Phoenix, so that was my choice to come. I knew it was going to happen. I’m glad it all worked out and I was able to come back to Phoenix.”
She has made a strong impact with averages of 9.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists since making her season debut in early June. Her overall offensive efficiency has been superb with an impressive output of 1.375 points per possession when including passing.
When playing alongside dynamic talents like DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner that command a lot of the opposition’s attention, it’s essential to have role players who are reliable shooters. That’s where Mitchell has provided her greatest impact.
Phoenix has frequently utilized Mitchell’s jump shooting ability since she made her regular season debut. She is shooting 8-of-20 (40%) on jump shots and these attempts have accounted for 90.9% of her shot attempts.
The rookies like Alanna Smith and Sophie Cunningham who clearly have talent as catch-and-shoot threats have yet to find comfort and consistency with WNBA level competition. That has required greater execution from supporting cast veterans.
There is no player better qualified to let catch-and-shoot attempts fly than Mitchell. In fact, her output of 1.465 points per possession on these particular attempts was the best in the entire WNBA. This attribute will be key in making opposing teams pay for pressuring Griner and Bonner so much.
Not every shot attempt can be created by the star players. It’s crucial that some of the role players can manage to find consistency as pull-up shooters to help maximize the options that the team has to attack the defense. This is especially important while they do not have the elite playmaking that Taurasi brings to the table.
It is safe to say that pull-up shooting is a particularly valuable attribute to the Mercury while Taurasi is out that Mitchell has provided early. She is currently tied with Elena Della Donne for the most points per possession (min. 10 attempts) within the half-court on pull-up jumpers.
It will be interesting to track just how much of Mitchell’s early season success as an off the dribble jump shooter sustains. She was among the league’s worst in this area last summer. Her execution does not have to be elite as long as she is consistent.
It is a luxury to have a steady-handed ball handler off the bench and that’s precisely what Phoenix has in Mitchell. She has generated a sensational 1.486 PPP (99th percentile) in overall offensive efficiency and is averaging 4.0 assists with a 5.5 AST/TO within the half-court.
The impressive production that Mitchell has provided has not taken long to show up statistically. There has been a 6.9 differential in her on-court offensive rating (100.0) compared to her off-court figure (93.1).
Despite her early offensive success, Mitchell still sees room for improvement in the ‘flow to the offense’ at times Even with a need to continue to fine-tune their half-court, they have managed to rank third in points per possession as a team.
“I think at times when our offense struggles, it’s because we’re not organized or people aren’t in the right positions or there’s just not a good flow to the offense,” Mitchell told Alexis Mansanarez of The Athletic. “So that’s one of my responsibilities as a point guard to just make sure that everybody is on the same page and everybody knows what we’re doing and what plays were running and who should be getting shots.”
The collective impact that Phoenix will likely have from their guard rotation by the end of the season could be impressive if they stay healthy. Not only will Taurasi be back, but Cunningham should also be acclimated to the professional level by then as well.
Being able to benefit from those factors while already having stable veteran guards like Mitchell and January would be significant. Most teams would not be able to match up with their depth.