Leilani Mitchell’s spectacular WNBA renaissance has culminated in fitting fashion, with the Phoenix Mercury point guard named the Associated Press WNBA’s Most Improved Player. It follows her previous league award in 2010 during her time with the New York Liberty.
Waived due to salary cap constraints early in the season, Mitchell returned to the Mercury once those issues were ironed out, and with Diana Taurasi out of the lineup due to an extended injury absence, the Opals star made the most of the opportunities presented by the situation. However, Mitchell did more than simply play her role, putting together a career season that saw the veteran post career numbers in all major stats save for three-point shooting, in which Mitchell posted her best season since that 2010 campaign.
Having not started a single game in 2018, Mitchell’s elevation to the starting five paid off in spades as she increased her scoring from 4.4 to 12.8 points per game, increasing her per 36-minute scoring by 50% in the process. This increase in scoring was fueled chiefly by an increase in shooting percentage, from 35% in 2018 to 44% in 2019, as the 5’5 Mitchell belied her small stature to get to the rack and finish consistently. She provided the Mercury with another scoring edge alongside her reliable three-point shooting.
It wasn’t just scoring in which Mitchell improved, as her combinations with the likes of star duo DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner led to a career-high 4 assists per game. This also led to the point guard racking up the 1,000th assist of her career, with Mitchell just the 29th player in league history to reach this milestone, posting the 12th-highest career total among active players.
Mitchell’s re-emergence as a consistently reliable member of the starting lineup for the first time since 2015 also gave the Mercury an extra weapon that they may not have banked on possessing in an injury-riddled season. It would not be a stretch to argue that the performances of players like Mitchell were crucial in allowing Phoenix to secure the final playoff berth with a 15-19 record. Even more so considering her penchant for coming up trumps in crucial games, including 29 points in a late-season win over New York that kept her team just out of Indiana’s reach in the hunt for the final playoff spot despite a run of four losses to end the season.
Unfortunately, the Mercury’s injury-riddled roster could not get over the line in today’s single-elimination playoff game against Chicago, with Alanna Smith and Diana Taurasi out and Brittney Griner leaving the game on two separate occasions due to an apparent injury. However, the 105-79 loss should not detract from an outstanding season from Mitchell, one which will no doubt excite Opals fans, as well as supporters of the WNBL’s Southside Flyers, for whom Mitchell has recently signed for the 2019/20 season.