Tumultuous Road

by July 24, 2013

by Christian Mordi / @Mordi_TheComeUp

It was a scorcher in the tri-state area. Fans filled the Prudential Center to catch a glimpse of the New York Liberty and escape the heat.

After the home team’s 66-57 triumph against the Seattle Storm, a mob gathered on the floor of the arena to take pictures and sign memorabilia with point guard Leilani Mitchell. For a big city slicker, the bright lights and fan fare may be just another day in the office, but for Mitchell, adjusting to NYC’s pace took some time.

Hailing from Richland, WA—a quiet town, known for its beautiful landscapes and the river that runs through the city—Mitchell credits their passion for the game to her desire to mesh with her five brothers. “They always joke with me that I never had Barbie dolls, I had GI Joes,” says Mitchell.

Despite success on the high-school level, including a state championship, Mitchell wasn’t recruited heavily, and ended up keeping it local for college at the University of Idaho. “I actually went there for two reasons—one being because it was close to home,” says Mitchell, “and because my high school coach the first two years left to become an assistant there. A bunch of people from my area who I played AAU with went there also, so it made sense.”

Mitchell blossomed into a dominant force by her junior year for the Vandals, but decided it was time to depart from Idaho before her senior season. “After my junior year I decided to leave. They had some things going on with the team that I didn’t want to be a part of.” Mitchell was looking to take her basketball career to another level and play for a competitive program, so the Washington native decided to take her game to Utah.

Mitchell continued to dominate and her game was exposed to a national limelight. She broke out her senior year, with averages of 16.4 points, 7.7 assists and 2.5 steals per game en route to the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year award. Nonetheless, the questions began to swirl about her height. Commentators and scouts questioned whether the 5-5 point guard’s game would translate well to the next level. Mitchell was drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft by San Antonio, who traded her rights to Phoenix. The Liberty saw potential in Mitchell and orchestrated a deal to acquire her during the pre-season of her rookie year.

In an instant, Mitchell went from the calm and quiet streets of Utah to the busy, electric streets of New York City. Mitchell dealt with change of scenery and pace with grace. “There were so many people on the streets. Driving in NYC is an experience itself,” she says.

After playing understudy her first year, Mitchell was catapulted into a starting role in her second year in the WNBA. The former Ute delivered for the Liberty, averaging 9.3 points and 3.8 assists, while garnering the WNBA 2010 Most Improved Award.

Since then, the road has been tumultuous for Mitchell as well as the Liberty. New York was looking for a fresh start after the 2012 season and decided a coaching change was needed. The newly hired Bill Laimbeer focused on adding size to the frontcourt with the additions of rookies Kelsey Bone and Toni Young. A point of emphasis for the Liberty this season has been dominating the glass and utilizing a vicious, physical half-court attack.

One would assume that the grizzled vet would be leading the team at the point guard spot, but Laimbeer had other ideas. Rather than handing the ball over to Mitchell, Laimbeer moved Cappie Pondexter to the point guard spot.

Pondexter, who was in the midst of an amazing mid-season run, averaging 23 points, 4 assists and 5 rebounds per game, has cooled off statistically since her switch to the 1, with averages of 13 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists.

Nonetheless, Mitchell has remained positive and continues to contribute when given the opportunity. “This year the experience with Coach Laimbeer is very different,” says Mitchell. “He was pretty straightforward with me and told me that I wouldn’t play much, due to my size. When I get in the game I just try to get in and make a difference.”

Despite the limited minutes, Mitchell’s + 9.50 efficiency rating is second only to Pondexter, and the point guard’s per 40 minutes numbers are 14 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game. Mitchell is also shooting 48 percent from the field and 47 percent from downtown. While Liberty fans may want to see her shoot the rock more, Mitchell is focused on keeping her teammates happy first.

“I know there are times when I could shoot it, but as a point guard I am always thinking of others,” she says. “I think about what plays we can run to get everyone involved. We keep everyone happy so they keep playing hard.”

Keeping the team and the fans first is a recurring theme for Mitchell—a welcomed change of pace in New York City, where the “dog eat dog” and “me first” mentality runs wild in the streets. Currently sitting at 7-10 on the season, the Liberty will need Mitchell in order to get back in the Playoff hunt.

In the case of Mitchell, size doesn’t matter.