An ode to Kelsey Mitchell, the WNBA's forgotten star

An ode to Kelsey Mitchell, the WNBA's forgotten star

With a 5-27 record on the season, we won't be seeing much more of the Indiana Fever. They're currently the only team in the WNBA officially eliminated from playoff contention, and have been for a while now. 

It's understandable to an extent; this is clearly a rebuilding roster, with 4 of the top 7 minute-getters on the roster being rookies. The future is bright. NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo, Destanni Henderson and Emily Engstler have all showcased fun flashes this season, but it's just that — the future. We're likely a couple of years away from serious playoff contention with this group, assuming it stays in tact. 

Not only will we not be seeing much more of the Fever as the season winds down, we specifically won't be seeing guard Kelsey Mitchell for the remainder of this campaign. The Fever announced on Saturday that she will miss the rest of the season with a partial plantar fascia tear in her left foot.

It's an unfortunate end to a tremendous individual season that has frankly flown too far under the radar. 

Mitchell finishes the year with averages of 18.4 points (seventh in The W, fourth among guards) and 4.2 assists per game — both career-highs. Her jumper was the primary weapon of choice. Not only did she drain a career-best 40.9% of her 5.7 triples, but she is also one of three players to shoot north of 40% from deep on more than 5 attempts per contest. New York Liberty guard Marine Johannes (40% on 5.3 attempts) and Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum (42.7% on a ridiculous 7.3 attempts) were the other two.

(It's also worth noting that Phoenix Mercury small-ball 4 Sophie Cunningham — at 39.8% on 6.0 attempts — is knocking on the door.)

Mitchell's intersection of usage, production and efficiency is nearly unmatched. She's currently one of five players to post a usage rate over 20% (23.6%), an assist rate over 20% (23.5%) and a True Shooting percentage above 55% (56.8%; league average is 53.9%). Plum, Diana Taurasi, Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker are the other four players, and I think it's fair to say that they benefit from an easier context than Mitchell has to deal with. Add the fact that Mitchell has the lowest turnover rate (10.5% of possessions) of the group, and her season becomes even more impressive.

Enough numbers though. The way that Mitchell racks them up is captivating on its own. 

There are quicker guards than Mitchell. Stronger guards. Bigger guards.

But I don't know if there's one in The W that's harder to keep track of than Mitchell.

The Fever frequently run her through a maze of screens, exhausting even the stickiest of defenders after a while. Mitchell's battery never seems to deplete.

Los Angeles Sparks guard (and elite defender) Brittney Sykes described Mitchell as an "Energizer bunny" on an episode of The Dunker Spot: "She does not stop moving. It is ridiculous. She's just a motor... she's a really great player. Her skill set allows her to move freely and keep defenses on their heels. It's like 'Dang it, Kelsey, stop moving!'

"She's one of those players where you're like 'I need to get you in foul trouble immediately so you'll slow down."

Per InStat tracking data, no player in The W has made more shots after utilizing an off-ball screen than Mitchell has.

I appreciate her pacing off the ball. Sometimes, it's a dead sprint into a screen, either lifting up the wing or going baseline to baseline. Other times, it's a light trot to get a defender in a certain position before jetting away. Defenders never have a sense of when she's going, where she's going or how quickly she wants to get there.

That same pacing allows Mitchell to throw defenders off-balance when she has the ball in her hands. She's a smooth pick-and-roll operator with an ability to flow into pull-ups or stepbacks on a whim. When dealing with an overzealous defender, she's able to counter with hard drives to the basket. While she may not be the strongest guard in The W, she's certainly up there. Contact doesn't really bother her that much.

Mitchell is a scorer at heart, but she's done a better job of leveraging her scoring gravity to create looks for her teammates. You don't have to manipulate weak-side defenders like Vandersloot or Chelsea Gray when the pure threat of your ratchet can bend a defense.

Mitchell missed out on All-Star honors this season. Considering the Fever's record, it's fair to assume she'll end up on the outskirts of All-WNBA discussions as well.

(As a brief aside, an All-WNBA Third Team would be nice at some point. Just saying.)

But Mitchell is one of the best guards in The W. She's one of the best players in The W. She was the brightest spot of the season for a Fever team without a ton of them, and I'll miss watching her ball out. 

Get well soon, Kelsey.

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