Leilani Mitchell was undoubtedly one of the 12 best basketball players in camp with the Phoenix Mercury last month.
Yet, the team waived the 10-year veteran and brought her back two games into the 2019 WNBA season as they worked under the league’s hard salary cap and attempted to maximize each roster spot.
She drew her first start Sunday against the Los Angeles Sparks and played 37 minutes, tallying 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists against zero turnovers. In all likelihood, Mitchell won’t hit 47-plus percent from deep all season, (though teammate Briann January’s 47-of-100 3-point shooting last regular season may have rubbed off on her).
Mitchell easily could have looked elsewhere or been claimed on waivers by another team has been more important than even her biggest supporters may have anticipated.
She’s still an important player, and steady, veteran guard play is still at a premium. So, how’d we get here? What could the Mercury have done to prevent this early-season roster risk? Who should have claimed her when that happened?
The cap is set at $996,100 this season per the High Post Hoops salary database. Phoenix had about $74,000 to work with under that before Mitchell was re-signed to fill the 12th and final roster spot. She signed a two-year, non-guaranteed extension last May that would have reportedly paid $96,757 for 2019 and $98,654 for 2020.
Now, for some context: A focus on keeping Mitchell from the outset likely would have required the team to cut one of its cheaper rotation players—Yvonne Turner or one of rookies Sophie Cunningham, Brianna Turner or Alanna Smith.
The team could have simply kept 11 players instead. But All-WNBA guard Diana Taurasi underwent back surgery in April and was expected to miss 10-to-12 weeks. Cutting a perimeter player would have further eroded their perimeter depth.
The cast of bigs is a different story. The club re-signed starting power forward Sancho Lyttle, who was working her way back from an ACL tear suffered last July. She made her season debut on May 31, though such a seamless recovery and return was hardly a given in Lyttle’s age 35 season.
Smith, a promising stretch 4 out of Stanford, was selected with the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft. She also played for Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, who doubles as Team Australia’s head coach, at the World Cup last fall. Given Smith’s combination of size, youth, shooting, shot-blocking and a relationship with Brondello, her spot always felt secure.
Turner, the No. 11 overall pick out of Notre Dame, was acquired in a draft night swap with the Atlanta Dream in exchange for 2018 first-round pick Marie Gulich. Turner is an undersized 5 with excellent shot-blocking instincts and serious potential as a switch defender. The Mercury clearly liked Turner enough to be proactive in acquiring her rights, as they also held the No. 13 overall pick, which they later used to select Cunningham.
All-Star center Brittney Griner has been flanked in the starting lineup by fellow All-Star DeWanna Bonner at the 4 spot. Bonner has slid between forward positions throughout her WNBA career, but logging any amount of minutes at the 4 limits the frontcourt players behind her.
From the start, Lyttle could easily have been penciled in for as many as 20 minutes a night at the 4 or the 5 off the bench. Except, Phoenix had no way of knowing how many quality minutes they would get from Smith and Turner in their rookie campaigns.
Neither has played much through eight games, yet Camille Little started all 39 regular season and playoff games during her first season in Phoenix in 2017. And when the Mercury inked Sancho Lyttle to a deal as an unrestricted free agent last offseason, they re-upped her days later on a multi-year deal.
Per the High Post Hoops database, Little’s two-year deal that runs through this season was guaranteed, meaning the Mercury could not waive her for nothing. They’re on the hook for her full $101,000 salary regardless—the single-most complicating factor in general manager Jim Pitman’s cap and roster gymnastics.
The very decision to protect Little’s salary was questionable from the outset, however. Sancho Lyttle had been signed to supplant her in the starting lineup so where was Camille Little’s leverage coming from?
Perhaps the team was concerned that Lyttle, in an advanced stage of her career, would be injury-prone. Fair. But Little wasn’t all that productive in 2017. Despite some of her one-on-one defensive capabilities, she shot 41.9 percent from the field and 13-of-58 from beyond the arc.
In reality, the offensive fit with both veteran power forwards was never all that clean with Griner’s post-up game. Neither commands attention beyond the 3-point line, so help didn’t have to travel far to double Griner.
But Sancho Lyttle was a defensive upgrade on Camille Little and was at least more decisive when the ball found her open near an elbow.
Then there’s Smith, the heir-apparent that canned 39.7 of her 204 3-point attempts as a senior at Stanford. She was expected to twist the knife when opponents doubled Griner or shaded extra help toward Taurasi. Those decisions become more painful when one of the players you’re leaving open is a dangerous spot-up shooter.
In keeping both Lyttle and Little around, the Mercury gave Brondello two veteran crutches to fall back on if Smith wasn’t ready. But did they really need both?
So why not just unload Little before the start of the season? Could they have shipped her to the Indiana Fever? They could have sweetened the deal with 3-and-D wing Steph Talbot—another casualty of the preseason roster crunch who was dealt to the Minnesota Lynx for a 2020 second-round pick—and another second rounder.
The Fever could have added another asset or two for their trouble, either ultimately keeping Little or eating her 2019 salary to re-sign another one of their own end-of-bench players.
Since a deal didn’t get done, a first-round pick was likely off the table. And the Mercury never indicated that they were shopping Little, though the writing was likely on the wall the minute they drafted Smith after re-signing Lyttle earlier in the offseason.
Brianna Turner was more of a longshot in terms of 2019 on-court impact. Even Cunningham’s minutes have been limited with Taurasi out. The club went out and signed unrestricted free agent Essence Carson as a 3-and-D-type contributor.
Yvonne Turner got out to a poor start, shooting 33 percent from the field before departing to play in EuroBasket. Carson has struggled at times to find open looks without Bonner or Griner drawing double-teams and setting her up on a more consistent basis. January, recovered from the mysterious shoulder injury that plagued her last season, has not stepped into a larger playmaking role in Taurasi’s absence.
This confluence of events has made Mitchell absolutely irreplaceable as a guard that can push the pace, run a pick and roll with some level of competence and introduce the threat of a pull-up jumper.
The Mercury have outscored opponents by 4.0 points per 100 possessions in 156 minutes with her on the floor. With her off: Outscored by 23.1 points per 100 in 84 minutes.
Mitchell has been potent with the two healthy Phoenix stars. In 112 minutes logged with Bonner and Griner, the trio has posted a 14.8 net rating. Add January to that trio and it’s a 16.6 net rating in 70 minutes.
Though Mitchell was also bothered by injury (foot) last season—that even forced her to withdraw from playing for Australia at the World Cup last fall—her most important sample probably dates back to the 2017 campaign.
She and Yvonne Turner were thrown into the starting lineup with Taurasi, Griner and Little as the team made its playoff push playing without Bonner (maternity leave) that entire season. Mitchell shot 13-of-27 on pull-up jump shots that regular season and went 12-of-25 from deep in the playoffs. That group posted a net rating of 19.6 in 52 regular season minutes but was outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions in 88 playoff minutes.
But now Bonner is back and playing like an All-WNBA candidate. January is a clear upgrade on Turner in the starting lineup as an ace 3-and-D guard/wing.
Could Mitchell be the fifth piece unlocking one of the Mercury’s most dynamic two-way lineups alongside Janaury, Taurasi, Bonner and Griner?
For now, the Mercury just need to get Taurasi back on the floor at full capacity. They’re lucky to still have Mitchell in the fold to bridge this gap, ease the pressure on Taurasi to carry the offense upon her return and allow Brondello to get more offense on the floor against the league’s top defenses.
All stats current as of June 25 and obtained via WNBA.com unless otherwise noted. Salary information obtained via the High Post Hoops salary database.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.