Kelsey Mitchell and the Indiana Fever will be eager to turn the page on 2018. They finished with the WNBA’s worst record and were jumped by the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty in the lottery. As we approach the official start of the off-season, let’s take stock of what we saw from Mitchell in her rookie season—the good, the bad and the thing she’s already more equipped to do than just about anyone else.
Mitchell’s rookie season can easily be split into thirds. The 2018 No. 2 overall pick entered the starting lineup in the fourth game of the season and made multiple 3-pointers in nine of her first 11 games. She began to slump in mid-June then was replaced in the starting lineup for the final 14 games. Her 3-point shooting fizzled out and she shot just 25 percent inside the arc in her final nine starts.
Here’s a breakdown of her shooting those three stints:
May 19 to June 16 (11 games): 14.8 FGA/game, 40.6 FG%, 7.7 3PA/game, 38.8 3PT%, 7.3 2PA/game, 37.5 2PT%
June 19 to July 11 (nine games): 11.2 FGA/game, 28.7 FG%, 5.4 3PT/game, 32.7 3PT%, 5.8 2PA/game, 25 2PT%
July 13 to August 19 (14 games): 11 FGA/game, 32.5 FG%, 5.4 3PT/game, 28 3PT%, 5.6 2PA/game, 36.7 2PT%
There are fair questions to ask about her play-making potential. Above anything else, she is in the WNBA to shoot. It’s what made her a lottery-level talent. She’s already in elite company with her 3-point shooting off the dribble, finishing second in both makes (30) and attempts (96) to Diana Taurasi, who shot 37.2 percent on 129 attempts.
The 96 attempts are a small sample. As a junior at Ohio State, she shot 33 percent on 105 off the dribble 3-pointers. As a senior: 28 percent on 114 attempts. Across this current three-year span, she’s a hair under 31 percent on 315 attempts.
If that percentage doesn’t perk up a little bit, will her team begin trying to reign her in? Those are the shots that need to fall to open everything else up, namely cleaner looks to spot up shooters and pocket passes to set her teammates up for 4-on-3 situations.
There’s little sense in comparing anybody to Taurasi, who did not overhaul her shot profile to emphasize threes and shots at the rim until recently. But these are the league’s only players doing this at this scale. Mitchell took 69 percent of her shots from deep or inside five feet to Taurasi’s 75. Mitchell shot it better on 3-points attempts beyond 27 feet (17-of-49) than Taurasi (8-of-39). But Taurasi shot much better around the basket (46-of-62 inside five feet) compared to Mitchell’s 30-of-73.
Everything else will perk up when she makes more of her layups. Per Synergy Sports’ allocation, she shot 22-of-61 (36 percent) on shots around the basket. By a more subjective count, 25 of those 39 misses around the basket were attempts—eyes on the rim with ample time to release before a shot-blocker gets into the picture—she’ll finish more of in time.
One thing she did not find as easily with the Fever—spot up 3-pointers. She drilled 43-plus percent of 100+ attempts as both a junior and senior. Those looks were nearly cut in half down to 58.
Fellow point guards Cappie Pondexter and Erica Wheeler had sizable roles with the team in 2018. Though we saw glimpses of what Mitchell and Victoria Vivians around a third play-maker might look like, Pondexter and Wheeler starting together to close out the season made it tougher to maximize those opportunities.
Chatman had to tow a tough line giving Mitchell more traditional point guard responsibilities while also gathering some data on how her spot up capabilities could help the other ball handlers on the roster. Wheeler (0.733 points per possession), Pondexter (0.76 PPP) and Tiffany Mitchell (0.716 PPP) did not score efficiently in pick and roll.
Each used at least 129 possessions in pick and roll that resulted in a shot, foul or turnover. Kelsey Mitchell, far less experienced at the pro level than Wheeler or Pondexter, managed 0.817 points per possession using more possessions and turning the ball over with less frequency.
Regardless of what Chatman does with the No. 4 overall pick, she could run Mitchell off more screens to diversify their attack and manufacture some simpler pass/shoot reads.
You can even put the ball in the hands of one of your non-shooters so that their defender isn’t able to venture too far away to muck the action up as it unfolds.
The Fever need Mitchell to make her layups and open triples. That’s the easy thing to point to. Evaluating her play-making was complicated by her fluctuating role and lack of outside shooting around her. Vivians shot 40 percent from deep. The rest of their guard rotation falls either in the camp of ‘can’t’ or ‘doesn’t’ in terms of 3-point shooting.
The starting frontcourt of Candice Dupree and Natalie Achonwa shot 45 percent on 367 midrange attempts, comfortably above the 2018 league average of 39 percent.
Reads weren’t always easy for Mitchell to make in pick and roll. The best place to start is with her ventures down the baseline. Her two common missteps: Rushing into high gear without a plan or failing to realize (in time) that the open player was right behind her.
They need more screening actions for Vivians coinciding with Mitchell pick and rolls. It was too easy for opponents to hug her, take away the rim and recover to try to contest whatever midrange jumper the Fever found. Getting her on the move would set her up to make more plays and explore more of her versatile 3-point stroke.
Teams won’t guard the Fever’s current bigs out at the 3-point line. If they make themselves available, they can step in to set flare screens away from the ball or hand it off to Mitchell or Vivians.
Without the addition of a stretch big or a third shooter to flank Mitchell and Vivians, they’re in danger of becoming too predictable, especially in a side pick and roll.
The Seattle Storm took a more aggressive approach also seen in the WNBA Finals against the Kristi Toliver/Elena Delle Donne combination. They took away that release valve, leaving a 2-on-1 on the weak side.
Mitchell might not be big enough to both see and execute cross-court passes with a big in her face.
The Las Vegas Aces gave them a different look, instead stunting at that release valve.
Dupree and Achonwa made a bunch of those shots in 2018. But it’s very easy for teams to funnel everything there. Both players are limited off the bounce.
Their spacing complicated things for Mitchell in the middle of the floor as well. Help can creep out of the corner to muddy the waters when she tries to give it up early:
Sometimes she just failed to get rid of it on time. If she can’t set up that 4-on-3, their advantage will evaporate immediately.
It’s too early to say whether Mitchell will be a number one scoring option as a high-volume pick and roll scorer. With limited personnel around her, Chatman should be eager to see Mitchell explore the outer limits of her off the dribble shooting ability. She probably should have pulled up for three here:
She didn’t; the opponent forced another midrange jumper. It is possible to be overzealous for 3-pointers. The key difference that sometimes goes unsaid, though: Defenders don’t need to cover as much ground to close out to a midrange shooter. Are some of those shots all that desirable if you can get an on-target pass to a player at the arc instead?
By no means is the picture all bleak for the Fever. Mitchell canned more of these shots than Kristi Toliver, Maya Moore, Allie Quigley, Sue Bird, Renee Montgomery or Jewell Loyd in 2018.
There is plenty to be excited about. Things will get very interesting if they can add another shooter. Maybe Vivians will take on a bigger load as a play-maker.
There is also a human element to this that can’t be completely ignored. The Fever know they’re rebuilding but nobody wants to start a season 2-21. They played in plenty of close games that they could have won.
Mitchell and Vivians are good. That’s what matters. Two seasons removed from the retirement of 12-time All-WNBA selection Tamika Catchings, they shipped out longtime starting point guard Briann January for the pick that became Vivians.
Their fans have two players to point to that should be key cogs for the next great Fever team. After they come to a decision on Achonwa—a restricted free agent—and others in February, Chatman will be on the clock at No. 3 with a chance to add another.
Stats obtained via Synergy Sports and Swanny’s Stats. Contract details obtained via the High Post Hoops salary database.