NEWARK, NJ – The range was never in doubt – she could always ‘fill it up’ from long distance.
And the feathery touch from beyond the arc proved lethal once she got into the grove.
Even in the aftermath of the New York Liberty’s 78-68 victory over the Connecticut Sun on Friday at the Prudential Center, Sun mentor Anne Donovan called Leilani Mitchell, “A difference maker. No doubt.”
The difference was not just in the shooting. For Mitchell, her game is rounding into full form. The Liberty are profiting from her complete contributions.
“I sat there laughing my ass off,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. “Here she is the smallest player out there and look at the rebounding she does.”
In a more serious vein Laimbeer continued by noting, “She (Mitchell) knows where to go. She has that ability to determine where the loose ball will land and she gets to so many of those loose balls.”
Against Atlanta, a week ago, she paced the Liberty with 7 rebounds. Against the Sun, Kara Braxton led with 13 boards while Mitchell was team runner up with nine.
By her own admission, Mitchell knows her limitations: her 5-foot-5 height. Even in heels she would give up inches to post players battling for boards in the paint. But she is adept at using her strengths.
“I am not going to get that rebound underneath in traffic,” she admitted. “But a lot of times the two primary rebounders tip it, then I react and get a lot of those rebounds that occur following the tip.”
Mitchell is rounding into a complete all around player, one the Liberty look to for more than outside shooting. She credits the team’s system. Not to be critical of the former decision makers on the bench, she feels under Laimbeer, more players are involved.
“Last year it seemed a lot of times we passed to Cappie (Pondexter) and stood around,” she said. “This year there are more options, a different style.”
Pondexter, who had a game-high 20 points on Friday, is still getting the call. But there are a number of others. Essence Carson was coming into her own offensively before her injury. Now, there is Kara Braxton inside (11 points to go with the 13 rebounds). And, not to forget, Mitchell was a 16 point scorer on the evening.
Mitchell ran the team for a significant time, handing out 5 assists while getting one steal. The latter number is deceptive as she was responsible for several deflections leading to turnovers.
“It all begins with defense,” she said echoing the mantra of coach Laimbeer.
In the final analysis, Mitchell was also a big factor offensively. In a game that saw the Liberty come from behind to claim their fourth victory against two defeats, the diminutive sharp shooter canned 16 points. She shot 4-for-5 from the field, all from 3-point range.
“We concentrated on Cappie (Pondexter) and Katie (Smith),” Donovan said. “We were late closing out on Leilani (Mitchell). Give her some room and she will make you pay.”
The thing with Mitchell, though, is she is making opponents pay not just from her scoring. The rebounding, defense, and court sense contribute as well. Simply, the total package.