Leilani Mitchell leads the WNBL in assists for the third season and wins her second Rachel Sporn Medal

Jayco Southside Flyers point guard Leilani Mitchell put on a shooting exhibition in the 2020 WNBL Grand Final on Sunday 20 December, making nine of her 13 field goal attempts against the Townsville Fire at an accuracy of 69.2%, scored a game-high 31 points and received the Rachel Sporn Medal as the Grand Final Most Valuable Player. Mitchell’s contribution in Southside’s 17 point Grand Final victory at Townsville Stadium went beyond scoring, also taking four rebounds, made a team-high five assists and displayed excellent composure, decision making and leadership in the most important game of the season.

Mitchell had previously won the Rachel Sporn Medal in the Sydney Uni Flames WNBL championship win in 2016/17 and by winning the award for the second time earlier this month became the seventh player in WNBL history to win multiple Grand Final MVP Awards, joining Shelley Gorman, Rachael Sporn, Kristen Veal, Annie Burgess, Kelsey Griffin and Lauren Jackson in this select group. Jackson holds the All-Time record with four Grand Final MVP Awards ahead of Griffin with three, all other multiple winners have won the award twice.

Leilani Mitchell was born in Washington, United States of America and is the daughter of an indigenous Australian mother the late Ellie Majid and an American father Dennis Mitchell. Leilani went to high school in Washington and after completing college made her WNBA debut with the New York Liberty in 2008. Leilani has played 12 out of a possible 13 WNBA seasons from 2008 to 2020 and in 10 of these seasons has played more than 30 regular season games.

Due to her mother being Australian Leilani has dual citizenship which enabled her to play in the WNBL as an Australian player. Leilani made her WNBL debut at 28 years of age in 2013/14 with the Jayco Dandenong Rangers who were rebranded to the Jayco Southside Flyers before the 2019/20 season.

Mitchell has played seven of a possible eight WNBL seasons from 2013/14 onwards and has been one of the most decorated players in the league during this time to lead the WNBL in assists in three seasons, be named in the WNBL All-Star five First Team four times and has played in three WNBL championships.

From 2014 onwards Mitchell has also regularly played for Australia’s national women’s basketball team the Australian Opals, winning a bronze medal at the 2014 World Championships and played at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio where she was a starter and ranked in the top three for the Opals in assists and scoring.

Leilani Mitchell’s outstanding basketball career including in the WNBL, WNBA and with the Australian Opals is covered in more detail below.

Early life, high school and college

Leilani Mitchell was born on 15 June 1985 in Richland Washington to an Australian mother, the late Ellie Majid and an American father Dennis Mitchell, she is the youngest of six children, having five brothers Travis, Reggie, Tyler, Troy and Robbie. Dennis was a missionary and met Ellie when he was on a church mission in Australia.

Ellie and her five siblings were born on Thursday Island which is “one of 274 islands which lie between the northern tip of Queensland and Papua New Guinea in the Torres Strait.”1 Thursday Island is the capital and the largest city in the Torres Straight Islands. When Ellie was about seven years old she moved with her family to Cairns in Far North Queensland and a few years later they moved to Darwin in the Northern Territory. Appearing on ABC News Breakfast in Australia on 29 November 2013 Leilani spoke about her family saying ”My mum grew up in Australia, she was born and raised here, grew up in Darwin, she married my father who is an American and ended up going back to the States when they got married and kind of travelled back and forth, had a few babies here and a few in the States.”

On playing basketball with her family when she was growing up Mitchell commented “Basketball was always the big sport in our family. I remember we had a basketball hoop outside and my dad installed a big spotlight. Our neighbours used to get mad because we’d be out there until nine or 10 o’clock at night in summer shooting hoops.”2

On the influence her brothers had on her when she was growing up Leilani commented to the Cronkite News in September 2019 “I was always a tomboy growing up. I didn’t really have dolls or anything. I just played with them all the time. That is what got me into sports. … I used to play football with them, and they would push me into the rose bushes. They would have me put boxing gloves on and, then, they had me fight the little neighbour boys. I was just one of them.”3

Leilani attended Kennewick High School in Kennewick, Washington and as a freshman in 2000 was a starter and helped the Kennewick Lions basketball team win the state championship. Mitchell was a starter in all four years at high school and in each year the Lions competed in the state championship game.

Mitchell completed her first three years of college at the University of Idaho from 2003/04 to 2005/06 and played 87 games for the women’s basketball team during this time before transferring to the University of Utah. Mitchell set a new All-time record for most career steals at the University of Idaho.

Under NCAA rules Mitchell was required to sit out the 2006/07 season and she completed her senior year in 2007/08, it turned out to be good timing as a back injury would have resulted in her missing considerable basketball in 2006/07 if she had been eligible to play. In 2007/08 playing for the University of Utah Mitchell had eight 20-point games, recorded seven double-doubles and was named the Mountain West Conference (MWC) Player of the Year. During her college basketball career Mitchell played 119 games, averaging 16.9 points, 6.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game.

WNBA career

At the 2008 WNBA Draft the Phoenix Mercury selected Mitchell with pick 25, however before the WNBA season had commenced Mitchell was traded to the New York Liberty who played their home games at the infamous Madison Square Gardens. In an interview shown on Australian TV network ABC’s coverage of the WNBL Game of the Week on 19 October 2013 Mitchell spoke about the trade saying “I was drafted to Phoenix for the WNBA, I was there for about 10 days or so and we had a scrimmage out in New York (against the Liberty), they liked me over there and in Phoenix they said ‘You know, we don’t know if we are going to keep you or not, they really want you so I think it is a better deal for you to go there’ so I was traded to New York and I have been there ever since.”

At 165 centimetres tall Mitchell has usually been the shortest player on the court, her experience when growing up of playing basketball against her brothers that had a size advantage over her helped develop her physicality and competitiveness which has held her in good stead. Throughout her career Mitchell has been adept at using on-ball screens to create separation between herself and her opponent and either shoot a jump-shot or drive to the basket.

After starting the 2008 season on the bench for the Liberty Mitchell made the most of her first WNBA career start on 6 June against the Houston Comets, scoring a team-high 18 points, making all six field goal attempts including all three three-point attempts.

In her first two WNBA seasons Mitchell started seven of her 68 regular season games. During 2009 Leilani’s mum Ellie passed away due to cancer which understandably had a negative impact on Leilani’s general well-being during the 2009 season.

During her third WNBA season in 2010 Mitchell took her basketball to another stratosphere and started all 34 games for New York, averaging 9.3 points, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game which ranked equal fifth in the league and led the WNBA with a three-point accuracy of 48.6% to be named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player.

Mitchell played 204 regular season games for the New York Liberty from 2008 to 2013 and started 105 games. After six consecutive seasons playing in the WNBA for New York Mitchell opted not to play in the WNBA in 2014 and spent time with family in Australia. On 7 August 2014 the Liberty waived Mitchell. 

From 2015 to 2020 Mitchell played six consecutive seasons in the WNBA comprised of four seasons with the Phoenix Mercury (2015 and 2017-2019) and two seasons with the Washington Mystix  (2016 and 2020). Due to the 2016 Olympic Games with the Australian Opals Mitchell missed most of the 2016 season, only playing 10 games for Washington.

At Phoenix Mercury Mitchell was coached by Australian Sandy Brondello who in April 2017 was appointed the coach of the Australian Opals. During the 2018 WNBL season Brondello and Phoenix Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman allowed Mitchell to return to Australia during the season to be there when her partner Mikaela Dombkins gave birth to their son Kash Maxwell Mitchell-Dombkins on 24 July 2018.

On 23 May 2019 the Phoenix Mercury cut Mitchell for salary cap reasons but then planned to pick her up again if she cleared waivers. Mitchell commented on the process to the Cronkite News “It was tough. It is not a great feeling knowing that you are the one that they chose to cut, even for salary-cap reasons. They told me that they didn’t want to, but at the end of the day, they had to choose someone and they chose me.”4

After Mitchell cleared waivers and re-signed with Phoenix on 5 June Pitman commented “We explored every option to avoid having to waive Lei last month, but the WNBA’s hard salary cap and limited roster spots made it unavoidable. There was no guarantee that she would clear waivers but when she did, she became an unrestricted free agent, and our priority was to re-sign her. Lei is a high-level point guard and one of the game’s best outside shooters.  She is beloved by our entire organization, including her teammates and coaches, as well as the X-Factor. We are thrilled that she wants to be in Phoenix as much as we want her here.”5

On 6 June Mitchell made her 2019 season debut for the Phoenix Mercury and after missing the first two games of the season she played the remaining 32 games of the season and had 27 starts. Twice during the season Mitchell set a new personal best for most points scored in a game and on both occasions was playing against one of her former teams. On 30 June 2019 playing for the Phoenix Mercury against the Washington Mystix Mitchell scored a new personal best 28 points and made eight three-point shots. On 27 August Mitchell scored a new career-high 29 points against the New York Liberty. During 2019 Mitchell had the best WNBA season of her career, averaging 12.8 points, 4.0 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game to set new career-highs in all three categories.

Mitchell “Was the only player in the WNBA in 2019 to shoot 40 percent from three-point range, make at least 70 three-pointers and average at least 3.0 assists per game…became just the 17th player in WNBA history to do so.”6 Mitchell made 74 three-pointers to rank fourth in the WNBA and had an accuracy of 43% for three-point shooting to rank third in the league. Mitchell also ranked first in the WNBA for scoring off on-ball screens.

Mitchell polled 27 of a possible 43 votes to win the WNBA’s 2019 Most Improved Player Award, 22 votes ahead of Minnesota Lynx guard Odyssey Sims with five votes. Mitchell became the first NBA or WNBA player in history to win the Most Improved Player Award twice, having won the award nine years earlier in 2010.

In February 2020 Mitchell signed with reigning WNBA Champions the Washington Mystix during free agency. Due to COVID-19 the entire 2020 WNBA season was played in a hub at IMG Academy in Florida. Whilst in the hub Mitchell appeared on ESPN Radio show ‘Spain and Company’ before the WNBA season commenced and spoke about winning the WNBA’s Most Improved Player Award twice, saying “The first time, I guess for both of them actually I was coming off of tough situations in my personal life. So the first time I got the most improved after I had had a really bad season because my mum had passed away the year before so I was just, I probably should have taken the season off because I was just depressed and in a bad state of mind and then last year I got the most improved but the summer before that I was actually really stressed because my partner was pregnant back in Australia. So I wasn’t able to be there, she (Mikaela) was in her last trimester and I actually flew home for only like a week when he (Kash) was born. I was just stressed that whole season, so I guess that would probably be the biggest thing. Last year Diana (Taurasi) was out with an injury so I was looked at to play more minutes and with that opportunity I just tried to do the best I could, making sure I was producing and putting up good numbers and helping the team.”

During the 2020 WNBA season with the Washington Mystix Mitchell again had greater playing opportunities than she expected due to players including Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles and point guard Natasha Cloud being unavailable for the season. Mitchell made the most of her opportunity as Washington’s starting point guard in 2020 to average 9.5 points and 5.4 assists per game, setting a new career-high for assists. Mitchell ranked fourth in the WNBA for assists per game and had the second highest scoring average of her WNBA career behind her 2019 season.  

Mitchell has played 367 regular season games and had 187 starts during her 12 WNBA seasons, averaging 6.6 points, 3.1 assists, 2.1 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 22.1 minutes per game. During her career Mitchell has made 458 three-pointers which ranks 15th on the WNBA’s all-time list. Mitchell features in the top 25 of a couple of other all-time lists, ranking 23rd for career assists with 1,120, and 21st for three-point accuracy with 38.9%.

Europe

From 2008 to 2012 Mitchell played four seasons for Arras in French league Ligue Feminine de Basketball (LFB). During the 2008/09 season for Arras one of Mitchell’s teammates was the current Australian Opals and Southside Flyers captain Jenna O’Hea. In 2009/10 Mitchell was named the LFB import of the year. Over the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons Mitchell played a total of 50 games for Arras, averaging 10.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 32.9 minutes per game.

During 2012/13 Mitchell played for Croatian club Novi Zagreb in both the Croatian league and the Euroleague. Mitchell played 10 games for Novi Zagreb in the Euroleague, averaging 9.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.

From 2013/14 onwards Mitchell has predominantly spent Australian summers playing in the WNBL however she returned to Europe for one season with Hatay BSB in Turkey during 2017/18. Mitchell played 22 Turkish league games for Hatay BSB in 2017/18 averaging 11.8 points and 4.1 assists per game whilst in the EuroCup she averaged 12.1 points and 5.6 assists per game.

WNBL career from 2013/14 to 2016/17

WNBL club the Jayco Dandenong Rangers were aware that Mitchell was eligible to play in the WNBL as an Australian player but hadn’t pursued it before the 2013/14 season as their point guard Kathleen MacLeod was in the Australian national team and had been selected in three consecutive WNBL All-Star Fives playing for the Rangers from 2010/11 to 2012/13. With MacLeod missing the 2013/14 WNBL season due to being pregnant the Dandenong Rangers contacted Leilani’s manager to see if she was interested in playing in the WNBL with them and quickly received a positive response.

In a pre-recorded Player Feature on Mitchell shown on Australian TV network ABC’s coverage of the WNBL Game of the Week on 19 October 2013 Mitchell spoke about joining the Jayco Rangers, saying “My agent just called me this summer and said ‘Hey there is a team interested in you. Would you like to go and apply for your (Australian) citizenship and do all that?’ Right away, I didn’t even have to think about it, I said ‘of course’. My mum always wanted me to come play here. I am getting later in my career and I just want to enjoy it, not only basketball but also the lifestyle and all of that so without hesitation I told him that I would love to and just got things going from there.” Before joining the Jayco Dandenong Rangers Mitchell had only been to Australia twice, both times to see family in Darwin, with her first trip to Australian being when she was 23 years old.

Later in the interview with ABC TV Mitchell spoke about the opportunity to be team-mates again with Jenna O’Hea again, commenting “I actually know Jenna from the past. My first year overseas, I believe it was her first year too we both played together (at French club Arras), we had that relationship and then we were room-mates on the road. She has done a great job of making sure I am settled in and everything is alright or recommending places to go.” In the segment O’Hea commented on Mitchell “When I first met her when we were playing over in France together she was this little pocket rocket, always with a smile on her face. Really smart point guard, just always gets the ball into the correct people’s hands. I noticed that from the outset four years ago back in France and she has come along even further now playing with her again and it is such a pleasure to be on court with her and that’s one of the big reasons why Dandenong have started off so well. Having a point guard whose, first, second, third, even fourth option is to pass.”  

In the interview with ABC TV Mitchell spoke about how basketball leagues around the world differ, commenting “I think the basketball (in the WNBL) is really good. Our practices here are intense, we work on the basic fundamentals and the team chemistry and all that and I think some of my teams in Europe, we miss that part of basketball so I really like that about it here. Probably better shooters here overall from top to bottom of the roster whereas in the WNBA it is a lot more explosive, a lot more driving, a lot more physical and the players are a lot bigger.”

On ABC News Breakfast on 29 November 2013 Paul Kennedy asked “Do you feel like you have got that connection to Australia?” Leilani responded “I do, I mean all my Mum’s family still lives here so my aunts and uncles have come to games, some of them were just here this weekend visiting me so they have been great, I love it here.”

Five years after they had been teammates at French Club Arras Mitchell and Jenna O’Hea were teammates again and proved to be an excellent combination at the Jayco Rangers in 2013/14. The Rangers had 16 wins and eight losses during the regular season to finish second, six games behind minor premiers Bendigo and level with third placed Townsville Fire. Dandenong lost both their finals, a semi final on the road against Bendigo 62-71 and a home preliminary final to Townsville 71-74.

Mitchell played all 26 games for the Rangers in 2013/14, averaging 11.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game to be named in the 2013/14 WNBL All-Star Five alongside her Rangers teammate O’Hea.

During the 2013/14 season WNBL Mitchell met her future partner Mikaela Dombkins a fellow basketball player who had played a total of 153 WNBL games with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), Sydney and Canberra but wasn’t playing in the WNBL during the 2013/14 season.

The Dandenong Rangers had to decide which point guard they wanted to return to the club for the 2014/15 season, Mitchell or MacLeod, they opted to go with MacLeod who had a longer history with the club and was also the daughter-in-law of the Rangers coach Mark Wright.

Mitchell joined another WNBL club the Sydney Uni Flames and led the league for assists in 2014/15. Sydney snuck into the finals with a record of 11 wins and 11 losses which was the same record as the Canberra Capitals and the Melbourne Boomers. As Sydney had the best head to head record of the three teams they finished fourth on the ladder to secure a place in the top four. Sydney travelled to play the Jayco Rangers on the road in a semi final and trailed by 13 points at half-time. Early in the third quarter when going for a lay-up Rangers captain Penny Taylor injured her left ankle and was unable to take any further part in the game. With Taylor sidelined momentum shifted and Sydney overran Dandenong in the second half to win by nine points, 89 to 80. In a preliminary final at Bendigo Stadium the Bendigo Spirit defeated the Sydney Uni Flames 85-77. Mitchell played all 24 games for Sydney in 2014/15, averaging 12.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.

During 2015/16 Mitchell played for her third WNBL club in three seasons, the Adelaide Lightning who were a younger and less experienced team than the teams she had played for in the previous two seasons. Leilani’s partner Mikaela Dombkins made her WNBL return in 2015/16 to play for Adelaide.

Due to Adelaide being a younger team Mitchell took on a greater leadership role and more of the scoring responsibility than she had in her previous WNBL seasons. In Round 17 Mitchell played all 40 minutes of a road game against the Bendigo Spirit and scored a game-high 35 points, making 14 of her 19 field goal attempts for an accuracy of 73.7% and made six assists.

Adelaide finished seventh out of nine teams on the ladder with a record of 10 wins and 14 losses. During 2015/16 Mitchell played all 24 games for Adelaide, averaging 17.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. Mitchell polled 85 votes in the WNBL MVP award to finish fifth and was also selected in the WNBL All-Star Five.

In April 2016 Mitchell and her partner Mikaela purchased a house in Newcastle, a harbour city with a population of approximately 325,000 people located approximately 170 kilometres north of Sydney. In March 2017 Mitchell commented to the Newcastle herald “We bought a house in Newcastle to be closer to Mikaela’s family. I like big cities but Newcastle is relaxing. It’s a good compromise.”7 Mikaela is a Novocastrian, having grown up in Newcastle and her junior basketball association was the Newcastle Hunters.

For the 2016/17 season Mitchell returned to the Sydney Uni Flames who were now coached by Cheryl Chambers. Sydney’s starting five of Mitchell, Ally Wilson, Belinda Snell, Asia Taylor and Jennifer Hamson all averaged more than 10 points per game in 2016/17. The only other club that had more than three players averaging more than 10 points per game in 2016/17 was the Jayco Rangers with four players. During an overtime victory against Bendigo in late November Mitchell scored 18 points and had 11 assists in more than 44 minutes playing time.

Sydney finished the regular season on top of the ladder with 18 wins and six losses, three games ahead of the Jayco Rangers and Perth Lynx in second and third place respectively and four games ahead of the Townsville Fire in fourth position.

Sydney defeated Townsville in the best of three game semi final series two games to nil, winning game one 111-69 on their home court Brydens Stadium and game 2 on the road at Townsville Stadium 76-61. In game 1 Mitchell scored 19 points shooting at 57% from the field, made three assists and two steals. Mitchell played all 40 minutes in game 2, scored 16 points and made a game-high seven assists.

In her first WNBL Grand Final Mitchell played against one of her former clubs the Jayco Rangers who defeated the Perth Lynx two games to one in their semi final series. In game 1 of the Grand Final series at Brydens Stadium Mitchell scored 15 points and had an equal game-high six assists against the Rangers and made six of her 12 field goal attempts including two of her four three-point shots in the 91-82 victory. In game 2 at Dandenong Stadium Mitchell scored 15 points and had an equal game-high four assists in the 75-62 victory which won the WNBL Championship for the Sydney Uni Flames. For her outstanding Grand Final series Mitchell received the Rachel Sporn medal as Grand Final Most Valuable Player.

During 2016/17 Mitchell played 28 games for the Sydney Uni Flames, averaging 16.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. Mitchell polled 107 votes in the WNBL’s MVP Award to finish fourth, was runner up in the Robyn Maher Defensive Player of the Year Award behind Mariana Tolo and was selected in the WNBL All-Star Five for the third time in her career. 

Australian Opals career

Whilst playing for the Jayco Rangers during the 2013/14 WNBL season Mitchell pledged her allegiance to Australia for international basketball and was invited by Australian Opals head coach Brendan Joyce to an Opals training camp which was held in January 2014. Joyce commented “This is truly exciting news to have someone of the calibre of Leilani commit to the Opals programme. This will only benefit the team and add to the competition for places. To play in the WNBA for the past six years, you have to be a very good player. She plays with a lot of composure, can shoot the three-pointer and we all see how well she has been playing in the WNBL.”8

In an article for the Newcastle Herald Mitchell commented to Josh Callinan in late December 2019 “She [mum] was always so proud of where she was from and always wanted us kids to come back and live in Australia. When she passed away I always said that I would come to Australia, but I didn’t realise I would just immediately love it and never leave. So it’s more so to honour her. I know she’d be proud and watches over me. This is something she’s always wanted for her kids, to not only live in Australia but to be able to represent at national level and the Olympics. She was always proud of me for my sports so I know that she’d enjoy what I’m doing.”9

Mitchell represented the Australian Opals at the 2014 World Championships which were held in Turkey from September 28 to October 6, it was Brendan Joyce’s first major championship as the Opals head coach. Throughout the tournament Mitchell played as a back-up point guard with Erin Phillips being the starting point guard. In the Opals opening game of the tournament Mitchell played 20 minutes and had a game-high eight assists, four more than the players ranked equal second for the game teammates Phillips and Opals captain Penny Taylor. Australia won all three of their Group C games by at least 33 points to finish on top of their group.

After the group stage Australia defeated Canada 63-52 in a quarter final and lost to the United States of America 70-82 in a semi final. Australia started the bronze-medal game against host nation Turkey in the best possible fashion, after Australia scored the first 17 points of the game they were never threatened, defeating turkey 74-44 to win the bronze medal. At the tournament Mitchell averaged 5.0 points, 3.5 assists and 17.1 minutes per game to rank third for the Opals in assists behind Taylor (4.8 per game) and Phillips (4.0) and sixth for minutes played.

At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio Mitchell was the Australian Opals starting point guard, with Phillips retaining a position in the starting line-up but playing in the shooting guard position. Taylor, Natalie Burton and Cambage were Australia’s starters in the front-court.

In the Opals opening game of the tournament against Brazil Mitchell scored 18 points, had six assists and three steals, shot the ball at 50% from the field and made three of her five three-pointers at an accuracy of 60%. In Australia’s fourth group game against Japan Mitchell scored 18 points, had seven assists and shot the ball at 50% from the field.

The Opals were strongly tested in the group stage at the 2016 Rio Olympics and although they won all five games, in three of these games they trailed by a double-figure margin before fighting back to win. The Opals quarter final against Serbia was close throughout the entire game with the Opals leading by one point at three quarter-time 52-51. The Opals trailed by two points with 10 seconds to go and had possession of the ball, a shot by Mariana Tolo missed and Australia were defeated by two points 71-73, being knocked out of the Olympic Games at the quarter final stage. At the 2016 Olympic Games Mitchell played all six games for the Opals, averaging 11.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 28.3 minutes per game. Mitchell ranked second for the Opals in assists behind Taylor (5.5 assists per game), third in scoring behind Cambage (23.5 points per game) and Taylor (13.2) and second for minutes played behind Taylor (28.6 minutes per game).

Whilst Mitchell can play in the WNBL as an Australian player FIBA have different rules which preclude her from playing as an Australian born player, instead she is eligible to play for Australia as a restricted player and there is a limit of one restricted player per national team. In recent years Mitchell and two naturalised Americans in guard Sami Whitcomb and forward Kelsey Griiffin have been the three players vying for the maximum one restricted player spot on the Australian Opals team.

Mitchell was selected in the Australian Opals team for the 2018 World Cup in Spain but had to withdraw due to a lower limb injury and was replaced in the team by Whitcomb. Australia won the silver medal after defeating host nation Spain in a thrilling semi final 72-66 and were defeated by the United States of America 73-56 in the gold medal game.

In February 2020 Australia played three games in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament in Borges, France, the Opals starting line-up throughout the tournament was Mitchell, Bec Allen, Steph Talbot, George and Cambage.

Australia were defeated in the opening game of the tournament by host nation, France 63-72 and defeated Puerto Rico 100-74 in their second game. In their final game the Opals defeated Brazil 86-72 to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Mitchell had a game-high seven assists against Puerto Rico and scored 19 points against Brazil – ranked second for the Opals behind Cambage with  29 points. At the tournament Mitchell averaged 11.3 points and 4.7 assists per game to lead the Opals in assists and rank third in scoring behind Cambage and Allen.

Due to the coronavirus the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games were postponed by 52 weeks and will commence on 23 July, 2021. On 13 July 2020 Basketball Australia named 23 players in the Senior National Women’s Chemist Warehouse Opals squad, it is likely that the 12 players that represent Australia at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games in the traditional five on five format of basketball will all come from this squad however the squad is fluid, allowing for changes to be made if required. In the lead up to the WNBL season commencing 20 members of the 23 player squad had signed with a WNBL club for the 2020 season with the exceptions being experienced Opal Bec Allen along with new additions to the squad Tiana Mangakahia and Jaz Shelley. Two players from the Opals squad that signed with WNBL clubs for the 2020 season didn’t end up playing with forward Alanna Smith unable to represent the Adelaide Lightning due to an ankle injury and guard Sami Whitcomb opting not to join the Perth Lynx for the hub season so she could remain in Perth with her wife for the birth of their first child.

On 26 March, 2020 it was announced that Sydney would host the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup for five on five basketball from 23 September to 3 October with 12 teams competing in the tournament.

2018/19 WNBL season with the University of Canberra Capitals

After playing for Hatay BSB in Turkey during 2017/18 Mitchell returned to the WNBL for the 2018/19 season, playing for the University of Canberra Capitals whose starting line-up was comprised of Mitchell, Kelly Wilson, Kia Nurse, Griffin and Tolo. At her previous WNBL teams Mitchell had the vast majority of the ball handling duties however at the Capitals they were split between her and fellow point guard Wilson.

In a Round 14 double header Mitchell starred for the University of Canberra Capitals, making 11 of her 19 three-point shots over the weekend at an accuracy of 57.9%. On the road against Townsville Mitchell scored 20 points and had seven assists. In the Capitals second road game of the round against Sydney Mitchell scored 24 points, took four rebounds, had eight assists and two steals in the 99-79 victory which locked in top spot on the ladder for the Capitals.  

During the 2018/19 WNBL season Leilani’s partner Mikaela and son Kash were able to travel with her and the University of Canberra Capitals team due to the introduction of the WNBL’s parenting policy. In an article by Caden Helmers published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 February 2019 Mikaela and Leilani spoke about the tears they shed whilst on a waiting list for a donor and the drawn-out process going through IVF to become parents. In the article Mitchell commented “I was always hopeful it was going to happen, but it was just more about ‘how long is it going to take?’ It was the second try, we had been on the waiting list for donors for nearly two years. It just makes us that much more grateful for the moment he finally arrived. We just fell in love instantly.”10

The previous summer Leilani was playing basketball in Turkey and was only in Australia over the Christmas period. Being two months pregnant Mikaela thought that Christmas day 2017 was the ideal time to tell her family she was pregnant, however on Christmas day her sister Mattea also had something to announce. In The Sydney Morning Herald article Mikaela commented “Long story short, she said ‘I’ve got something for you’. She handed out these things, we opened them and it was saying she was about to have a baby in July. Then I was like ‘sorry to steal your thunder, but so am I’. No one believed either of us.”11

Mitchell returned to Turkey for the 2017/18 season and Mikaela moved in with her sister Mattea which enabled them to provide support for each other during their pregnancies including dealing with morning sickness. Whilst playing in Turkey Mitchell’s communication with Mikaela was limited to phone calls, Mitchell commented “I probably annoyed her quite a bit, because I was like ‘you need to eat!’ over Facetime. Of course she was sick and I don’t know what it feels like. It was hard, and I’m so appreciative of the strength she has to go through all of that on her own. I wish I could have been there, it was heartbreaking. It was one of my big reasons for coming back to Australia, being away through that pregnancy. I wanted to make sure we had time as a family to all be together during the season.”12

The Capitals finished on top of the 2018/19 WNBL ladder with 16 wins and five losses to finish one game ahead of the second placed Melbourne Boomers followed by Adelaide and Perth in third and fourth place respectively each with a record of 13 wins and eight losses. In game 1 of their semi final against Perth Mitchell scored 24 points, made nine of her 15 field goal attempts for an accuracy of 60% and six of her nine three-point shots at an accuracy of 66.7%. In the home 95-76 victory at AIS Arena Mitchell had an equal team-high seven assists along with Wilson and Griffin and took six rebounds.

In game 2 Mitchell scored 19 points, made seven of her 11 field goal attempts at an accuracy of 63% and was again exceptional from long range, making five of her seven three-pointers at an accuracy of 71.4%. During the 91-75 road victory at Bendat Basketball Centre Mitchell also took five rebounds, made seven assists and had two steals.

The University of Canberra Capitals entered the Grand Final series on an 11 game winning streak whilst Adelaide had won 12 of their 14 previous games. In game 1 of the Grand Final series Mitchell scored 11 points, took seven rebounds and had an equal game-high eight assists in a 88-67 victory at the AIS Arena.

The University of Canberra Capitals held a slight lead for most of game 2 however the Adelaide Lightning were able to remain within striking distance. Canberra were in a commanding position leading 68-61 with four minutes and 45 seconds remaining in the game. Adelaide fought back and gained a one point lead on a made lay-up from Kayla Alexander with 63 seconds to play. Griffin responded 15 seconds later to regain the lead for Canberra by one point. A missed jump shot by Nia Coffey was rebounded by Nurse. On the next possession Canberra missed two shots but both times gained the offensive rebound with the second rebound being by Tolo who rebounded her own missed shot, Adelaide were able to force a jump-ball and had the possession arrow, giving them the ball with 5.5 seconds left in the game.

Adelaide coach Chris Lucas substituted Alexander out of the game, replacing her with the quicker Aimie Clydesdale. Nicole Seekamp inbounded the ball at the defensive baseline to Lauren Nicholson who dribbled up the court, after Mitchell deflected the ball Nicholson regained control, dribbled to the three point line and passed to Seekamp who was standing at the top of charge circle with her back to the basket, Seekamp caught the ball and spun 90 degrees in mid-air to attempt a shot facing the basket. Seekamp’s shot landed on top of the left hand side of the ring, the ball rolled to the right hand side of the ring and bounced in, Canberra players were quick to signal that Seekamp’s shot was attempted after the final siren, however the basket was counted, giving Adelaide a one point victory, 74-73 after a dramatic 5.5 second final possession which is one of the most talked about plays in WNBL history. Game 2 of the Grand Final on 13th February was the first time Canberra had been restricted to under 80 points since 23rd November when they had a home victory against the Melbourne Boomers 72-70. 

Adelaide started Game 3 on 16th February in ideal fashion to lead by seven points 15-8 with five minutes and 15 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Adelaide Lightning led 44-43 with two minutes and 29 seconds to play in the first half, Canberra scored six of the next seven points to lead 49-45 at half-time. Adelaide trailed by five points 62-67 with just under a minute to play in the last quarter. Canberra again finished the quarter strongly to score the last seven points of the third term to open up a 12 point lead at the final break and went on to defeat Adelaide 93-73 to win the 2018/19 WNBL Championship. Griffin led the University of Canberra Capitals with 29 points and 15 rebounds as the Canberra starters scored 90 of the team’s 93 points comprised of 19 for Mitchell, 16 for Wilson, 14 for Tolo and 12 for Nurse. Mitchell had a game-high six assists, made seven of her 12 field goals at an accuracy of 58% and made three of her six three-point shots. Griffin won the Rachel Sporn Medal as the Grand Final MVP, the third time in her career that she had won this award with the previous times being when she was playing for the Bendigo Spirit in 2012/13 and 2013/14. During 2018/19 Mitchell played 24 games for the University of Canberra Capitals, averaging 12.4 points, 5.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. Mitchell ranked fifth in the WNBL for assists per game, fourth in steals and third in free throw accuracy for players that made at least five free throws.

2019/20 WNBL season with the Jayco Southside Flyers

In July 2019 the Dandenong Rangers WNBL license was transferred from the Dandenong Basketball Association to Gerry Ryan who in 1975 founded Jayco who were the naming rights sponsor of the Dandenong Rangers WNBL team from 1997 to 2019. The Southside Flyers play their home games at Dandenong Stadium and respect the history of the Dandenong Rangers. After the announcement of the license transfer and the establishment of the Southside Flyers Ryan commented “The Southside name reflects our commitment to create a team with support from the beachside suburbs of Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula through to the Dandenong Ranges, Gippsland and beyond. The Flyers hopefully will describe the style of play and success of the team within the WNBL. Our vision is to significantly broaden the support for the new team and to get the whole basketball community involved. The name Southside Flyers reflects this vision.”13

Mitchell signed with the Southside Flyers for the 2019/20 season and was one of three Southside recruits that had played for the Jayco Rangers in Mitchell’s previous season with the club in 2013/14 along with Jenna O’Hea and Aimie Clydesdale. Two of the key players from Sydney’s 2016/17 Championship winning team joined Mitchell at the Southside Flyers with Cheryl Chambers appointed as the head coach and Belinda Snell appointed as an assistant coach.

The Southside Flyers played their inaugural WNBL game against the Townsville Fire at Dandenong Stadium on 12 October, the Flyers regular starting line-up throughout the 2019/20 season was Mitchell and Bec Cole in the backcourt along with O’Hea, Sara Blicavs and American import Mercedes Russell in the front-court.

The Flyers lived up to their name and got off to a flyer, winning their first six games of the season. As the season progressed there was a clear-cut top four teams comprised of Southside, University of Canberra Capitals, Deakin Melbourne Boomers and the Adelaide Lightning. The Flyers were more reliant on their starting five than the other teams in the top four with all five starters Cole, Russell, Mitchell, O’Hea and Blicavs ranking in the top 20 of the league for scoring. One of the queries experts had about the Flyers roster was how they would fare without one of their starters for an extended time.

In late December 2019 Mitchell commented to the Newcastle Herald on the impact one year old son Kash was having on herself and partner Mikaela, saying “He’s just so fun. He brings so much laughter and light into our lives. It sort of balances things out because if you have a bad game or you lose, you get right off the court and he’s still waiting and he’s just got a big smile and he doesn’t care what just happened. He just wants to see you. It puts things into perspective.”14

Against the Melbourne Boomers at the State Basketball Centre in Round 13 on Sunday 12 January the Flyers trailed by four points with one minute and 25 seconds remaining but were able to bridge the gap from the foul line with Cole making two free-throws with 58 seconds remaining followed by Mitchell making two free-throws with 10 seconds left to tie the scores 67 apiece. The Flyers won a thrilling game in the first period of overtime 75-73, however the victory came at a cost. Flyers captain O’Hea broke her wrist when she and Boomers forward Magbegor met solidly when they both dove after a loose-ball. O’Hea was expected to miss 10 to 12 weeks which would cause her to miss the Opals Olympic Games qualifying tournament in February and the remainder of the WNBL season. O’Hea’s wrist injury would test the depth of the Flyers with guard Clydesdale brought into the starting line-up. In a Round 15 home game at Dandenong Stadium against the Adelaide Lightning Mitchell scored 21 points, took five rebounds, had four assists and two steals.

The Southside Flyers recorded 17 wins and four losses during the 2019/20 season to finish on top of the ladder, two wins ahead of the University of Canberra Capitals and Melbourne Boomers who finished second and third respectively, followed by the Adelaide Lightning in fourth position on 12 wins. The four teams that missed the finals all recorded between five and eight wins being Perth (8 wins), Sydney (7) Bendigo (5) and Townsville (5).

Between the end of the 2019/20 WNBL regular season and the start of the finals there was a weekend with no WNBL games played due to the FIBA Qualifiers window. Mitchell and Blicavs were members of the Opals team at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament in France whilst Southside head coach Cheryl Chambers was an assistant coach. 

In game 1 of their semi final series against Adelaide at Dandenong Stadium the Flyers trailed 21-34 with four minutes and 50 seconds remaining in the first half. The Flyers went on a 33-10 run to lead 54-44 with two minutes and 59 seconds to play in the third quarter. Southside looked to be in control of the game from that point on however two Adelaide field goals in the last 30 seconds of the game reduced the final margin to three points. In game 1 Mitchell scored 15 points, made three three-point shots from four attempts for an accuracy of 75% and made an equal team-high four assists along with teammate Cole.

The first quarter of game 2 was a shoot-out with Southside leading Adelaide 27-26 at quarter-time, the Flyers extended their lead to eight points 51-43 at half-time. Adelaide fought back to level the scores late in the third quarter. The Flyers scored the opening two field goals of the final term through Blicavs and Mitchell,  winning game 2 on the road 82-79. Mitchell scored 18 points and was again excellent from long range, making four of her seven three’s at an accuracy of 57% and made a team-high nine assists.  All five Flyers starters scored at least 12 points with Mitchell being joined in this category by Cole (19 points), Clydesdale (a season high 18 points), Russell (15) and Blicavs (12).

The Southside Flyers Grand Final opponent was the University of Canberra Capitals who defeated the Melbourne Boomers 2-1 in their semi final series with the home side winning each game. Canberra won the regular season split against Southside 2-1 with the away side winning all three games. The Capitals easily won regular season games at Dandenong Stadium 91-72 and 98-74 in Rounds 5 and 14 respectively whilst the Southside Flyers defeated the Capitals 70-65 at the National Convention Centre in Round 9.

Southside Flyers captain O’Hea returned from injury for the Grand Final series but started game 1 on the bench with guard Clydesdale retaining her position in the starting line-up. After the Capitals scored the first five points of game 1 at Dandenong Stadium the Flyers fought back to gain a 47-43 half-time lead. Southside extended their lead to six points 71-65 with eight minutes and 48 seconds remaining in the game, however were outscored 9-17 from that point to be defeated by two points, 80-82 with Capitals guard Olivia Epoupa scored the final basket of the game with one minute and 20 seconds remaining. Mitchell scored 15 points, had five rebounds and five assists.

O’Hea returned to the Flyers starting line-up for game 2 at the AIS Arena on 4 March. The Flyers led 45-31 with one minute and 19 seconds remaining in the first half, however the University of Canberra Capitals then went on a 15-0 run to lead 46-45 with five minutes and five seconds remaining in the third term. The Flyers were outscored 9-25 in the third quarter and trailed by two points, 54-56 at the final change. Southside fought back to lead 68-67 with two minutes and six seconds remaining, however 2019/20 WNBL MVP Kia Nurse made a three-pointer with 22 seconds remaining to give the Capitals a two point lead. The Capitals defeated the Flyers 71-68 to win their ninth WNBL championship. In game 2 Mitchell scored 11 points, had four rebounds and two assists. Canberra point guard Olivia Epoupa was named the Grand Final MVP, averaging 15 points, 8 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game.

In 2019/20 Mitchell played all 25 games for the Southside Flyers, averaging 15.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 33.0 minutes per game. Mitchel led Southside for assists per game, three point shots made and minutes played, ranked third for scoring behind Cole (17.3) and Russell (16.5) and third for steals. During the regular season Mitchell ranked fourth in the WNBL for assists, eighth in scoring and third for three-point shots made.

Mitchell won the Southside Flyers 2019/20 MVP Award with Cole and O’Hea finishing in equal second place. Mitchell was one of four Southside Flyers to earn selection in a WNBL All-Star team during the 2019/20 season with captain O’Hea and Mitchell being selected in the first team just as they had been for their first WNBL season together with the Jayco Rangers in 2013/14. Centre Mercedes Russell and shooting guard Cole were selected in the second-team. Before game 1 of the 2019/20 WNBL Grand Final series between the Southside Flyers and the University of Canberra Capitals at Dandenong Stadium on 1 March the four Flyers who earned 2019/20 WNBL All-Star selection and Capitals import Kia Nurse who won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award and was selected in the WNBL All-Star first team were recognised for their achievements.

2020 WNBL season with the Jayco Southside Flyers

The 2020 season was Mitchell’s second season in a row with the Jayco Southside Flyers which was the first time that Mitchell had played for the same WNBL club in consecutive seasons and was her third season overall for the Dandenong based WNBL club, having played her debut WNBL season with the Jayco Dandenong Rangers in 2013/14.

After signing with the Southside Flyers for the 2020 WNBL season Mitchell commented “I’m beyond excited to continue playing for the Southside Flyers. I was honoured to be a part of the Flyers inaugural season and can’t wait to get back with the girls and continue our quest for the championship. I know that we will all return hungry and willing to work hard, build on our team chemistry, and have fun! It’s a wonderful organization that truly cares for the players. It goes beyond basketball. The Management, coaches, teammates, and fans make the Southside Flyers the best organization to be a part of.”15 

The 2020 WNBL season was the third season that Cheryl Chambers had coached Leilani Mitchell, having previously coached her at the Sydney Uni Flames in 2016/17 when the club won the WNBL Championship and Mitchell won the Grand Final MVP Award. On Mitchell signing with the Flyers for the 2020 season coach Chambers commented “It’s awesome Lei is back for the Flyers. She makes other players better, her IQ is off the charts, she’s a professional and along with that, she is a great person. Lei has an uncanny knack of finding a score under pressure, she can shoot the 3, she can get to the basket and she can also find an open teammate when she needs to. It is fair to say I’m ecstatic she’s back playing for our team.”16

Due to the impact of COVID-19 the 2020 WNBL season had a very different structure to recent seasons and imports weren’t eligible to play in the league. All eight WNBL clubs were located in North Queensland for the duration of the 2020 WNBL season which was played at three locations, Townsville, Cairns and Mackay. The regular season was condensed to five rounds commencing 11 November and each team played 13 regular season games.

Although it was more difficult for fans to attend games in 2020 due to the season being played in hubs in North Queensland the WNBL had an increased television presence and there was less competition from other sports for the attention of viewers. All 60 games during the 2020 WNBL season were broadcast on Kayo, 10 games including the Grand Final were shown on free to air network ABC and 21 games including all four finals were telecast on Foxtel.

Nine players from the Southside Flyers 2019/20 team returned for the 2020 WNBL season including five of the six Flyers players that averaged more than 13 minutes per game during the 2019/20 season in Mitchell, Cole, O’Hea, Blicavs and Clydesdale. American centre Mercedes Russell was unable to return due to being an import. The other four returning Southside players were Rebecca Pizzey along with three development players – Saraid Taylor, Taylah Giliam and Amy O’Neill.

Southside recruited four players for the 2020 WNBL season, Australian Opals centre Liz Cambage, dual sport athlete Monique Conti and two veterans returning to the WNBL after not playing during 2019/20 in forward Rachel Jarry and guard Steph Blicavs (nee Cumming). Cambage and Jarry are both two time Olympians and played in the Bulleen (now Melbourne) Boomers only WNBL championship in 2010/11 alongside O’Hea. Cambage played 10 games for the Jayco Rangers during her 2007/08 debut WNBL season whilst Jarry played for the Rangers in 2018/19 before having a season off in 2019/20. After having her son Arlow in October 2019 Steph Blicavs made her WNBL return in 2020 and continued her long history with the Dandenong based WNBL team. Steph holds the Southside Flyers (formerly Dandenong Rangers) career scoring record having scored 2,345 points before the 2020 season and also won four Rangers club MVP awards. Point guard Conti had played the previous four WNBL seasons with the Melbourne Boomers, has played three seasons of Australian Rules Football in the AFLW, has won two club best and fairest awards and won the medal for being best on ground in the 2018 AFLW grand final.   

Throughout the 2020 season the Flyers had 10 players that played every game they were available for including eight players who averaged more than 16 minutes per game with starters Mitchell, Cole, O’Hea, Sara Blicavs and Cambage all averaging between 23 and 29 minutes per game whilst a trio of experienced players in Clydesdale, Steph Blicavs and Jarry averaged between 16 and 21.5 minutes per game off the bench. Pizzey and Conti played all 15 games and averaged 7.5 and 6.6 minutes per game respectively.

Throughout her career Mitchell’s priority has always been to find ways to assist her teammates scoring rather than scoring herself and this was amplified during the 2020 season due to the quality of her teammates with all five Flyers starters being members of the Australian Opals 23 player squad for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

In a Round 2 game against Townsville at Townsville Stadium Mitchell scored 15 points, making five of her eight field goal attempts at an accuracy of 62.5% and was adept from long range, making three of her five three-point shots, made a game-high eight assists and a team-high two steals in the 101-89 victory. After the victory against Townsville Mitchell had made a total of nine three-pointers from 15 attempts at a phenomenal accuracy of 60% in the Flyers first four games.

At the start of the WNBL season the Flyers were the favourites to win the championship, however in their first six games they had one loss to each of the teams considered to be their biggest rivals for the title, losing to the Melbourne Boomers 72-89 in their second game of the season and were defeated by the University of Canberra Capitals 72-95 in their first game of Round 3.

In a 102-62 Southside victory against the Perth Lynx at Cairns Pop-Up Arena in a Round 3 game on 25 November Mitchell scored 20 points to have her highest scoring game of the regular season in an exceptional shooting performance, making seven of her nine field goal attempts at an accuracy of 77.8% and six of her eight three-pointers at an accuracy of 75%.

Over a four game stretch during Rounds 3 and 4 Mitchell amassed a total of 37 assists at an incredible average of 9.25 per game including 11 assists at Cairns Pop-Up Arena in a 94-79 victory against the Melbourne Boomers on 6 December, the victory improved the Flyer record to seven wins and four losses.

In the Southside Flyers penultimate game of the regular season they trailed the Sydney Uni Flames 68-77 with two minutes and 51 seconds remaining in the game and were able to reduce the margin to three points 74-77 with a minute remaining. With 48 seconds remaining Flyers captain O’Hea injured her knee and had to be substituted out of the game.

After making a steal just beyond half-court Mitchell made a lay-up with 43 seconds remaining to reduce the margin to one point. With 23 seconds remaining Mitchell made a defensive rebound, then dribbled up the court and provided the assist to Sara Blicavs for a corner three that gave the Flyers a 79-77 lead with 11 seconds left. Mitchell was fouled with three seconds left and made both free-throws to extend Southside’s lead to four points, 81-77 which was the final score. Leilani finished the victory with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Due to her knee injury O’Hea was expected to miss the rest of the 2020 WNBL season, as happened late in the 2019/20 season Clydesdale was brought into the Flyers starting line-up in place of her injured captain. The Southside Flyers finished their regular season with a 101-82 victory against the University of Canberra Capitals on 13 December at Townsville Stadium. Mitchell scored 14 points, making four of her eight three-point shots and made a game-high nine assists.

Having won their last seven games of the regular season the Southside Flyers finished the season on top of the ladder with a record of 11 wins and two losses. The other three teams that made the finals all had a record of nine wins and four losses so the tie-breaker of head to head results between these teams was used which resulted in the Townsville Fire finishing second, University of Canberra Capitals third and Melbourne Boomers fourth. Due to condensed season all finals were played at Townsville Stadium and were a single game rather a three-game series.

During the 2020 WNBL regular season Jayco Southside Flyers point guard Mitchell averaged 9.1 points and a league best 6.5 assists per game to lead the league in assists for the third time in her career, having previously achieved this feat twice with the Sydney Uni Flames in 2014/15 and 2016/17. Flyers centre Liz Cambage led the league in scoring with 23.6 points per game, finished runner-up in the league’s MVP award and was selected in the WNBL All-Star five first-team whilst forward Sara Blicavs was selected in the second team.

The Southside Flyers met Townsville Fire in a major semi final on Wednesday December 16 having recorded victories by 12 points and 24 points in the team’s two regular season encounters. In the Flyers 106-93 semi final victory against the Townsville Fire at Townsville Stadium Mitchell registered her first double-double of the season comprised of 19 points and a game-high 10 assists – three more than the second ranked player for the game in Townsville Fire point guard Shyla Heal. Mitchell made seven of her 15 field goal attempts and made three of her seven three-pointers at an accuracy of 42.9% and also made an equal game-high four steals along with Heal. The semi final was a rare game in which three players each scored at least 30 points, Townsville Fire guards Lauren Nicholson and Shyla Heal each scored 30 points and Jayco Flyers centre Cambage scored a game-high 31 points.

On Friday December 18 Townsville won a thrilling preliminary final against the Melbourne Boomers 65-62 to progress to the Grand Final against the Southside Flyers on Sunday 20 December. For the second season in a row Southside Flyers captain O’Hea was able to recover quicker than expected from a late season injury to play in the WNBL Grand Final, as with game one of the 2019/20 Grand Final O’Hea started on the bench and Clydesdale remained in the starting line-up.

Three minutes and six seconds into the Grand Final with Southside trailing Townsville 4-8 Cambage picked up her second personal foul, was immediately substituted out of the game and remained on the bench for the remainder of the first half. After not scoring in the first eight minutes of the first quarter Mitchell had a scoring surge to score eight points in the remainder of the quarter and made two three-point shots in the first three minutes of the second quarter to score 14 points in five minutes of playing time. Mitchell scored an incredible 21 points in the first half to surpass her previous season-high of 20 points in a game and was instrumental in the Jayco Flyers having a narrow 48-46 lead at half-time.

In the first half Mitchell took on a lot of the scoring responsibility herself, however in the third quarter Cambage was the focal point of the Flyers offense and scored 12 points for the term, Southside led 71-61 at three quarter-time. The Jayco Flyers increased their lead to 20 points, 97-77 when Mitchell was substituted out of the game with two minutes and seven seconds remaining. The Flyers defeated the JCU Townsville Fire 99-82 to win the club’s fourth WNBL Championship, having previously won titles as the Jayco Rangers in 2003/04, 2004/05 and 2011/12. Three members of the 2020 Championship winning team had also played in the 2011/12 Championship – O’Hea, Steph Blicavs and Clydesdale.

In the Grand Final Mitchell used on-ball screens superbly, scored a game-high 31 points, took four rebounds, had a team-high five assists and made one steal. Mitchell was exceptional with her shooting, making nine of her 13 field goal attempts at an accuracy of 69.2%, and was even more damaging from long range – making five of her seven three-pointers at an accuracy of 71.4% and was a perfect eight from eight from the free throw line. All other players in the Grand Final across both teams were a combined 11 of 41 with their three-pointers at an accuracy of 27%. Mitchell fell one point shy of equaling Ranae Garlepp’s (nee Camino) Grand Final scoring record of 32 points set playing for Adelaide Lightning in 2008.

Mitchell was a convincing winner of the Rachel Sporn Medal as Grand Final MVP and in her acceptance speech said “I just firstly want to thank obviously the team, we all gave up so much, not only our team but everyone here in the WNBL sacrificed a lot to come here. Its been a crazy year so we are very thankful that the WNBL was able to go ahead. To our girls, I think we have the most selfless group and every night we went out on court and we didn’t care who scored, who got the stats. You know tonight it just happened to be me but obviously everyone on the team is just as deserving so I want to say thanks to the team. Thanks to our major sponsor Gerry from Jayco, you believe in women’s sport and we are so thankful to have you on our side, you’re amazing.”

When Mitchell went up to the dais to receive the Rachel Sporn Medal she had her two year old son Kash in her arms and she concluded her speech by saying “Lastly I want to thank my family because as we all know if you have a family at home it is often times harder for them than for us who gets to leave and travel, play basketball and do what we love so I want to say thank you to Mikaela and Kash who gave up so much and now they’re here and they got to spend the last few weeks here enjoying beautiful Townsville. Thank you to Townsville, the WNBL and go Flyers.”

During the 13 game regular season Mitchell averaged 9.1 points per game, ranked fifth for Southside behind fellow starters Cambage (23.6), Sara Blicavs (14.5), Cole (14.5) and O’Hea (11.5). Late in the Southside Flyers penultimate regular season game their captain Jenna O’Hea injured her knee. Mitchell scored more than 13 points twice in the Jayco Flyers first 11 games of the season and then scored at least 14 points in the Flyers last four games of the season comprised of regular season games against the Sydney Uni Flames and the University of Canberra Capitals followed by two finals against Townsville. In the Jayco Southside Flyers two finals this season against the Townsville Fire Mitchell had two of her three highest scoring games of the season comprised of 19 points in the semi final and 31 points in the Grand Final. On her late season scoring surge Mitchell commented after the Grand Final victory “Being the point guard, I am happy to get assists and make sure everyone is involved and that was the case this season. But when Jenna went down, I knew I had to step up a bit more and be a bit more selfish offensively, and thankfully my shot was feeling good especially today.”17

Mitchell was one of only two players to play in both the WNBA and the WNBL in 2020 along with Australian Opals teammate Ezi Magbegor. Due to COVID-19 the entire WNBA season was played in a bubble and the entire WNBL season was played in three hubs in North Queensland. Having a young family and spending so much time away from her partner Mikaela and son Kash made the 2020 seasons far more difficult than a traditional season with home games and road games.

On spending so much time away from her family during her WNBA and WNBL seasons in 2020 Leilani commented “Even though Kash is young it is still very hard on him. Every day (she was in WNBA) Mikaela had to deal with him asking where I was and when I was coming back, so to be with them for the last few weeks and have them here for the grand final celebrations is very special.”18

In 2020 Mitchell played all 15 games for the Jayco Flyers, averaging 11.2 points, 1.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.0 steals and 26.4 minutes per game. During the 2020 regular season Mitchell led the WNBL for assists and ranked third for three-pointers made with 26, behind Lauren Mansfield (34) and Carly Ernst (27). Mitchell had the most accurate shooting season of her WNBL career, having an accuracy of 48.3% from the field and 48.6% for three-pointers to set new career-highs in both categories. Three point shooting accuracy was one of the Flyers greatest strengths with four of their starters Mitchell, Cole, Blicavs and O’Hea having an accuracy of more than 44% for three-point shots and each made at least 25 three-point shots for the season. Only two other players in the WNBL,  Townsville Fire duo Courtney Woods and Stephanie Reid had a three-point accuracy of more than 44% and made more than 10 three’s.     

The 2020 WNBL Championship with the Jayco Southside Flyers was the third time that Mitchell had played in a WNBL Championship, having also won titles with the Sydney Uni Flames in 2016/17 and the University of Canberra Capitals in 2018/19.

After the 2020 Grand Final victory with Southside Mitchell commented “The championships I have won are all special in their own way but being the year it has been and not even knowing if a season would go ahead, and the schedule we had with playing every other day, this one sits at the top. To be able to win the championship in a crazy 2020 is unbelievable. Plus Townsville pushed us hard today. We are thankful we were able to come out on top.”19

Epilogue

Leilani Mitchell grew up in Washington and had a decorated high-school career for Kennewick High School including playing in four consecutive state championship games. Playing NCAA Division 1 College basketball as a point guard Mitchell set a new record for most career steals during her three years at University of Idaho from 2003/04 to 2005/06. Mitchell transferred to University of Utah for her final year and after being forced to sit out the 2006/07 excelled in 2007/08 to be named the Mountain West Conference (MWC) Player of the Year.

After being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury and then being traded to the New York Liberty before playing a WNBA game Mitchell got to experience rare stability in the WNBA, playing six consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2013 for the New York Liberty where she made over 100 starts and won the WNBA’s Most Improved Player Award in 2010.

Leilani’s Australian mother Ellie had always encouraged her daughter to play basketball in Australia and to try to play for the Australian national team. The first opportunity Leilani had to play in the WNBL in Australia was at 28 years of age in 2013/14, four and a half years after Ellie had passed away from cancer in 2009. When Leilani played her debut WNBL season with the Jayco Dandenong Rangers in 2013/14 it would have been difficult to predict the impact that Australia would have on Mitchell and the impact Mitchell would make on Australian basketball.

During Mitchell’s seven season WNBL career she has played 166 WNBL games, averaging 14.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. In each of Mitchell’s seven WNBL seasons she has averaged more than 5.0 assists per game and has led the league in this category three times including the 2020 season with the Jayco Southside Flyers. Highlighting the significance of this level of performance year in and year out Mitchell’s average of 5.6 assists per game is an All-Time WNBL record among players that have played at least 50 games and only one other player with at least 50 games WNBL experience has averaged at least 5.0 assists per game, Michele Landon who averaged 5.1 assists per game in a 190 game WNBL career. Mitchell has made a total of 930 assists during her WNBL career and in her next season is poised to join the select group of eight players to reach the significant milestones of 1,000 assists, the most recent addition to this group is Southside captain O’Hea who achieved the feat early in the 2020 season.

In 2014 Leilani achieved her mum’s wish of playing basketball for the Australian Opals and has gone on to play for the Opals at many tournaments including the 2014 World Championships where Australia won a bronze medal and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio where she was a starter and ranked in the top three for the Opals in assists and scoring.

Mitchell missed the 2014 WNBA season to spend time with her extended family in Australia and then played six consecutive WNBA seasons from 2015 to 2020 comprised of four seasons with the Phoenix Mercury (2015 and 2017-2019) and two seasons with the Washington Mystix (2016 and 2020). In 2019 Mitchell created history by becoming the first WNBA player to win the league’s Most Improved Player Award twice and has had two of the best seasons of her WNBA career in 2019 at Phoenix and 2020 at Washington. At 35 years of age Mitchell has played 12 seasons and 367 games in the WNBA and ranks in the league’s top 25 on several All-Time lists including most three-pointers made, total career assists and three-point accuracy.  

Leilani has inherited her mum’s love of Australia, and her attachment to the country has been strengthened for family reasons, having an Australian partner Mikaela and a two-year old son Kash.

Part of Mitchell’s reason for playing in the WNBL was to honour her Australian mum, the late Ellie Majid, Mitchell has well and truly achieved this, to be one of the most consistent and best performed players in the WNBL from 2013/14 onwards as highlighted by her achievements. During the eight WNBL seasons from 2013/14 to 2020 Mitchell’s two Rachel Sporn Medals for being the Grand Final MVP are the equal most along with Kelsey Griffin and Mitchell’s selection in the WNBL All-Star Five team four times is the equal most along with Suzy Batkovic. During her WNBL career Mitchell has achieved a great deal of success including playing in three WNBL championships and her performance of scoring 31 points at a field goal accuracy of 69.2% and having a team-high five assists to win the Rachel Sporn Medal in the Jayco Southside Flyers 99-82 victory in the 2020 WNBL Grand Final against the Townsville Fire further enhanced Leilani Mitchell’s legacy.

Article and photographs By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

References

1 https://www.queensland.com/au/en/places-to-see/destination-information/p-56b25dac2880253d74c451a3-thursday-island

2 https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/6561263/basketball-opals-guard-leilani-mitchell-shoots-for-olympic-medal-from-newcastle/

3 https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2019/09/11/mercury-leilani-mitchell-playoffs/

4 https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2019/09/11/mercury-leilani-mitchell-playoffs/

5 https://mercury.wnba.com/news/phoenix-mercury-re-signs-leilani-mitchell/

6 https://www.wnba.com/player/leilani-mitchell/#/career

7 https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/4534081/wnbl-flame-burns-bright-for-adopted-novocastrian-mitchell/

8 http://www.fiba.basketball/world/women/2014/news/AUS-Joyce-thrilled-to-get-Mitchell-on-board

9 https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/6561263/basketball-opals-guard-leilani-mitchell-shoots-for-olympic-medal-from-newcastle/

10 https://www.smh.com.au/sport/basketball/meet-the-canberra-capitals-miracle-baby-before-the-wnbl-grand-final-20190207-p50w7u.html

11 https://www.smh.com.au/sport/basketball/meet-the-canberra-capitals-miracle-baby-before-the-wnbl-grand-final-20190207-p50w7u.html

12 https://www.smh.com.au/sport/basketball/meet-the-canberra-capitals-miracle-baby-before-the-wnbl-grand-final-20190207-p50w7u.html

13 http://wnbl.basketball/blog/news/southside-flyers-a-new-look-team-in-the-wnbl/

14 https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/6561263/basketball-opals-guard-leilani-mitchell-shoots-for-olympic-medal-from-newcastle/

15 https://wnbl.basketball/southside/news/leilani-mitchell-back-and-ready-to-go-one-better/

16 https://wnbl.basketball/southside/news/leilani-mitchell-back-and-ready-to-go-one-better/

17 https://wnbl.basketball/blog/news/mitchell-misses-record-but-claims-mvp-award/

18 https://wnbl.basketball/blog/news/mitchell-misses-record-but-claims-mvp-award/

19 https://wnbl.basketball/blog/news/mitchell-misses-record-but-claims-mvp-award/

Milestones and Misses

Milestones and Misses publishes articles to celebrate the achievements of sportspeople, mainly in the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) and the Australian Football League (AFL). In sport as with life in general it is common that milestones are only achieved after overcoming adversity, so whilst the articles on the Milestones and Misses website celebrate sportspeople achieving milestones they also cover the misses along the journey, such as a player  playing minimal game-time or spending a prolonged period on the sidelines due to injury. The aim of the articles is to enable readers to gain a greater appreciation of the journey the sportspeople have had during their career.

A link to the Milestones and Misses homepage is below:

https://milestonesandmisses.com/

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