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It’s been nearly thirty minutes since anyone else has been on the court, but Tiffany Mitchell is still there after practice, getting in extra shots. Her coaches and teammates are long gone, but the second-year pro out of South Carolina is hoisting up jumpers and taking free throws.
For Mitchell, all the extra time and effort is just part of the plan.
“When people think of the best players in the WNBA, I want them to think of me,” Mitchell said. “That’s why I’m in the gym and watching film all the time. I want to be perfect, or as close to perfect as I can be. I’m really never satisfied. I honestly think I should make every shot I take, but I know that I can’t, and I have to be able to shake off a miss and focus on the next shot.”
It’s an attitude that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Indiana Fever coach Pokey Chatman.
“She just loves the game, and she’s a gym rat,” Chatman said. “She went to an institution where her coach really pushed her, and she had a good rookie year that she’s built upon. You see her working everyday, before and after practice, on off-days, and I think some people do that when its convenient, but for Tiff it’s just part of her DNA.”
Basketball wasn’t always part of Mitchell’s DNA though. She grew up playing many different sports, but she primarily ran track and did karate. It was her older brother that was the basketball player – that is, until Mitchell noticed what he was bringing home.
“I had a lot of energy growing up, and my mom was just trying to keep me busy,” Mitchell said. “My brother was always bringing home trophies, and I wanted to be a winner, so I picked up basketball. I wanted some trophies for myself.”
Growing up near Charlotte, North Carolina, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for the young Mitchell to play basketball with other girls. So, she ran with the boys instead. She wasn’t very skilled when she started playing, and she was constantly going against players that were bigger, stronger, and just flat-out better than her. But she was a natural athlete and played hard. Eventually she developed her skills while building the toughness that has defined her as a player, even though she remains, at 5-foot-9, smaller than most of her opponents. She found some other local girls that shared her passion for the game, and together they set out to get better.
“I lived in the gym. We would go to play at a YMCA, and when that closed we’d go find another one,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we convinced some guys to play against us in 3-on-3, and then they quickly realized that we really could play.”
She started spending time at Accelerate Basketball Training in Charlotte, whose previous clients include former NBA All-Star Antawn Jamison and two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry. Her mom would drive Mitchell to work out, and sit in the car or browse in a local Wal-Mart while she waited for Mitchell to finish her workouts.
Her mother also introduced her to the Charlotte Sting, a former WNBA franchise that existed from 1997-07. Mitchell become a huge fan of Dawn Staley, the Sting’s star point guard who won three Olympic medals and carried the flag for the United States at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Mitchell got her Staley jersey signed, and hung it on her bedroom wall. She even did a school project on her WNBA hero.
By the time Mitchell was ready to make a college selection, she was ESPN’s No. 46-ranked recruit in the Class of 2012. When she got an offer from South Carolina, where Staley had become coach, she leapt at the opportunity to play for her idol.
Mitchell became a two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and a three-time All-American in Columbia, reaching two Sweet Sixteens and the program’s first Final Four in 2015. She graduated with more starts and games played than any other player in program history. For her, the best part of her college experience was playing for her childhood idol.
“I wouldn’t be the player I am today without South Carolina and the relationship I have with Coach Staley,” Mitchell said. “She’s taught me so much on and off the court. Some college coaches just want your skills as a player, but she really cares about me as a person. I wanted to emulate her as much as I could.”
Mitchell was the eighth overall selection of the 2016 WNBA Draft, and had a successful rookie season to say the least. She was named to the WNBA All-Rookie Team after averaging 8.6 points and 1.4 assists per game. She scored in double figures in eight straight games to start her career, the longest such streak in team history, and her scoring average was the second-best in team history by a rookie. She also set the franchise record for consecutive free throws made with a streak of 42-in-a-row near the end of the season.
This year, Mitchell has taken the next step. She’s averaging 11.6 points per game, second on the team, and is adding 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists. She’s scored in double figures in nine of the team’s 13 games, but Chatman said that her all-around game allows her to be a factor regardless of whether her shot is falling.
“She’s really stepped up as a player who can impact the game even if she’s not making shots,” Chatman said. “She stays connected and engaged, distributes the ball and grabs rebounds, and she’s usually guarding someone else who’s really good, and doing a great job with that as well. “
She’s been particularly impressive in the second half of late. She was a nominee for Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the week of June 12-18, with 28 of her 33 points in the team’s two games coming after halftime. Mitchell said it’s the mental part of the game that’s been the most improved for her this season.
“I could always run fast and jump high, but now that I have a year with the Fever and overseas in Russia under my belt, the game is coming to me more easily. I’m a smarter player now,” Mitchell said. “I started one game recently 0-of-6 (against Atlanta on June 15), and last year that might’ve been it for me that game. This year, I was able to shake off the slow start and I finished with 14 points, all in the second half.”
The Fever won that game against Atlanta 85-74, thanks in part to Mitchell’s second-half surge. She also had a team-high 19 points in the Fever’s first road win June 18 against the Chicago Sky, with another 14-point second half. Both performances came off the bench, where Mitchell has been a key contributor to a self-proclaimed “Bench Mob” that has outscored opposing reserves in 12 of 13 games.
“We take pride in competing and being one of the best benches in the league,” Mitchell said. “We don’t want to come in and allow the other team to make a run, so we want to come in and be the extra help our starters need to stay on top.”
She’s also once again having incredible success at the free throw line. She has another active streak of 40 consecutive made free throws, tied as the second-longest streak in club history and just two shy of her own record. Her 97.8 percent mark at the line is the best in the WNBA. Mitchell said she’s good at the line mostly because “no one is guarding me,” she laughed, but also addressed her approach at the stripe.
“I don’t know if it’s as much about the mechanics,” she added, “because you can shoot 3-pointers and step backs and once you get to the line, they kind of fall off because you’re there by yourself,” Mitchell said. “With me, I think it’s my concentration that allows me to just lock in and knock them down.”
At the free throw line, there’s never a bigger player in her way, no small opening for Mitchell to exploit with a quick first step, and no impossible finish to convert at the rim.
It’s just her, the ball, and the hoop.
Mitchell Scores 19 in Chicago
Mitchell Scores 14 Against Dream