Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell knows to trust her process, whether it’s graduate school or basketball
The Indiana guard pursues her off-court goals the way she’s navigated her pro career
On Aug. 7, 2020, Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell experienced a career-high.
Playing in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, Mitchell became the second-fastest player in Fever franchise history to reach 1,000 career points, notching the milestone against the Minnesota Lynx in her 74th career game.
That same day, Mitchell reached another milestone, earning her master’s degree in sports administration from the University of Cincinnati.
Mitchell began taking classes when she was playing overseas in Turkey. When she finished playing for the day, she’d trade a basketball for a textbook and a playbook for a course syllabus for one of her two classes.
“All my work was getting done in advance because I was seven hours ahead of America,” said Mitchell, who finished her degree in two years. “All my work was coming in so fast my professor was like, ‘How are you getting this done?’ I was like, ‘I’m in another country, I’m sorry.’ ”
Mitchell was able to pursue a secondary degree in part by taking advantage of a tuition assistance program offered to players by the WNBA through its collective bargaining agreement. Past players in the program include Tamika Catchings, Candice Dupree and Tina Charles.
“That’s just a huge accomplishment,” said teammate Tiffany Mitchell, who with former teammate Teaira McCowan had a Class of 2020 banner shipped to the WNBA bubble to celebrate. “I wanted to do my part and make sure we see her and the work she is doing off the court.”
Still early in her pro career, Mitchell has thought plenty about life after basketball. She aspires to become an athletic director.
Mitchell found and developed a passion for sports administration and leading student-athletes as an undergraduate at Ohio State. Mitchell took trips to Indianapolis, where she would visit the NCAA headquarters and learn more about the organization. She also learned from long-tenured Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.
Mitchell’s path in higher education will soon continue. She was recently accepted to the University of Miami to pursue a doctorate in applied learning sciences. Mitchell will complete the degree online during the offseason.
“There’s a lot that I want to do once I put the ball down,” Mitchell said. “These are the steps that I got to take.”
How Mitchell has pursued her off-court goals closely mirrors how she navigated her pro career with the Fever. She knows where she wants to go. She knows the process it takes to get there and she’s willing to endure each step of that journey until that goal is met.
Not that it has been easy.
Since being selected by Indiana as the No. 2 pick in the 2018 WNBA draft, Mitchell has never made the playoffs. The Fever franchise has missed the playoffs the last five seasons and hasn’t had a winning season since 2015, when Indiana lost in the WNBA Finals to Minnesota. Mitchell’s teams have won more than six games in a single season just once.
In many ways, Mitchell is a superstar hiding in plain sight. She is an exceptional talent and one of the best scorers in the league whose shine has been masked by losing records, persistent franchise turnover and a smaller WNBA market that has been trying to capture its championship past. From 2005 to 2016, the Fever never missed the playoffs, reached the Finals three times and won the championship in 2012.
Mitchell didn’t have to stay in Indiana to see the rebuild through. She could have tested the waters of free agency and found a new home on another team in the league.
But like her journey off the court, Mitchell has committed herself to doing the work and trusting that process. Some goals, such as earning her first All-Star bid, may be reached before others. But ultimately, Mitchell won’t stop until that winning culture is restored in Indiana.
“I want to be one of those ones that’s going to say, ‘Started out bad for us, but we on top now,’ ” said Mitchell, who signed a multiyear contract extension last March. “I want to be in a better position where once we win, there’s going to be certain things that people can never say about me.”
“You can’t guard her with one player. We always tell our players, ‘Look, that’s not a personal attack on you.’ She’s going to get by everybody.” — Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve
Mitchell entered her fifth season with a bit of a chip on her shoulder.
“Respectfully, of course,” Mitchell said.
This season would be the one in which Mitchell emphatically placed her stamp on the league. That included believing that she belonged among the best players in the WNBA.
Mitchell finished the previous three seasons in the top 25 in scoring. Last season, she ranked eighth, and the year before that, sixth. She still hasn’t been named to an All-WNBA or All-Star team. It’s fair to assume Mitchell would have had a very strong chance of being named an All-Star in 2020, but no game was played during the bubble season.
To an extent, that lack of recognition has weighed on Mitchell. As someone who identifies herself as a competitor and is putting up numbers in which she is sandwiched on a leaderboard in between other greats in the league, the lack of recognition has, at times, caused her to doubt her ability.
“Not being recognized for certain things, not being a part of those conversations, they suck, it hurts. I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t,” said Mitchell, who added that her motivation is more driven by the respect of her peers than the recognition.
“I definitely took a look in the mirror as far as myself. You question if you’re good enough. … I question that a lot.”
The added difficulty of playing on underperforming teams has also potentially influenced voters who determine league honors.
“Being in this position and given some of the seasons that we’ve had, it’s very easy to overlook Kelsey,” said Tiffany Mitchell. “I think she’s trying to, regardless of what our record is at the end of the season, put them on notice and let them know that she is one of the top players in this league.”
Mitchell’s output this season puts her on track to have a career year. Despite seeing more double and even triple teams than ever as a pro, she’s averaging career-highs of 18.8 points and 4.1 assists per game, which rank fourth and 12th in the league, respectively.
“She’s just done an excellent job of reading defenses, studying film with myself and our staff and just getting a feel of what it takes to go against high-level, highly competitive defenses that are circling her on the scouting report,” Fever interim head coach Carlos Knox said.
Compared to previous seasons, Mitchell has also deepened her game by increasing her proficiency in attacking the rim. She’s taken more shots in the 1- to 5-foot range this season than she has her whole career. That’s also translated to her ability to get to the line, where she is averaging career-highs in free throws made (3.4) and attempts (3.7). Her .910 free throw percentage (also a career-high) ranks third in the league.
Mitchell’s foundation as a premier scorer was built in her hometown of Cincinnati, where as a kid she used to run 1’s, a variation of one-on-one, with her twin brothers. One player would start at the top of the key while another would try and stop them. The player who scored stayed on offense and the next player would rotate in. Mitchell would have to find a way to score on her brothers, both four years older and future semi-pro athletes, in just two dribbles.
The drill forced Mitchell to develop a creative offensive skill set — the ability to create space efficiently, get a shot off before a defender can close out and a quick first step off the dribble.
“You can’t guard her with one player,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said before a matchup against Indiana on June 12. “She’s just really physically gifted, can get by anybody. We always tell our players, ‘Look, that’s not a personal attack on you.’ She’s going to get by everybody.”
Mitchell’s tenure with the Fever has been a roller coaster of sorts, at times an awkward mix of team shortcomings and personal breakthroughs.
When a member of the Indiana local media asked Mitchell about how it felt to notch her then-ninth 20-point game of the season on June 10, a stat in which she leads the entire WNBA, Mitchell acknowledged the feat but was hardly elated.
“I can’t really say, because you do all of this and you still lose,” said Mitchell following a 14-point home loss to the New York Liberty. “I can’t say it’s a good thing. … It’s hard to really say when you take L’s the way we take them.”
The 2022 season began with great optimism for the Fever. Indiana started the season 2-2. Its five-member rookie class, led by Rookie of the Year contender NaLyssa Smith, demonstrated that they were ready to contribute immediately. The team played with an energy that hadn’t been palpable in previous seasons.
But then the team lost five straight games, and coach Marianne Stanley, with the team since 2020, was fired and replaced by Knox. Under the leadership of Knox, the team is 3-6. But there’s a sense of optimism in the franchise. Look no farther than Sunday, when Indiana overcame a 15-point deficit to the defending champion Chicago Sky to earn its fifth win of the season.
“It’s definitely been a journey. A lot of downs, a lot of crying, a lot of tears, a lot of blood, a lot of sweat. But there’s been some highs,” said Mitchell, who tied her career-high in assists with nine in the win over Chicago. “You try not to lose sight of the vision.”
As the franchise player of a WNBA team, Mitchell understands the immense expectations and responsibility of the role. She is not the most vocal leader. Knox mentioned he’d like to see her step into that role more, but she leads in the way that she can. When the team needs her production, she’s shown several times this season she can put the team on her back and sometimes single-handedly play Indiana back into contention.
Mitchell knows that the standard for Fever basketball is, in large part, set by her. That’s why she’s often the first in the gym and the last out. It’s why the losses likely hit a bit deeper than they used to earlier in her career.
“She definitely does shoulder that responsibility,” Knox said. “This is not something that she’s had to do in the past because she was younger. I think now, with her going to such a deeper part of her career, she’s been able to understand what it takes to be a very good professional leader on this stage and in this league. Now she’s coming into her own.”
As Mitchell’s on-court career continues, she has aimed to adjust her approach to how she moves about the game, pushing to adopt a mindset focused on happiness, perseverance and poise. It’s a mentality she says she speaks to her grandmother about almost daily – pushing through obstacles and doing so with grace.
Good performances are Mitchell’s confirmation her work in the gym is showing results. Whenever possible, she’ll take hold of what’s in her control to push the Fever until that ultimate goal is reached.
“The only thing that I can control is my play,” Mitchell said. “There are going to be days that I don’t got it. There’s going to be a lot more days that I do have it.”