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Could Tiffany Mitchell Be the Solution at Point Guard for the Lynx?

The free agent addition made a strong case in Friday night’s preseason opener by leading the team in assists and throwing several impressive passes.

Washington Mystics v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Ever since Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Lindsay Whalen retired following the 2018 WNBA season, the Minnesota Lynx have been searching for an answer at point guard. From Odyssey Sims to Crystal Dangerfield to Layshia Clarendon to Moriah Jefferson, Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve hasn’t found a long-term solution.

There may not be one on this roster, either. However, with the team transitioning to a five-out offense predicated on getting into the paint and making smart reads as it pertains to scoring, passing to a big or a cutter in the pocket, or kicking the ball out to force a scramble situation, the team’s need for a traditional floor general isn’t what it once was.

But does that diminish the value of that style of point guard?

“Yeah, (but) I mean can you [play a non-traditional point guard] all the time? There are gonna be times when you’re gonna need someone that can organize and make the right play, the right pass on time and on target,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus after Friday night’s 72-69 win over the Washington Mystics in the preseason opener. “So you still need, like if all of a sudden it’s a three-minute game and you’re down to executing, that’s probably where it would show itself. But if that’s what the game calls for (a drive and kick guard over a true point guard), and that’s the direction we go, it’s gonna look a little bit like that.”

For my money, going in that direction is the Lynx’s best bet at this stage. Mitchell has been a combo guard for her entire seven-year WNBA career, but has both the lightning quick first step and the passing chops required to live in the paint, collapse defenses and create opportunities for her teammates to knock down open catch-and-shoot 3s, attack close-outs, or make the extra pass. Those are key skills when placed around Napheesa Collier, Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers.

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The former South Carolina star put that on full display last night, especially in the second half, during which she made several impressive wraparound passes on the drive that hit teammates in stride and set them up for easy buckets. Mitchell, who averages 1.8 assists per game over her career, led the Lynx with six assists.

“I think it’s possible,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus on Friday when asked if Mitchell could factor into the point guard rotation when the regular season opens in a couple weeks, noting the team still has “a long way to go” with roster decisions.

“But we just thought, ‘Let’s see, she’s been here a week, we haven’t [asked her to play point guard] yet.’ ... We just threw her there in the game.’ She has great will. She’s gonna kind of bully her way through stuff,” Reeve added.

While Reeve dropped Mitchell in the deep end of the pool in the second half, tapping into Mitchell’s playmaking skills is something the two talked about at length heading into this season.

“The passing that you saw was something we have been in her ear about from the time that we signed her. I set up a zoom call with her. She was in Australia and we watched her drives to the rim where she challenged people and threw up shots that have little chance to go in. And we talked about the tremendous value of getting to the paint and collapsing the defense,” Reeve said.

“And now, she’s got to get smarter and become a more mature player to understand, kick it out. And Diamond, too. There’s great value in being able to seek the paint way that they do and recognize when it’s time to shoot it and when it’s time to pass it. I thought Tiff was really attentive to that.”

Mitchell had four turnovers, but they came when she was the primary option on offense, trying to create for herself during times the ball movement and player movement both got sticky. In this pace-and-space, five-out offense, taking care of the ball and preventing run-outs will be paramount. Minnesota turned it over 18 times, which Washington turned into 17 points on Friday night. With playing four rookies heavy minutes, that is to be expected.

But operating as the sole creator shouldn’t be as much of a problem for Mitchell when she’s playing alongside the likes of Collier, McBride, Powers, and Diamond Miller, who can all space the floor and will likely attract more defensive attention, freeing up Mitchell to win one-on-one matchups in a spread floor. Even if there’s a big on the floor with them, it will enable the dynamic guard to make simple plays like this:

With that said, Reeve is absolutely correct in saying that her team can’t just rely on getting off the ball early, moving it, and playing in the flow for the entire game, especially late in close contests. The Lynx got themselves into trouble at times in the second and third quarters, during which they struggled with turning the ball over and taking poor shots early in the shot clock.

“I thought it was a little more freelancing. We started jacking shots there, taking low percentage shots,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus. “I said, ‘Yo guys, what are we doing here? We have to seek your number one. If it’s early in the clock, if it’s not your number one, pass the ball and trust ‘it’s not your shot. It’s our shot.’ I don’t want the 25% shot.”

“I like it more when all of our players ‘play, play, play’ and you get it in rhythm maybe on the backside and you’re open, versus you’re kind of looking to try to challenge and you just raise up and shoot the 3. So rhythm 3s are what we’re seeking.”

Those rhythm 3s can certainly come in a free-flowing offense like you see in the clips above, but they can also come when a more traditional point guard can get the team organized in the half-court. The Lynx have two guards on the roster capable of doing so — Lindsay Allen and Rachel Banham — and it is possible only one of them makes the final roster.

Allen was fantastic late in the year last season for the Lynx as they made a playoff push, but struggled in her first game action on Friday. Banham, on the other hand, played very well. Her tide-turning 3/6 3-point shooting shined bright on a night the rest of the team shot 2/17 (11.8%) from deep, but Reeve has been pleased with Banham in two key areas.

“Rachel played great, by the way. Obviously making shots the way that she does, but her hustle play was the most impressive play for me. Giving up your body in the preseason game because you care that much, it’s good stuff,” Reeve said.

Washington Mystics v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

“Her knowledge of how we want to play, her knowledge of me, that’s valuable. Certainly the 3 ball, her passing, as we’ve said before. I think Rachel has really taken on some of the leadership part of it and is using her voice in ways that she hasn’t before, that we said is really imperative. You have to carve out value. It can’t just be because you can shoot. That’s something she’s really taken to heart.”

A key part of Banham’s growth as a leader is the experienced she gained as Director of Quality Control under Whalen at the University of Minnesota this past season. She assisted with practice, game preparation, statistical analysis and more. Reeve believes that role helped the Lakeville native take the next step as a player.

“No question about it. She’ll walk by sometimes and go, ‘I know exactly what you’re feeling.’ She’s been on the bench on the other side. She sees now a little bit more, like every time she said, ‘I know what you’re talking about now, when these things happen.’”

Between Mitchell and Banham, Reeve has a good option in both the non-traditional and traditional point guard arenas, which will serve well a team looking to throw out a ton of different looks at opposing defenses. Given both guards’ extensive work on and off the ball, they’ll be able to seamlessly play together, too, which will be important during inevitable stretches in which the Lynx struggle to score consistently.

There is still a ways to go in terms of Reeve and new General Manager Clare Duwelius making any concrete roster decisions, but it’s hard to think Mitchell and Banham didn’t inspire confidence in the front office with their strong play in the preseason opener.