The 2023 WNBA season has already been a year of firsts for veteran guard Tiffany Mitchell.
After spending the first seven years of her career with the Indiana Fever after being drafted out of South Carolina with the ninth overall pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft, Mitchell took a leap to join a new team for the first time this offseason when she decided to sign with the Minnesota Lynx.
Shortly after her arrival, Mitchell realize she would also be taking on a new role for the first time, something that has taken some adjusting as she learns to play a position she has yet to fill.
A few weeks into the regular season, the Lynx decided it was time to place Mitchell in the lead guard position in the starting lineup — something she has never done before in her career. It has admittedly been a learning process for the eighth-year guard, but she is finding her stride in that new role on her new team in Minnesota.
A New Team
For the entirety of her career prior to this offseason, all Mitchell ever knew was taking the court with the Fever after spending seven seasons in the organization. As a free agent this offseason, she felt as though it was time to start fresh elsewhere, which led to testing the open market for the first time.
All Mitchell has ever known as a WNBA player was playing in Indiana, but she knew it was time to branch out and take her talents elsewhere in 2023.
“I think, at this part of my career, I was going into my eighth season and I had only been in one place for my entire career. I was in Indy since I was 21 years old, I’m now 28,” Mitchell told Canis Hoopus. “Indy has literally seen me grow up and evolve into the person and player that I am today, so I’ll be forever thankful for them drafting me back in 2016. But I knew at that point, following the year that I had my last year in Indy, I needed something different. I needed to feel something different and experience something different.
“I didn’t know what this season would hold, no matter which team I went to, but I knew that I needed a change in my life for me mentally and also probably physically as well,” she added. “You just outgrow a place, and I think that’s what happened with Indy. ... For me to spend seven years in one place is kind of unheard of, but I also knew it was time for me to make a change.”
One of the first teams Mitchell spoke to in free agency was the Lynx, who she ultimately decided to join. As an outsider, she was always familiar with Minnesota and the way the organization handled itself and treated its players, which was a major selling point for the veteran.
“I just knew Minnesota was very professional and took care of their players the right way. I’m not getting any younger and I knew that I needed certain things to be able to perform the way that I wanted to do and Minnesota provides that,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s the main thing a lot of people talk about is just the facilities and how they take care of us. Being that they share with the Timberwolves, we get everything that they get from the NBA side. They make sure we’re set up and put in a position to succeed and that was really important to me. ... The only thing we have to worry about was playing basketball.”
The state-of-the-art practice facility at Mayo Clinic Square has been a draw for many players since the space opened in 2015. From being able to practice around the clock, having access to a chef, receiving treatment pre- and post-game in the training rooms and much more, those were all priorities for Mitchell at this stage of her career. And the Lynx checked all those boxes.
“For me, I know what’s important. I know what works well for me and I know that’s kind of what’s at the top of my list and what I prioritize,” she said. “And feeling like I’m not having to do a whole lot outside of basketball is important to me because now I can worry about just taking care of my body and being ready to play basketball. There are other situations and teams where they don’t have access to things like this, so you have to kind of figure it out on the way and I didn’t want to do that anymore.
“I wasn’t in a place where I was trying to figure out how to get into a gym at night or something like that. I’m just too far along where I prioritize certain things and what I want in my career.”
All of the things the organization does for its players behind the scenes matters, and the preparation, recovery and treatment the facilities provide helps players be able to perform to the best of their abilities on the court.
A New Role
Along with joining a new team for the first time, Mitchell learned she might be taking on a new role for the first time in her career as well — that being playing more of a point guard role than she has been accustomed to.
During free agency, Mitchell met with the Lynx to discuss her role in Minnesota, and the topic of her playing some point guard was brought up. The two sides didn’t go into depth on what that might look like, but she signed with the Lynx knowing that would be a possibility throughout the year.
“It wasn’t really a conversation that was in-depth about like ‘hey, this is what we’re going to do when you get here.’ (Cheryl Reeve) mentioned it throughout and she just asked me if I was comfortable playing there if I was thrown in there for a little bit.” Mitchell said. “I’m like ‘oh yeah, I could do it here and there.’ Kind of seeing how it stuck, I was a little surprised, but I’m all for adapting. I think I’m able to learn on the fly. I think (Reeve) trusts me and sees the value in having me there.”
Mitchell said she enjoys the challenge of taking on a new role for the first time, even if it has been an adjustment. But as each game goes along, she is getting more comfortable in that spot and it has offered her a different perspective on the game that she’s never had to think about.
“Going into my eighth year, I didn’t think I would have to dust off my point guard skills, but here we are,” Mitchell joked. “But I love it and I love the challenge. Honestly, it’s just helping me see the game from a different side of the ball. I’m having to think a lot more, which probably I wouldn’t have to if I was still on the wing and stuff like that. Being in that lead position is getting me outside of my comfort zone. I actually really appreciate it.”
For Reeve, she likes the veteran leadership Mitchell provides at the point guard spot and the presence she brings leading the offense while on the floor. Mitchell was inserted in that role a handful of games into the regular season, and Reeve said the team plans to stick with the veteran guard in that position moving forward.
“She brings a physical toughness that we felt like we needed on our team, so she certainly has brought that on both ends. She’s not afraid to put her body on the line,” Reeve said. “Tiff is a scorer, she’s got a scores mindset. She’s playing out of position for us. I was blasting her today a little bit and then I stopped for a moment and said ‘look, I recognize you’re playing out of position I really appreciate you.’
“I just have high expectations of her and she wants that. I have enjoyed very much how she’s embraced the ways in which we’re challenging her. It’s been up and down for a little bit, but she brings us toughness and a belief in her abilities and a willingness to do whatever is asked of her.”
Mitchell admitted she appreciates the high expectations Reeve and the Lynx have for her. Mitchell is her hardest critic, she said, and has really high standards for herself whenever the ball is in her hands. That constant pursuit of greatness has been seen by her new teammates, even while she goes through the adjustments of taking on a new role.
“She’s playing out a position right now and it’s been an adjustment for her, but she’s kind of taking it all in and trying to do her best to be who we need her to be. I think she’s done a great job with that,” Bridget Carleton said. “Obviously, that kind of transition is not easy, so we’re all here to help her with that.
“She’s obviously a great addition to the locker room, she’s a great person and she’s hilarious too. She’s been great and really fun to play. She’s just competitive and she can get to the rim, she can facilitate a little bit, so it’s all a great addition to our team.”
In her eighth season, Mitchell is learning something new for the first time, all while being on a new team for the first time as well. Her production has been a welcomed addition to the Lynx rotation this year, and as she becomes more familiar in that new role, Mitchell’s production should only continue from here in Minnesota.
“I’m just taking it day by day and figuring it out along the way,” Mitchell said. “I have really good teammates and people around me that have made my first year here — or at least making it — not as difficult of a learning curve. Just knowing what they want for me just trying to execute that to the best of my ability.”