The Struggling Indiana Fever Need More From Kelsey Mitchell

The Indiana Fever are not off to the start they were hoping for. After 10 games, the team sits at 1-9, which equates to the worst winning percentage in the WNBA. And it’s not just the losing that makes the Fever look weak, it’s the manner they are doing so — four of the nine losses have been by more than 20 points. Indiana hasn’t been competitive in many of their games.

This isn’t what the growing, young team wanted — obviously, every team wants to win. But the slow start is more upsetting for the Fever than other squads since Indiana added multiple veterans this offseason with the hopes of building off of last year’s 6-16 campaign. So far, that hasn’t happened.

“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Fever Head Coach Marianne Stanley said. Stanley has stressed patience all season long and has seen improvement from her team in most games, despite the losses. “We have a lot new faces trying to play together and get some chemistry and get a rhythm together on the floor. And that takes time,” she added.

Even with new faces and a difficult schedule, the Fever have struggled on both ends of the court. The team’s defense ranks last in the league as the red and blue have conceded 111.4 points per 100 possessions, which is over eight points worse than the next weakest defense. On offense, things haven’t been much better as Indiana ranks tenth out of 12 teams in offensive rating. Nothing has gone the Fever’s way.

When a team is struggling this much, it’s impossible and unfair to pin its losses on just one player. That is certainly true for the Fever, few players have shot the ball well this season and even fewer have been reliable on defense. But one player, in particular, is having more trouble than others living up to her potential, and it just so happens to be the Fever’s best player: Kelsey Mitchell.

Mitchell was tremendous during the 2020 Fever campaign and may have been named an All-Star if the WNBA had an All-Star game this past season. The former second-overall pick took off in the bubble, improving her shooting efficiency and volume simultaneously. That’s an impressive accomplishment — Mitchell had higher expectations for her scoring output last season and handled them well.

Shooting, and making, more shots will of course be a boon for any team. But simply having Mitchell on the court did wonders for Indiana as a team last season. The Fever’s offensive rating was 9.3 points per 100 possessions better in 2020 when Mitchell was in the game compared to when she was on the bench. Her existence on the hardwood alone helped her team a ton.

This year, that hasn’t been the case, the Fever have a roughly equivalent offensive rating both when Mitchell is in the game and when she is on the bench. And the biggest factor in that change from last season comes from Mitchell herself, she is floundering in a way that she hasn’t at any other point in her career.

Through 10 games, the 25-year old is shooting just 37.6% from the field, the second-worst mark of her career. From three-point range, things have been especially troubling — Mitchell has knocked down only 23.8% of her outside shots. That’s 9.7% less accurate than Mitchell’s previous low from beyond the arc.

Simply put, shots aren’t going in for the fourth-year Fever guard. Mitchell’s true shooting percentage, a common measure of scoring efficiency, is a career-low (46.5%) as a result of her imprecise shooting. Those precision struggles have been combined with career-high shooting volume, which has made things tough on the Fever.

The good news for Indiana is that Mitchell will explode out of this slump eventually. There is three years of evidence that suggests she is a more accurate shooter than she has been so far this season. “I know that it’s a slump,” Stanley said.

“Kelsey is a really, really good shooter and I think she’s a little bit frustrated and, maybe, if anything, trying too hard,” the Head Coach added. “She’s a competitor, she wants to win, and she wants to do what she’s capable of doing. And I think it might be just pressing too hard, trying too hard to do what she does… I have no doubt that she’ll bust out of this slump.”

The bad news for the Fever is that the team might have to get creative in order to free up Mitchell on a game-to-game basis. After her breakout campaign last season, opposing defenses are focusing more on slowing down Mitchell by sending more unique coverages her way. That makes her life difficult, and it bogs down the Fever offense when that extra attention forces Mitchell to miss shots.

“I’ve seen teams try to top lock her,” Fever forward Jessica Breland said. “I’ve seen them trailing on her or doubling her.”

Indiana has to find a way to get Mitchell going, especially from deep, even when she is drawing that defensive attention. She is the best player on the roster, so something must be done to get the offense going when she is in the game.

In the short term, the answer for the Fever could be to emphasize drives more when Mitchell has the ball. “The modern game is about attacking the rim and attacking people’s feet. And if you can have success with that, good things come,” Stanley said.

Sure, increased defensive attention makes dribbling into the paint more challenging. But the 5’8” guard has still been able to get to the rim for shots more often this season (14.2% of Mitchell’s shot have come from 0-3 feet) than she did last season (11.0%). The key difference is that Mitchell canned 76.5% of those shots last season versus just 55.0% this season. The finishing should improve if Mitchell continues to attack the basket.

And getting to the tin won’t just help Mitchell, it will help everyone. She stressed the importance of getting downhill and attacking earlier this year, and when she is doing that, it opens up the floor for either herself or her teammates. That’s evident in the numbers — when Mitchell is in the game, 56.3% of the Fever’s shots come from at the rim or from three, two of the most efficient areas to attempt a shot from in a basketball game. When Mitchell sits, that ratio falls to 49.7%. She is able to generate good shots for herself and others, and more drives from Mitchell could make that number rise. It would generate more layups for Mitchell or more shots from deep for her teammates.

“The game is spacing the floor,” Mitchell said earlier this season. “It’s kind of like the opposite of Tim Duncan and what he says, the game is getting away from back to the post bigs. Everyone is like ‘spread it’. So a lot of times, you’ve got to utilize that. You’ve got to drive the ball and pitch it, get it where it needs to go.”

Mitchell’s teammates feel similarly about how her drives open up the floor. “When [defenses] are being so aggressive with her, it opens up the floor for everyone else,” Breland said. “She’s essentially giving us an assist without giving us an assist. Even if she’s not passing the ball directly to us, she’s opening up the floor for us.”

In the long term, the answer to unlocking Kelsey Mitchell could just be patience. When watching the Fever, it doesn’t appear as if Mitchell is forcing shots or taking too many contested jumpers despite the defensive attention she draws. Over time, her shooting percentages will stabilize. In fact, Mitchell is taking more corners threes this season than she ever has in the past. If she continues to have the same shot profile throughout this campaign, then she could end up raising her percentages to career-best numbers, eventually. But it will take some time for the law of averages to take over.

Mitchell has to get going for the Fever if the team wants to salvage this marathon of a season. Even with their best scorer struggling, the Fever have a net rating that is over 10 points per 100 possessions better when Mitchell is in the game versus when she is out, and the team is more effective on both offense and defense, statistically, with Kelsey Mitchell in the game. She should continue to rack up minutes and be given every opportunity to break free from this early season slump.

Mitchell is an extremely talented player, and she is capable of turning things around. The Fever’s season depends on her making some shots sooner rather than later, though. Otherwise, the team could dig itself a hole too deep to climb out of.

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