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WNBA relishes Kelsey Mitchell’s ‘overdue’ All-Star moment

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In her sixth season with the Fever, Kelsey Mitchell is playing in her first WNBA All-Star Game. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Now is the time for Kelsey Mitchell.

It’s been time. The entire WNBA has seen it. But now after six seasons, Mitchell’s game will be on full display for her first WNBA All-Star Game.

“This is an overdue All-Star for her,” Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “She’s been at an All-Star level since she got into the league.”

Yet as Indiana continues to find itself, Mitchell has remained firmly under the radar.

WNBA players are tired of it.

“I think she’s underrated because maybe a lot of people don’t know about her,” Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale said. “But if you’re in the league, you know exactly what Kelsey is bringing. She’s one of the best guards in this league.”

Mitchell is averaging 16.7 points and three assists per game for the Fever this season. She also leads her team in minutes, playing 33 per contest.

The Fever have been in a rebuild for as long as Mitchell has been in the WNBA, drafting her with the No. 2 pick in 2018. She’s served as a building block as the team attempts to break a six-year playoff drought and climb back into contention. So far this year, Indiana is 5-15. That’s nowhere near where they want to be, but it does equal their wins total for the 2022 season and includes several close calls, like an overtime loss to the Liberty on Wednesday.

In every contest — whether a win, close loss or a blowout — one thing remains the same: The opposing defense is locked in on Kelsey Mitchell.

“Scouts make a different game plan for Kelsey every time we play,” teammate Aliyah Boston said. “They know she’s a killer. She shoots the ball at a high clip, and she’s an explosive guard as well. Teams know they have to prep for her in a different way than they might other people.”

Teammates and opponents know how talented Mitchell is, but there’s a disconnect outside the league.

In this season’s All-Star voting, Mitchell was ranked 10th by fans and 13th by media members, but 5th by fellow WNBA players.

That’s not a Kelsey Mitchell problem; it’s a perception problem, according to Alyssa Thomas, another player who is no stranger to being underrated. Despite her three triple-doubles this season, Thomas was not voted an All-Star starter.

“I think coaches’ and players’ voting should carry more weight than anything,” Thomas said. “I mean, we’re the ones that go through it each and every day.”

Mitchell has been a foundational player for the Fever during their rebuilding years. (Mollie Handkins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The current system gives fans 50% of the weighted vote, while media members account for 25% and coach and player votes account for the other 25%.

Attempting to defend Mitchell is all the evidence Thomas needs of her dominance.

“Having to guard her is not an easy task,” Thomas said. “She’s been on a team that is rebuilding, but her game has remained consistent. She’s able to score in various ways, and every time we play [Indiana], it’s very tough for us.”

Each season, Mitchell’s game evolves. And each season, she becomes better at being a pro.

Mitchell, 27, never allows herself to think she knows enough. Her career is a constant learning process, which is exactly how she’s approaching All-Star weekend. It’s a time to celebrate accomplishments, but Mitchell is also focused on how the experience can make her — and the Fever — better.

“It’s about enjoying the moment, taking it one day at a time, soaking up as much knowledge as we possibly can from other great basketball players,” she said, referencing teammate and fellow first time All-Star Boston. “Me and AB are going to take the opportunities where we can and be grateful and graceful.”

That mindset comes as no surprise to Mitchell’s college coach at Ohio State, Kevin McGuff. He spent four years begging Mitchell to take a day off and asking other staff members to help him get her out of the gym.

But for Mitchell, every moment that’s not spent improving is a moment wasted.

“She’s always been a real student of the game who wants to learn more and get better,” McGuff said. “It doesn’t surprise me that she’s still got that mindset. And I’ve seen incredible growth in her game, but there might be more to come. She will continue to find ways to get better.”

The biggest change he’s seen in Mitchell this season is the way she controls the game.

“She’s one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen where the ball comes with her,” McGuff said. “She can play so incredibly fast and still have command of the ball, which is an incredibly rare skill.”

He also sees Mitchell as “one of the most exciting players” in the WNBA, which is why her low rank in the fan and media voting surprised him.

But fellow WNBA players see what McGuff sees.

The respect from her peers means something to Mitchell, but she doesn’t put too much stock into it. Instead, the guard focuses on the same things she always has.

“No matter how many years I’m in the league, going against these great players, as grateful as I am, I just like to put the work in for the basketball part,” she said. “I’m grateful that they think of me that way. For me, it’s about making sure I’m doing everything I can for my team, and staying consistent in my work.”

That work ethic has been even more important this season as the Fever begin to turn a corner. There is also an increased amount of excitement around the team, thanks to the addition of young stars like Boston. And as the franchise finds its identity, Mitchell is the perfect piece to build around.

“When you’re building like that and bringing in young players, she is a great mentor,” McGuff said. “And as a coach, you want someone with the ball in their hands who is going to make everyone around them better.”

Mitchell and Indiana rookie Aliyah Boston are both first-time All-Stars. (David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Her ability to lead extends back to her college program. Ohio State is coming off its first Elite Eight appearance since 1993, having gotten there by beating NCAA powerhouse UConn in the Sweet 16. Taylor Mikesell, one of the team’s stars from the tournament run, is now on a WNBA roster with the Dream, and the Buckeyes have two other potential WNBA players in Jacy Sheldon and Cotie McMahon.

As the program continues to rise, players can look to Mitchell as proof that being a Buckeye can lead to a successful WNBA career — even if it takes too long for that value to be formally recognized.

“We want our program to be known as a program that can develop people into being ready to go to the WNBA,” McGuff said. “So to see her having that success is a great reflection of our program.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.