When former South Carolina women's basketball star Tiffany Mitchell went to the WNBA's Indiana Fever with the ninth pick of the 2016 draft, she joined a team that had made the playoffs in 11 consecutive seasons and the conference finals or better in five.
Since then, things haven't exactly gone the Fever's way — after one brief playoff appearance in 2016, Indiana has posted a 10-35 record since, including 10 straight losses to open the 2018 season, the worst start in franchise history and tied for the team's longest losing streak.
But throughout it all, Mitchell has posted steady, consistent improvement and maintained a level-headed approach, guided in part by Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley.
"I feel like we're right there," Mitchell said after the 10th loss, a road defeat to the Atlanta Dream this past Thursday. "Obviously we're losing a lot of close games but we definitely have the pieces on this team to get over the hump."
Staley, for her part, has used her own experience to encourage Mitchell, she said.
"Just to trust the process," Mitchell said Staley told her. "She told me when she was with the (Charlotte) Sting, they started 1-10 and then went to the finals. I'm not saying we're going to go to the finals, but there's still hope. We lost 10 but it's a 34-game season. We're not canceling the whole season because we lost the first 10."
That persistence and optimism paid off this weekend — after the hard-fought contest in Atlanta on Thursday, the Fever turned around and defeated the Dream at home on Sunday for their first win of the season. Mitchell contributed seven points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals to the victory.
Overall, Mitchell leads the team in one major statistic — steals per game, with 1.2. She's also averaging double figures in scoring and more than three rebounds and assists per contest, but Fever coach Pokey Chatman said much of her impact comes on defense.
"What I like about her is she's valuable to us on both sides of the basketball. I'm asking her to get some shots, but I'm also asking her to defend some of the top players in the league as well, and she's responded well," Chatman said.
Mitchell has also started every game after primarily coming off the bench in her first two seasons and missing the end of the 2017 campaign due a right knee injury, derailing what had been a fairly successful sophomore campaign.
It was during that time she was sidelined, however, that Chatman, then in her first year with the Fever, said she got her best glimpse into who Mitchell is as a player.
"It's easy to get a beat on a player when you're in your season. It's tough when your big contract is probably taken away, everyone's gone, it's cold, it's the winter, and you're in the gym, working with physical therapists, doctors, shooting coach, high school coach," Chatman said. "I went to visit her in January and I was just amazed at how much she had bounced back. In that realm, she made her body better as well, put on probably seven, nine pounds of muscle. What I've seen is she's using the video tool, and the game's slowing down for her. She has about seven gears, I tell her to use all of them, and you can see that."
The injury prevented Mitchell from playing overseas in Turkey during the offseason as she had planned, but that may have also helped her better prepare for 2018.
"I just had time to regroup, work on myself mentally, physically, do rehab and get ready for the season," she said.
Now, Mitchell has been thrust into a leadership role for one of the WNBA's youngest teams — rookies like Kelsey Mitchell, Victoria Vivians and Stephanie Mavunga have all played key minutes for the Fever so far, and Mitchell said she has taken some of them under her wing, even if she doesn't feel like a veteran herself.
"I feel like I'm still learning along the way. I feel like I know a little more than some of our rookies though so I try to help them out as much as I can," Mitchell said. "I have a pretty good relationship with most of them. They're willing to listen and work hard, which is what we need on this team to be successful."
Mitchell is also the veteran of a different WNBA group — USC alums in the league, which now includes Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis, Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson. Mitchell has the most experience of the quintet, and she's already faced them all this season.
"It's cool just to know that I was the first from the Dawn Staley era to be in the WNBA," Mitchell said. "So to have them follow after me, it's great just to have more people from South Carolina to play against."
Tiffany Mitchell WNBA stats
2016: 34 games, eight starts, 8.6 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.88 steals per game
2017: 27 games, nine starts, 10.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.15 steals per game
2018: 11 games, 11 starts, 10.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.18 steals per game