Mitchell and Francis were key contributors to the Opals performances at the 2014 FIBA World Championships in Turkey, helping the team to a 5-1 record on their way to the bronze medal.
“I’m so excited to have this opportunity,” said Francis of her opportunity to sign with the Mercury.
“I feel super blessed and am really looking forward to getting over there and facing all challenges head on.”
Francis made the most of her opportunity with the Opals, averaging an impressive 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in 13.3 minutes, finishing the tournament with a +/- of 51.
“I felt so blessed to be with the Opals in Turkey. My journey in getting there was a bit different, but I felt that I played my role to the best of my ability and the additional exposure at the Worlds gave me a great opportunity to be seen.”
Despite stepping into a new scene, Francis will be surrounded by a number of familiar faces at the Mercury, and is looking forward to the challenges presented by the fast-paced style of play in the WNBA.
“I know Sandy [Brondello], having been coached by her before, so for me it seems like a really good fit that I’m excited for,” explained Cayla.
“After speaking with Sandy, we discussed how much attention Brittney gets inside, and how Sandy would look to stretch the defense with my shooting range.
“To play in Phoenix alongside the likes of Brittney Griner and Candice Dupree is something that I’m super excited about.
“I just need to make sure that I go into training camp really focused and rock up completely bodily ready and mentally ready for that challenge.”
Francis backed up her World Championships campaign with a fantastic WNBL season (still in progress), where she has positioned herself as an MVP candidate by averaging 17.2 points and 10.3 rebounds for the league-leading JCU Townsville Fire.
Leilani Mitchell’s inspired play was also a key component of the Opals bronze-medal run at the World Championships, providing much-needed spark and energy off the bench.
“We played really well at the World Championships. It was great to be able to work with Brendan and his assistants, who really pushed me defensively and to be more aggressive offensively,” Mitchell said.
“With the [Sydney Uni] Flames and the Opals, we play really similar to the U.S. and I think that’s what Brendan did a really good job with and why we were so successful at the Worlds. We played that up-tempo game similar to the U.S. and the WNBA, making it hard for other teams to defend us.”
Raised in the States, Mitchell is no stranger to American culture or the style of play that defines one of the strongest Leagues in the world, and is fully equipped to make the necessary adjustments to continue the high-level play in Phoenix.
“For the most part I think the WNBA is much the same, but in the past I’ve always been on the East Coast. I think the Western Conference is a bit closer from top to bottom,” Mitchell continued.
“The Mercury are the defending champions. They raised the bar last season with a high standard, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.
“I was actually drafted by Phoenix, but I was only there for a week. We did a scrimmage against New York and they traded for me. I was a little upset to have to leave, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Phoenix and had a great time in the one week that I was there, so I’m really excited to go back.”
After making a splash in her WNBL debut last season, Mitchell carried her form over for the Sydney Uni Flames this season, averaging a league-best 5.6 assists per game to go along with 12.9 points and 1.3 steals.
“It’s really exciting news,” explained Australian Opals Head Coach Joyce.
“Looking at the figures, it appears as though we’re going to have a record number of Australian players in the WNBA. They’ll have a tremendous opportunity to play against the quickest and most athletic players in the world.”
Joyce, who coached both Francis and Mitchell at the World Championships, sang a chorus of praise at the work ethic of both players upon learning of their signing.
“Full credit to Cayla, who did everything we asked her to do in physically preparing herself to make the Opals squad. She came into camp in the best shape of her life.
“Those changes helped her move up and down the floor much better. She’s always been a very good shooter and making those changes made her even better than she already was on both ends of the floor.
“Cayla took a tough road into the final Opals squad. When Lauren Jackson went down, we called Cayla into the team and she did a wonderful job in the role that she was asked to play.
“We encouraged Leilani to be very aggressive at the World Championships. Even though she came off the bench behind Erin Phillips as our second point guard, she played a lot of minutes and raised her game to another level on the world stage.
“Her performances surprised a lot of people. It didn’t surprise me.”
Whilst Francis’ Fire (15-4, first) are secured a place in the WNBL Finals picture, Mitchell will look to lead the Flames (9-10, equal-fifth) into the final playoff spot over the next two weeks of the WNBL season.
The Opals are scheduled to converge in Canberra again in March.
WNBL Player Bios
Playing number: 22
Previous clubs: AIS 2005/06 – 2007/08, Adelaide 2008/09, 2009/10, Logan 2010/11 – 2011/12, Nantes (France) 2012/13 – 2013-14, Townsville Fire 2014/15 – Current.
Junior Club: Kennewick High School, Washington (USA)
WNBL Clubs: Dandenong Rangers 2013/14; Sydney Uni Flames 2014/15 – Current.