LOS ANGELES -- A year ago during the WNBA playoffs, Yvonne Turner was wondering if she would ever get a chance in the league. Meanwhile, Leilani Mitchell had played eight years in the WNBA, but she wasn't sure where she would be in 2017.
Now here we are in the Los Angeles-Phoenix semifinal series -- Game 2 is Thursday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET) -- and both guards are important cogs for their team.
In the offseason, they signed with the Mercury, a team that had to remake its entire roster around the star duo of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. Mitchell and Turner started this season as reserves, but then were elevated to the starting lineup at different times in August. And it has worked for Phoenix.
"They can score the basketball, and we need that -- people who can stretch the defense because they need to be guarded," Taurasi said. "That's helped us."
This is Mitchell's second go-round with the team that initially drafted her in the second round back in 2008, although she didn't play with the Mercury then. She was traded to New York, where she stayed for six seasons. She spent the 2015 season with Phoenix. Then she played just 10 WNBA games last year -- all with Washington -- spending most of the summer with the Australian national team, preparing for and playing in the Olympics.
Mitchell has been very good at hitting clutch perimeter shots; ultimately that was why she moved into the starting lineup. Danielle Robinson, who joined the Mercury via trade in January, had started most of the season at point guard. She's a defensive standout and a good distributor, but she has never been a 3-point shooter. And with as much attention as opposing defenses give to double-teaming Griner, Phoenix realized it had to have more perimeter scoring besides Taurasi.
In Phoenix's first- and second-round playoff victories over Seattle and Connecticut, Mitchell combined for 29 points and eight assists. In Tuesday's semifinal opener against the Sparks, a 79-66 loss, Mitchell led the Mercury with 19 points, hitting five 3-pointers. Taurasi struggled Tuesday -- she scored six points, a playoff low for her -- but Mitchell helped keep Phoenix in the game.
"It's a lot about confidence, and my shot feels good right now, so I'm not hesitating," said Mitchell, whose 8.0 points-per-game average this season was the second best of her WNBA career. "It's been hours and hours of work, and I'm lucky that my teammates and coaches believe in me and trust me to take big shots."
Turner, meanwhile, is a WNBA rookie who will turn 30 in October. She's one of the best stories in the league this year (or any year).
"Definitely a dream come true; it all still seems a little surreal right now," said Turner, who went undrafted after finishing her college career at Nebraska in 2010. "I'm still in awe. I worked hard to be here. But if you had asked me last year if I would be playing with Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner and in the playoffs, I probably wouldn't have said that would be my future. I'm just thankful to be a part of this."
Turner has competed overseas since she finished her college career, and she got looks at WNBA training camps in Chicago and San Antonio in past years. But she didn't catch on with either team. Rather than get discouraged, she continued to improve her game and was the top scorer in EuroLeague last season at 18.8 PPG while playing for Uniqa Sopron in Hungary.
"Her journey has been unbelievable," said Taurasi, who was EuroLeague's second-leading scorer at 17.9 PPG for UMMC Ekaterinburg. "We've been watching her while playing overseas the last few years, but the opportunity to get in the WNBA just wasn't arriving for her.
"You could tell the dynamic ability she had, and you kind of wondered why it didn't translate into the WNBA. I think it really was that she just never got the right chance."
Considering there are just 12 spots on 12 teams, you see how this can happen. Turner was a player who kept improving but didn't know if she'd ever be in the right place at the right time when a WNBA door would open.
But last overseas season, she vowed to herself that she would go all-out to prove how good she could be. Her support system of family and friends gave her some advice, too.
"It was like, 'You're not feisty or aggressive enough. You need more killer instinct,' " Turner said. "And I said, 'OK, I'm going to change my mentality.' It helped me get to where I am now."
Coach Sandy Brondello has been pleased with what both Mitchell and Turner have brought to Phoenix. From Turner she has seen a player who has learned how to control her game better, and who is open to coaching and trying to do whatever the Mercury need.
"Coaching in Russia gave me a good view of her, and I liked the things she did," Brondello said. "Her athleticism, her scoring ability and her defensive capabilities as well. We knew we needed to get quicker, and get more scoring punch. She's learned to pick her moments when to attack, and is playing with more poise. She's been great for us."
As for the 5-foot-5 Mitchell, her size has always made her seem like a bit of an underdog, the kind everyone roots for. Although, she typically doesn't even think like that.
"It's funny, because I don't feel as small as I actually am," she said, laughing. "Then when I watch film, it's like, 'Oh, yeah, I am tiny.' But I think I do sort of use it to my advantage when I can, use my speed and quickness.
"I think I can set good screens on people; I have a low center of gravity and I can hold the screen. There's been a lot of people who doubted me, but at the same time a lot who believed in me and worked with me to develop my all-around game. I've had people behind me the whole way."