Somewhere in the back of her mind, LSU fifth-year senior forward Ayana Mitchell’s heard the soft-spoken words “Get up, you’re OK” as motivation during her latest rehabilitation process.
Seven weeks after knee surgery for a season-ending ACL injury sustained Feb. 2 in a home win vs. Texas A&M, Mitchell has found inspiration from the last time her four-year-year nephew Jae’son Mitchell watched her play.
“When he sees me play, he lights up,” Mitchell said. “He was standing right behind the bench and I fell down the last time he came to see me play. I could hear him telling me to get up, that I was OK. That symbolic thing of me falling and saying that I could get up mattered to me.”
Resiliency has become a byword on Mitchell’s journey to and through LSU, overcoming a torn ACL as a freshman at Salmen High in Conyers, Ga. before missing almost all her Tigers’ freshman season with a back injury.
She wasn’t certain of ever playing again because of the severity of the injury. Yet she bounced back, twice being named team captain and selected first-team All-SEC.
Now, she hopes WNBA teams know she can indeed ‘get up’ from her latest bout of adversity when the league virtual draft unfolds tonight on ESPN starting at 6 p.m. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert will announce the selections during the three-round, 36-player draft.
“If I get drafted, that would be great, and I would appreciate someone taking a chance on me,” Mitchell said. “I’m working very hard to get back. I still love the game. That’s not the ending the way it’s supposed to be. If I don’t (get drafted), I’ll still be working and have another chance next year.”
Mitchell has remained in Baton Rouge since the end of LSU’s 20-10 season, which was expected to yield the Tigers an NCAA tournament at-large berth until the tourney was cancelled because of COVID-19.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen Friday,” Mitchell said earlier this week of her draft prospects. “I’m not sure if I’ll watch it or not. A couple of teams have contacted (LSU coach) Nikki (Fargas) and (LSU women’s basketball trainer) Micki (Collins) about my status and asked for medical updates. I personally haven’t spoken to any teams.”
In the event Mitchell goes undrafted, she embraces the option of playing overseas in what would serve as a proving ground toward playing in the WNBA.
“I was probably going regardless,” she said of playing overseas. “After my injury, I need to get back in a groove anyway.”
Despite the medical setbacks, Mitchell established a solid collegiate resume’. She’s only the 15th player in school history with more than 700 points and 700 rebounds.
Mitchell became the 33rd LSU player to score 1,000-plus points. Her 1,275 career points ranks 21st on the school’s career scoring list. She finished with a career scoring average of 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds, and a 59.3 field goal percentage.
“I played basketball because I loved it, but I liked other stuff as well,” said Mitchell, who will complete her Interdisciplinary Studies degree in May. “I honestly didn’t think I would be good enough to get a scholarship to play in college until my junior year of high school. When I got to LSU, I just wanted to do my job. I didn’t want to be a superstar. I guess by doing my job it allowed other things to happen for me.”
Two seasons after back surgery, Mitchell enjoyed her best season in 2018-19 earning a spot on both the All-SEC and All-Louisiana first teams. She started in all 29 games, averaging career bests in scoring (13.5), rebounds (10.5) and leading the team in steals (48).
This past season, her season-ending injury halted a stretch of 80 consecutive starts going back to her redshirt sophomore season.
Mitchell finished her shortened season averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1.3 steals, and registered nine double-doubles. She had season highs in points (24) against Tennessee and rebounds (16) against Missouri, and also led the SEC and was third nationally in field goal percentage (67.9).
But unfortunately, a college career that started with that back injury in just the third game of her freshman season ended with a second torn ACL in LSU’s 59-58 home victory over then-No. 15 Texas A&M.
With freshman Tiara Young missing the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation, Mitchell and a Texas A&M player simultaneously got their hands on the rebound. A back-and-forth tussle ensued, resulting in Mitchell’s left knee buckling.
Unfortunately, Mitchell had a reference point for the immediate pulsating pain. After 11 minutes of play of an eventual win that pushed LSU’s record to 16-5, not only was the game over for her but also her season and college career.
“I wasn’t so much worried about my career or the season being over for me,” said Mitchell, who was one of 10 finalists for the Katrina McClain Award as the nation’s top power forward. “I was just in a lot of pain and after I calmed down a bit, then my focus turned to my teammates. I wanted to let them know that I was OK, and I still wanted them to handle their business and not worry about me.
“I went to the back and the doctor looked at me and I didn’t need him to tell me the results. I’d been through it before. I just wanted to know how my girls were doing. I went to the locker room and finished watching the game. I was yelling at the TV in the third and fourth quarter.”
Mitchell’s road to a full recovery is on schedule, per her last doctor’s visit. She has video documentation of her jogging on a treadmill, doing squats with weights, single-leg squats and stair climbing, all geared toward rebuilding hamstring and quadricep strength.
There have been many small victories during the rehab infancy stages. But as the faith-based Mitchell has previously experienced, those are balanced with numerous pain-filled low moments and uncertainty.
“I know what it feels like and I’ve been able to push through a lot more because my mental and emotional levels have matured over the years,” Mitchell said. “Every day I’m doing something to get back to being normal. I’m exactly where I need to be, which is amazing with what’s going on.
“The draft and playing professionally wasn’t necessarily something I really wanted to do. I know it would be a big accomplishment for me and for my family. I have younger nephews and cousins that aren’t in the best situation. I want to show them that you can do it, no matter where we come from. I kind of want to do it and be an example for them, so I’ve got to stand up and be OK.”