The year of the Washington Mystics

The Washington Mystics are ready to run it back.

Last season’s WNBA runners-up got swept in the Finals by the Seattle Storm. The year prior: Swept in the semifinals by the eventual champion Minnesota Lynx. 

Fresh off a 43-point dismantling of the Connecticut Sun, they’re playing like a group that’s eager to get that bad taste out of their mouths. 

“We don’t talk about the Finals,” Mystics head coach and general manager told BBall Index after a recent practice. “We don’t talk about any of that stuff. We did that the first day and then put it aside.”

Thibault is in year seven in Washington after spending a decade with the Sun. And this iteration of the Mystics are right where they’re supposed to be, in pole position to compete for championships after acquiring Elena Delle Donne, a clear top-five player, prior to the start of the 2017 season. 

Nothing about this team’s roster construction is conventional. Superstar players have to wait as many as 10 years—six covered by the rookie scale and two years of restricted free agency, plus four uses of the core designation as permitted under the current collective bargaining agreement— to truly hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. 

Delle Donne requested a trade after her fourth, starting her Mystics tenure in her age 27 season. The club also managed to ink All-Star guard Kristi Toliver as an unrestricted free agent fresh off a 2016 championship run with the Los Angeles Sparks. Emma Meesseman, arguably the team’s second-best player, was a second-round pick in 2013. 

Thibault the GM has continued to add to an impressive resume with how he built out the rest of the roster, surrounding that trio with big guards and versatile forwards.

“I just like up-tempo basketball,” Thibault explained. “It’s good for fans. It’s good for the game. I think having a lot of shooters is the biggest thing. We’ve worked hard to have a team full of shooters right now. The bigger the better, but [they don’t] have to be big as long as they’re great at what they do.”

Delle Donne and Meesseman are fluid operators. The Mystics can feed them on the low block, at the elbow, at the 3-point line or as pick-and-roll partners. Both are more unpredictable as a result, making it tougher for opponents to send extra help their way. 

“I think it’s the way the game—we have posts that can do multiple things—is going,” he added. “The days of a just strictly low post player are hard. Even the ones that were that when they first started, they’re all working on extending. You see Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles working on a face-up shot. [Brittney] Griner shoots more face-up shots. If you’re just a back-to-the-basket post player, you’re gonna get doubled a lot. That’s just the way of the game. So we’ve tried to structure our team with players that do multiple things.”

Meesseman earned an All-Star nod in 2015. She’s also the centerpiece of the Belgian national team. She missed the entire 2018 WNBA season to prepare for the 2018 World Cup and will miss time this summer competing in EuroBasket. 

Back in 2017, her last full WNBA season, she shot 51 percent on post-ups, tallying 1.061 points per possession (66 possessions) per Synergy Sports. As the pick-and-roll roller: 52 possessions, 1.0 PPP. She also shot a career-best 30-of-67 from deep in 2016. 

Meanwhile, Delle Donne’s case as one of the top players in the world is quite straightforward. Her team reaps the benefits of her ability to function like a guard, yet she remains efficient with a steady diet of the most difficult attempts.

In 65 regular season games since the start of the 2017 season, Delle Donne has used 374 possessions in isolation or out of the post and managed 1.059 points per possession per Synergy Sports.

The league’s No. 1 halfcourt offenses in each of the past three seasons: 0.955 PPP (Seattle, 2017), 0.972 PPP (Phoenix, 2018), Washington (0.937, 2019 through Saturday).

Or take Essence Carson’s 2018 season with the Sparks. She was the sixth-most efficient spot-up player, using 113 possessions and tallying 1.097 PPP on spot-ups per Synergy Sports. 

Drop Delle Donne’s much larger post-up and isolation sample from this three-year run into the spot-up leaderboard—which generally consists of much easier catch-and-shoot opportunities—and she’d rank in the top-10 in all but one season dating back to 2010. 

Washington opponents must prepare for Delle Donne and Meesseman posting up or facing up to isolate, but the value they add on every other trip down the floor can’t be quantified. They’re opening up the lane for their teammates to drive or slash and kick at will. 

“They can pass, they can shoot threes, they can drive it, they can post up,” Thibault said. “It makes you hard to scout, harder to defend. Spacing becomes such a huge thing in the game nowadays, and we’re finally getting to that point. We’re better with our spacing now than we were last year.”

Washington’s spacing, of course, calls for the players around Delle Donne and Meesseman to consistently make open 3-pointers. The Mystics are generating plenty of them. 35.9 percent of their field goal attempts have been 3-pointers per WNBA.com, the highest mark in the league. 

Toliver is the team’s constant on the perimeter, both as a spot-up threat and with her gravity as an off-the-dribble shooter. She shot 46.8 percent (62 attempts) on all pull-up jumpers last regular season and 37.8 percent on 45 pull-up 3-point attempts per WNBA.com. 

Toliver is a dangerous pick-and-roll partner with Delle Donne or Meesseman. How do you close the pull-up shooting windows? Switching can leave you vulnerable to either bulldozing guards in the post. 

The surrounding cast of guards and wings are led by Natasha Cloud, a former second-round pick that has grown year over year into a steady two-way presence.

“It’s been huge,” Thibault said. “If she hadn’t improved like this, our team wouldn’t be the same. She’s as good as any guard in the league at pushing the pace with the ball in her hands.” 

Cloud has also worked hard on her 3-point shot, the key to unlocking her as a scoring threat when she isn’t pushing it up the floor or getting to the rim. 

“That was my biggest thing, to be more of an offensive threat this year,” Cloud told BBall Index. “Everyone knows that I can play defense and that I can pass the ball, but being able to make people commit to me more on the offensive end to make Elena’s job easier, to make Kristi’s job easier.” 

“She’s grown tremendously not just on the court but as a leader,” Delle Donne added. “She’s found a voice. She’s found ways to be a leader for us on the court. She’s worked on her shot. All offseason I’ve seen her in the gym working on those shots. So we have the utmost confidence in her. She’s got the confidence to shoot it. 

“When you’ve got five scoring threats on the floor, that makes it really tough to play defense. We know in scouts when were playing a team that has five threats, it’s like, ‘Alright, where are we gonna help from? What are we gonna do?’ We wanna put teams in the same position.” 

Thibault found many of Washington’s ancillary scoring threats later in the draft or via moves on the fringes, so to speak. 

Starting wing Ariel Atkins was a bit of a surprise on draft night in 2018 at No. 7. Guards like Victoria Vivians, Kia Nurse and Lexie Brown were still on the board. Thibault opted for Atkins, who shot nearly 36 percent from deep last season and earned a Second Team All-Defense nod. The 3-and-D label gets tossed around freely. Not in this case. 

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Aerial Powers are counted on for similar contributions off the bench. Walker-Kimbrough, the 2017 No. 6 overall pick, played sparingly in her first two seasons. Powers was acquired in a deal last season with the Dallas Wings.

Kiara Leslie, the No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft, is currently sidelined after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The initial release noted an expected three-to-four month timetable, leaving the door open for a mid-to-late August debut. 

Tianna Hawkins has become one of the league’s quintessential stretch bigs. 12-of-46 3-point shooting in 2017 was a career-best. 25-of-70 last season raised some eyebrows. She made 16-of-33 through 12 games this year. Hawkins can be paired with any other big, still opening up the floor for Washington’s guards to attack downhill.

2018 second-round pick Myisha Hines-Allen is only playing about eight minutes per game but is the exact kind of player you’d expect Thibault to take a flier on—big, strong, skilled with good feet and a developing face-up game. 

“They’re everything for this team,” Delle Donne said. “Now that they found their role and know who they are and have that confidence, it makes us a better team. It’s always hard when you’re on the quest of trying to figure out what type of player you are and what you can bring to this league. Everybody knows how great they are and the kind of struggles they’ve been through, which only made them better. They’re crucial.”

And with Meesseman’s absences in mind, nobody has been more invaluable around Washington’s star trio than LaToya Sanders. The seventh-year pro logged a career-high 686 minutes last season, starting 34 regular season and playoff games at center. 

Such contributions from Sanders were hardly a given. She battled anemia early last season after missing all of 2017 (plantar fasciitis) and most of 2016 (playing for Turkey at 2016 Olympics). 

“She’s the most underrated defensive player in our league by far,” Thibault said.

“I think she should be Defensive Player of the Year. I think she’s been so underrated and people look past her,” added Delle Donne. “She almost bails us out too much at times where we don’t hold ourselves accountable because we’re like, ‘LaToya’s got our back. We’ll be good.’ She gives us so much confidence on the defensive end.

Washington opponents average the second-fewest number of shot attempts from the restricted area (16.3) per game and shoot just 56.1 percent on those attempts, the third-lowest mark allowed league-wide per WNBA.com. 

“Even offensively, she’s so efficient,” Delle Donne added. “She does everything she needs to do to make us better and uplift the team. Toya’s a monster for us.”

Sanders is the lone member of Washington’s rotation you won’t see hoisting open 3-pointers given the opportunity. She did, however, shoot a scorching 57.3 percent on 96 midrange attempts last season.

“She’s worked really hard on her shooting to make people play her honestly,” Thibault said. “When she first came in the league, everyone thought of her as a 10-feet-and-in player. Now she’s become a consistent 17-foot shooter, and that opens up the game for her a little bit and makes other centers pay for not guarding her honestly.” 

Sanders really holds the team together on the other end. Listed at 6-foot-2, she’s much shorter and smaller than many of the league’s top centers. She makes up for it with her length, feet and tremendous instincts that unlock the team’s switching defense. 

“I talk about versatility a lot offensively but we’re just as versatile defensively,” Delle Donne explained. “When we’re able to just switch a pick, it really takes people out of their offense. And when you don’t have to over-help a guard that’s being posted up, it makes such a difference because then we can stay out on shooters.”

Cloud and Atkins, in particular, are big and strong enough to jostle with bigs in the paint. And when a guard does get stuck inside in an unfavorable matchup, Sanders is often the one to execute a second switch behind the ball to get them out of it. 

“It creates a team confidence in each other,” Thibault said. “We talk a lot about trust as a team—trusting teammates on both ends of the floor.” It’s, ‘I know that somebody’s always got my back covered.’ There’s always gonna be talking and looking out for us. We’re not an exceptional defensive team by any means. We’re getting better. 

“But that’s been a good part of it, knowing, ‘Hey, [Natasha], you can switch onto this person. Hey Elena, you can switch onto a guard and keep ‘em in front of you.’ That’s a big plus.”

“Everyone knows that we can score,” Cloud added. “We have two of the best perimeter scorers in the entire league in Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne. But it’s getting it done on the defensive end that’s gonna win us a championship.”

The current core of Delle Donne, Toliver and Meesseman is now in its third season. The surrounding pieces have gotten better, but has the league started treating the team’s three stars differently or made any progress in making life tougher for them? 

“It’s a little bit easier for them now without Meesseman here,” Thibault said. “I think when you have her and Delle Donne on the floor together, it’s a little harder. Elena is getting a lot of attention. They’re trying different defenses on her—switching and doubling and doing all of those things. 

“The primary thing every night is people trying to take her out of our offense, and what she’s gotten better at is being a better distributor and passer. And she knows there are nights that she has to give up some of her scoring to balance out our offense. That’s probably been the biggest thing, is after playing together people are saying, ‘We’re going to take her away,’ or ‘We’re going to take Kristi away,’ or whatever it is.”

Once again, Delle Donne is on track to finish with a turnover percentage below 8.5, something she has done every season of her career per Basketball-Reference. That number looks like a typo next to many high-usage stars, who typically finish closer to 13 percent. And Washington’s team turnover percentage—15.2 through Sunday, lowest in the league—has followed suit.  

Another strong indicator of the team’s offensive development: 62 percent of Delle Donne’s made field goals to date have been assisted, up from last season’s mark (55.9) and her previous career-high (57.1) per WNBA.com. 

Most of this has happened without Meesseman. The Mystics have rattled off five straight wins dating back to a June 18 win over the Sparks. Meesseman and reserve guard Kim Mestdagh departed for EuroBasket after the team’s June 5 win over the Chicago Sky. (Mestdagh’s ceiling with this year’s team is still unknown. Shey Peddy was brought on to fill a roster spot while both are gone.) 

One of the most fascinating questions of the 2019 season faces Thibault upon her return: Does Sanders continue to start? 

Both will play, a lot, regardless. 

But a lineup change would break up a group that outscored opponents by 29.0 points per 100 possessions in 293 minutes last season (and by 17.9 points per 100 through 181 minutes this season) per WNBA.com. 

Strip the argument down and you’d be exchanging some defensive versatility and A-plus rim protection (Sanders) for more creation and scoring balance (Meesseman). 

The Mystics need Sanders on defense for obvious reasons. The 4 and 5 positions are the most demanding in the WNBA, featuring do-it-all forwards like Candace Parker and post-up threats like Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner and Liz Cambage. 

Do they need 30-plus minutes of Meesseman? Can they put the ball in her hands enough without turning her into too much of a jump shooter?

That was the issue in the 2017 playoffs, where she shot 19-of-63 from the field, 3-of-13 from deep and 6-of-27 from midrange. 

Maybe they play the matchups or experiment with both lineups. But time is precious. The Mystics are rolling. Other contenders will pick up steam as the season progresses. Diana Taurasi (back) is due back soon for the Mercury. Parker (hamstring) is working her way back in L.A. The Aces could crash the party in year one of the A’ja Wilson-Liz Cambage pairing. 

But the Mystics don’t feel any pressure. 

“I don’t see it as pressure. I see it as owning that motto,” Cloud said, referring to the ‘Run It Back’ slogan that has been attached to many social media posts from the team’s official accounts. “We dropped the ball last year. We got to the Finals and we got swept. So owning that, feeling that of last year, not carrying it, and letting it move us forward this season has been the biggest thing.”

“I think this team has been good—it’s the reason we got so far last year—staying in the moment of whatever’s next on the schedule,” Thibault added. “I think that’s the only way you can be successful, and they’ve bought into that.” 

Or, as Delle Donne put it, they understand that the lofty expectations are a good thing.

“The reason we play this game is to win a championship,” she said. “We’re all old enough and mature enough to know that you don’t just put a championship there and expect you’re gonna get there. We know the importance of every day—coming in with a focus, needing to get better. This team’s able to handle that. Pressure is a good thing. It means you’re not the underdog anymore, that you’ve spent years of being good. So I think we welcome that.”

graphic by Akshay Ram

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