2017 WNBA Preview: Elena Delle Donne brings Washington Mystics one step closer to contention

There are a number of ways to respond after going 13-21 and failing to finish over .500 for the fifth time in six seasons, and landing a top-three player in the league tops the list. In perhaps the biggest power move in league history, Elena Delle Donne worked her way to the Washington Mystics, leaving the Chicago Sky to play within traveling distance of her hometown. The 2015 WNBA MVP will make the Mystics marketable, a nightly must-watch and a real challenger for best in the East. But can she make them WNBA champions?

It’s a heavy question to ask, but Delle Donne is good enough to reverse the misfortunates of a franchise that made the conference finals just once—15 years ago.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 18: Tayler Hill

“If you don’t have a player like her, as a franchise, you’re trying to figure out how to get one,” Kara Lawson, former Mystics guard and current college basketball analyst for ESPN, told The Summitt. “You can’t win the title, especially with the way the league is structured, you can’t win a title without a superstar, and you might be able to argue you can’t win one in the WNBA without multiple superstars.”

[More at The Summitt: The Money Line: Odds, Prediction for WNBA Most Valuable Player]

This is the reality of trying to compete, and getting Delle Donne puts Washington in striking distance of doing so. Last season, she averaged 21.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 48.5% from the field, 42.6% from three and 93.5% from the line. This was an okay year—for her. By Player Efficiency Rating, it was her third-best campaign among her four WNBA seasons, while also ranking in the top 40 among PER seasons in the history of the league.

There’s little answer for a 6’5” anti-position death machine that can shoot off the catch and dribble, handle the ball and muck things up in the paint. Just when you think you’ve got her struggling, she’ll go baseline, post up your best defender and nail her patented spinning fadeaway.

Add this to a Mystics team that already has Emma Meesseman, quietly one of the deadliest weapons in the league, throw in Kristi Toliver, an off-ball assassin formerly of the 2016 champion Sparks, and Washington’s not going to be a middle-of-the-pack offense anymore. Ivory Latta will be back healthy, and she can light it up whenever she damn well pleases. Even a down Tayler Hill year would still give the Mystics some shooting and creation.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 11: Emma Meesseman

You have both Meesseman and Delle Donne who can post up, who can shoot the three, who can shoot the mid-range,” Mike Thibault, head coach of the Mystics, told The Summitt. “So putting them either high-low or opposite sides of the floor gives you a lot of options. Then you add Toliver, Tayler Hill, Ivory, others who are good at pick and rolls, who can create shots for themselves and for others, and all of a sudden you can get spacing on the floor that allows for drives, cuts, post ups, a variety of things.”

There are a ton of fun possibilities, including unleashing a “death lineup” of sorts with Meesseman and Delle Donne up front. Thibault didn’t commit to this idea, only saying he’ll be trying everything, but in spurts, there won’t be much answer to a couple of top-ten players that defy position spreading the floor for a slew of scorers and shooters. A natural reaction to the current roster is bringing up the lack of a “traditional” point guard to run the offense and direct all the talent. It’s hard to see that being a real sticking point given the offensive pedigree, though.

“The game has changed so much, there are every few “just distribute the ball” point guards anymore. I don’t think you can afford to play them,” Thibault said. “I just think we’re in a situation where you just put your best players on the court and you have enough ball handlers to take care of it and not worry about it.”

What the Mystics will have to worry about is defense. They were the W’s third-worst defense last year, albeit while dealing with a host of injuries. On paper, there isn’t much to work with, especially with key players. Meesseman is smart and knows where to be, but struggles with mobility and bigger players. Toliver can work in a team concept, but at her best she’s neutral on that end. Delle Donne‘s impact is entirely dependent on her effort and what position she’s playing. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is a great pest to have, but she’s their most reliable defensive presence. Thibault didn’t sound too concerned about the defense, though the recent news that LaToya Sanders will miss the 2017 season due to injury robs the Mystics of their best rim protector.

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 29: Head coach, Mike Thibault of the Washington Mystics huddles after a play against the San Antonio Stars on June 29, 2016 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

“A lot of people have made the comment that we’re going to have a lot of defensive problems,” Thibault said. “But we have several players who have pretty good defensive consciences.”

Thibault’s preference for offense-first players continued in the draft, taking the three-point extraordinaire Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (54 percent from deep as junior, 46 percent for her career) from Maryland with the sixth pick.

[More at The Summitt: PODCAST: Brenda Frese talks Maryland draftees]

So as it stands, the Mystics will be one of the best teams in the W, but are they true contenders like the Sparks and Lynx?

“Yeah, I think they are,” one WNBA coach said. “Things don’t always play out the way they look on paper.”

WASHINGTON DC – FEBRUARY 08: Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics poses for a photo on February 10, 2017 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

However things play out, it will be difficult to pinpoint exactly how good the Mystics are for quite some time. Most teams that throw stars together on the same roster have an adjustment period to work through.

“It’s going to take some time,” Thibault said. Washington will also be without Meesseman for a part of June while she plays for her native country of Belgium. The Mystics will have some things to figure out, but whether they are contenders or not, they’ve already cleared the biggest hurdle in landing Delle Donne.