The Washington Mystics are on a roll.
Coach Mike Thibault’s crew heads into Tuesday night’s game against the Dallas Wings (8 PM EST, ESPN2) on a four-game winning streak. They are currently 5-2 on the season, and are only looking up to the Minnesota Lynx in the standings.
But the Mystics are still struggling on offense, shooting only 40.3 percent from the field, which is dead last in the league. They’re gritting out games without the help of All-Star forward/center hybrid Emma Meesseman, who is in Belgium for most of the month playing with the national team.
How are the Mystics overcoming such poor shooting and an extended absence of one of their best players? Well, they’re getting back to fundamentals: eliminating turnovers, converting free throws, and grabbing lots of rebounds.
The Mystics are tied with the Atlanta Dream with the fewest turnovers in the league this season. They’re also second in the league (trailing only the Dallas Wings) in free throws made, and second to only the Seattle Storm in free throw percentage at 87.9 percent.
But most surprisingly, the Mystics lead the league in rebounds with 38 per game.
“For those of you who talked to us during preseason, one of our goals was to be a better rebounding team, and we’ve been consistent about that since the start of the season,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said after the team’s home win over the Chicago Sky at the end of May. “I don’t even look at numbers, I look at offensive and defensive rebound percentage, and right now we’re leading the league. If you had told me that a year ago at this time I would have shook my head because we were at the bottom.”
It’s especially surprising that the Mystics are rebounding that well without Meesseman, who missed the preseason because of her overseas commitments as well. The 6’4″ Belgian is a disruptive presence on defense and a dangerously efficient presence on offense—in addition to averaging about six rebounds per game, she averaged above 52 percent from the field in 2014-2016, with a career-best 55.6 percent in 2015.
She simply cannot be replaced. But Krystal Thomas, a capable center in her sixth year in the league, has done a very commendable job starting in Meeseman’s place, averaging about eight points and nine rebounds per game since Meesseman left.
Thomas adds some much-needed aggressiveness and length inside, and has seamlessly established chemistry with the other starters, a fact that Thibault attributes to the fact that Thomas was the team’s starting center in training camp and preseason while Meesseman was finishing up her season in Russia.
“My job was going to be the same whether I started or whether I came off the bench; to bring energy, to defend and to rebound,” Thomas told The Summitt after her first start earlier this month. “That’s just going to be my focus every time I’m out there, no matter where I’m coming from. As long as I’m on the floor, that’s what I am going to do.”
Tianna Hawkins has also provided a huge inside spark for the team off of the bench. The Maryland graduate is in her fourth year with the Mystics, and is finally back at full strength after missing the 2015 season due to pregnancy and part of the 2016 season with a concussion. In the last four games, she’s averaged almost 11 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes on the floor.
“[Thomas is] such a good defensive presence. Our rebounding is good with her. And Tianna has been so good, you can rotate those two minute wise, and you get some pretty good production,” Thibault said when discussing the team’s future gameplan without Meesseman.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that 2015 WNBA MVP was traded to the Mystics in the offseason and is settling into beltway life pretty quickly.
Elena Delle Donne grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds in Sunday’s nail-biting win over the Atlanta Dream, and she’s also averaging 20.3 points per game despite the fact that she’s still getting used to a brand new system and a fresh set of teammates. There’s a bit more pressure on Delle Donne without Meesseman there this month, but pressure never has bothered the Delaware native.
“Everybody just has to step up and do a little bit more in their role. No one can replace Emma,” Delle Donne told The Summitt. “We’re definitely going to miss her for a full month, but if everybody can do just a little bit more, hopefully we can hold our own until she comes back.”
Last year, Meesseman was the best player on the team. This year, there’s a talent-rich roster in place to rally around her and hold things together while she’s gone. But make no mistake — her post presence and offensive efficiency are sorely missed, particularly now that injuries to Natasha Cloud, Tayler Hill, and Asia Taylor have further depleted the Mystics’ bench.
“I don’t think we’re even close to our offensive chemistry,” Thibault said on Sunday. “We’re winning despite not playing well.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the WNBA.