Going into the 2013 WNBA draft, everyone knew who the first three picks were going to be. They were the “Three to See”–Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins. The Washington Mystics, however, had the fourth pick.
This was head coach Mike Thibault’s first draft with the Mystics after spending 10 years with the Conecticut Sun. Given he inherited a team that had gone a paltry 5-29 the previous season, he knew that this pick would go a long way to determining his success in D.C. He spent a lot of time with his staff deciding between Tayler Hill, Kelsey Bone, and Tianna Hawkins. Ultimately, Thibault selected Hill, a 5’10” guard from Ohio State who had 2,015 points and 240 steals in college, nabbing her multiple trips to the All-Big Ten first team and defensive team.
“We used to kid her that she was the first pick of the other draft that year,” Thibault told The Summitt on Thursday, ahead of the Mystics’ game against the New York Liberty.
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Just like she was leading up to the draft, Hill has been significantly outshined by the Three to See during her WNBA tenure. But now, with Delle Donne on her team, Hill is in the midst of the best season of her career. She’s averaging 15.5 and 2.7 assists per game. She is in the top 10 in the league in points and three-point shots, and top five in free-throw percentage.
Even on a night like Thursday, when she went an abysmal 0-for-11 shooting and scored all six of her points from the free-throw line, she still made a significant impact with three steals and three assists. (Hill wasn’t the only Mystic to struggle offensively on Thursday; it was an off night for the entire team, which converted less than 31 percent of its shots in an ugly 67-54 victory over the Liberty.)
Numbers like that have her teammates and coaches talking All-Star.
“I’m not too concerned about personal stats, but we’re starting to come together as a team,” Hill told The Summitt. “That’s what matters the most. Chemistry.”
Thibault is pleased–but certainly not surprised–with Hill’s play this year.
“If you’re a high draft pick and you’ve had several years of experience and people though that much of you coming into the league, I would be disappointed if she weren’t at this point,” he said.
Like may players, Hill’s transition into the WNBA wasn’t without its bumps and bruises. She began the 2013 season as one of the starters, but ended up coming off of the bench for all but seven games, averaging only 6.5 points-per-game. Then, she ran into a different type of barrier: motherhood. Hill announced that she was pregnant in December of 2013, and had her son, Maurice, in June 2014.
Hill missed most of the 2014 WNBA season, returning to the team just for the final five games of the season in a reserve roll. After a disappointing first year and such an unexpected second year, it would have been understandable if Hill’s career trajectory became permanently derailed.
But, as Thibault said, Hill stuck with the process and embraced her new challenges.
While Thibault was incredibly supportive of Hill throughout her transition into motherhood, he also made it clear that this is a business, and being a high draft pick didn’t guarantee her anything. She would be welcome back on the team, but only if she put in the work. Both readily admit that they butted heads in the early years.
“From my point of view, all I’m doing, I’m just trying to do things that help her,” Thibault said. “She understands that now; she might not have understood that when she got here.”
Hill says the entire experience made her and Thibault much closer, and at the end of the day, they realized they had much more in common than first impressions might imply. They both love the chaos that comes with big families–Thibault is the oldest of nine siblings, and Hill is the third-oldest of seven. And, while Hill’s on-court poker face might suggest otherwise, she can match the expressive Thibault in the fiery department.
“We had to come to a different understanding about certain things,” Hill said. “Coach T says all the time that I remind him of himself, so you know, you butt heads with somebody just like you, and he says that all the time.”
Hill has embraced her dual role as mother and WNBA star. Her son, Maurice has become a staple in pretty much everything the Mystics do, particularly on social media. He often travels with the team, and can be seen at practices and games. He’s clearly beloved by all of HIll’s teammates. And she freely admits that with her big biological family and her extended Mystics family, the Maurice is spoiled–as the pictures from his third birthday party earlier this month show.
She’s completely devoted to him, but not at the expense of her game on the court. She completely took her game to the next level between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, adding an effective in-the-paint drive to her potent jump shooting. She’s more physical, more focused, more efficient, and more versatile. Last season, she got to the free-throw line 187 times, more than 100 times more than she had any other year of her career. This year, she’s on track to top that, and is converting a staggering 93.5 percent of her shots from the line.
Her teammates are pretty much in awe of her, on and off the court.
“I like to call Tay superwoman,” Hill’s teammate and close friend, third-year guard Natasha Cloud, told The Summitt. “She’s excelling at the highest level our profession has to offer while raising a beautiful baby boy. We have a tough profession and especially on her, she’s a franchise player, there’s a lot on her shoulders, but she never carries that home with her.”
Last year, Hill started every game and led the Mystics in scoring. She finished second in the voting for the Most Improved Player, just behind Elizabeth Williams from the Dream. There were some questions about how she would adapt to the addition of Delle Donne, but teaming with a former MVP certainly hasn’t dampened Hill’s shine.
“I think when someone new comes in you have to learn how to share the ball differently, understand where you and that person can make each other better,” Thibault said. “I think it was an adjustment for her, I think it was, ‘Am I going to get the same kind of shots?’ I think she’s finding out now, I don’t know if she understood this at the start, but she’s getting a little bit easier shots because you don’t have that target on your back the whole game.”
The Mystics actually ended up with three of the top six from the 2013 draft—Delle Donne, who went second to the Sky, was traded to the Mystics in the offseason; and Tianna Hawkins, who went sixth to the Seattle Storm, was traded to the Mystics after her rookie season. Two of the team’s other starters–Mystics’ second-round pick Emma Meesseman and undrafted Tierra Ruffin-Pratt –are from the same class as well.
But Thibault doesn’t for a second regret selecting Hill with his first Mystics pick. And he certainly thinks she has earned the right to play with the best-of-the-best in Seattle next month. She’s currently in seventh place in fan voting for the Eastern conference’s backcourt.
While Hill repeatedly stresses that she is prioritizing defense and not paying attention to her own stats, she can’t deny that getting a nod for the All-Star game would mean a lot to her.
“Yeah, it would,” she said with a smile. “Everyone wants to make the All-Star game.”