Washington Mystics Preview: Adjusting to life without Emma Meesseman

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Elena Delle Donne
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Elena Delle Donne /

No Emma Meesseman doesn’t mean no hope for the Washington Mystics.

Look, there’s no way to beat around the bush: When Emma Meesseman decided to skip this WNBA season due to both Belgian National Team commitments and a bit of burn-out, the Washington Mystics suffered a big blow.

Meesseman has been the best player on the team for much of her five years on the squad, and she and Elena Delle Donne make an incredibly dangerous frontcourt duo.

However, at the Mystics’ Media Day earlier this month, nobody on the Mystics’ roster or coaching staff was throwing themselves a pity party. They’re actually incredibly optimistic about their chances this season.

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“That’s not a negative about Emma, Emma’s a terrific player,” head coach Mike Thibault said. “But teams are fluid.”

Honestly, it’s not hard to find reasons to be excited about the season if you’re a Mystics fan. Here’s what you need to know about a team that has a chance to be special, even with one of its best players half a world a way.

The returning core has great chemistry

Even without Meesseman, the Mystics have a solid group of starters and role players returning this season. Delle Donne is in her second year with the team, and is miles more comfortable in D.C. now, especially after spending the offseason nearby and training regularly with her teammates Tierra Ruffin Pratt, Tayler Hill, and Tianna Hawkins.

Center Krystal Thomas, and guards Kristi Toliver, Natasha Cloud, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are all back as well. Two players who weren’t here last season — LaToya Sanders and Mo Currie — both have played with Thibault, Hill, and Ruffin-Pratt here in D.C. in the past, too. It’s an incredibly tight-knit group, and they think that will transfer to the court.

“Last year it was like a first date, no one wants to step on each others toes, just getting to know each other,” Delle Donne said. “And then this year, it’s just family. Such a different vibe, we can feel it on the court. We’re not afraid to make mistakes, there’s a lot of energy, and much better communication.”

Elena Delle Donne is comfortable back at the four

As we mentioned, there’s not really a true upside to Meesseman being gone, but if you had to find one, it would be the fact that this frees up Delle Donne to play in the four position, which is her sweet spot — last season, Meesseman often played the four, and Delle Donne had to adjust to the three.

“I love playing the four, this year I’m going back to my comfort zone, so I think it’ll be a good move,” Delle Donne said.

Mo Currie was the biggest off-season acquisition

Of course, official lineups have not been revealed, but by the sound of things at media day, a big reason why everyone is comfortable moving Delle Donne back to the four is because Mo Currie can slide into the three position.

Currie signed with the Mystics in the offseason, and Thibault said the team is going to rely heavily on her to score at least 10 points a night, and provide key veteran leadership — which is something the team is lacking a bit, since Ivory Latta wasn’t brought back this year.

Coach Thibault’s priority is spacing and pacing

Last season, the Mystics struggled offensively — they only shot 41.6 percent from the field, which was third-worst in the league, and while they led the league in three-point attempts, they were once again towards the bottom of the league in three-point percentage. Thibault is determined to change that this season.

During training camp, the Mystics kept the Wizards’ three-point line on the practice court, meaning they’ve been shooting from the NBA three-point line. Thibault has had players like Ruffin-Pratt, Hawkins, and Cloud working on their perimeter game, and has stressed the importance of good spacing and up-tempo play.

If the Mystics can increase their field-goal percentage this year, they’ll just need to focus on maintaining their rebounding success — last year’s breakout Mystics performer was center Krystal Thomas, and she’s back again this year.

Tianna Hawkins for most improved

Tianna Hawkins has been the talk of training camp. She stayed in the D.C. area for most of the offseason, and put in long, hard hours in the weight room and on the court. She’s lost a significant amount of weight — Shatori Walker-Kimbrough remarked, “She’s as skinny as me!” — and has really impressed her teammates and the coaching staff with her expanded range and ball handling. Most Improved Player? Sixth Woman of the Year? It’s all on the table.

“Tianna has done an amazing job, transforming her body, transforming her game. She’s put in a lot of time,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “You should see a big, big improvement from Tianna. I expect great things from her this year.”

The timeline for Tayler Hill’s return still questionable

Tayler Hill was in contention for an All-Star spot last year when the tore her ACL. Her rehab has been going pretty well, but she’s not ready to play yet — and Thibault is insistent that they won’t rush her back.  Right now the target for her return is a vague, “Sometime in June.”

The Mystics really missed Hill last year, who was reliably their second-leader scorer behind Delle Donne, and a force running the offense, driving to the basket, and drawing fouls. A healthy Cloud will help fill some of that void, as could an improved Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, and rookie first-round draft pick Ariel Atkins should get some opportunities early in the season with Hill out.

But if the Mystics want to contend for a title, they’re going to need Hill healthy and in All-Star form late in the season.

The goals are lofty

Last year, the Mystics were incredibly up-and-down during the regular season, but made a surprise run to the semifinals of the playoffs. There, they ran into the Minnesota Lynx and were pretty routinely dismissed.

“We want to go all the way, we want to win a championship,” Delle Donne said. “We saw what it takes, we played against the team that won it all.”

Next: Read all of our WNBA previews here!

The Mystics are a much deeper and more well-rounded team this season, but it’s still hard to imagine them being able to take down a team like the Lynx or the Los Angeles Sparks without a second big star, like Meesseman can be when she’s at her best. But if the team can get some breakthrough performances from players like Hawkins, Currie, and Ruffin-Pratt, Hill returns in form, and everyone stays healthy, they’re not going to be an easy out.