Big things expected for these Mystics
Days before the start of the 2018 season, High Post Hoops’ Lindsay Gibbs wrote that the Washington Mystics were “a team that has a chance to be special, even with one of its best players half a world away.” Gibbs’ words proved prescient as the Mystics tied their best record in franchise history (22-12) and advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time ever.
It’s admittedly tough to top that, but Mystics fans should not expect a drop-off. All five starters return, led by 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne. Oh, and that player Gibbs mentioned, half a world away? That would be forward Emma Meesseman, the Belgian international who is back for 2019.
The Mystics open the 2019 season on May 25 at Connecticut. One week later, they’ll host their first-ever game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, the team’s brand-new home in southeast DC. The new arena seats 4,200 fans and will hopefully alleviate the scheduling constraints that caused the team to play their postseason games on the campuses of George Washington University and George Mason University last year instead of at Capital One Arena.
Will Delle Donne’s dominance, Meesseman’s return, and some good new-arena vibes bring the WNBA championship trophy to DC for the first time ever? The Vegas Sportsbooks think so; as of May 13, they are giving the Mystics 5-2 odds, best in the league and ahead of three other teams at 5-1. Let’s take a closer look at what could be in store for women’s basketball in the nation’s capital this summer.
Returning a Lot of Talent
The Mystics are led by the veteran duo of forward Elena Delle Donne (20.7 points, 7.2 rebounds per game in 2018) and guard Kristi Toliver (13.9 points, 4.4 assists). Second-year guard Ariel Atkins (11.3 PPG) and veteran forward LaToya Sanders (10.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG) round out the team’s double-figure scorers from a season ago, while fifth starter Natasha Cloud chipped in better than eight points, three rebounds, and four assists per game. Tianna Hawkins, a 6-3 center who can also shoot from deep, and Aerial Powers, who arrived in DC via a late-season trade, each added six points per game off the bench. All seven of those players return in 2019.
In total, the Mystics return nearly every major contributor from last season’s team. Their top five scorers, top three rebounders, five most prolific three-point shooters, top four in assists, top five in steals, and top four shot-blockers all return. All five players who had an above-average efficiency rating return. Even the Mystics’ three best free-throw shooters (minimum 15 attempts) are back!
In fact, the Mystics return at least 73% of last season’s production* in every category on Basketball-Reference**:
*This assumes that all returning players make the 2019 12-woman roster. More on how the roster could shake out is below.
**Every category for which it makes sense to do this calculation. Fouls and turnovers not shown.
Most impressively, the team returns 94% of its total win shares and 99% of its offensive win shares from a season ago. Win shares are an estimate of the number of wins that a player is responsible for, so returning 94% certainly gives Mystics fans reason to dream big.
And that’s before we even get to Meesseman.
Bringing Emma Meesseman Back
Meesseman is a 6-4 forward who played five seasons for the Mystics before sitting out 2018 to focus on playing for the Belgian National Team. The move certainly paid off: she averaged 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds in the 2018 FIBA World Cup in September, which ranked second and first, respectively, among all players in the competition. And Belgium finished fourth out of 16 teams, an excellent result ahead of Olympic qualifying tournaments later this year.
In 2017, Meesseman averaged 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game alongside Delle Donne and contributed 2.5 win shares. With her back in the fold, post depth will be a strength for the Mystics in 2019. Last month, head coach Mike Thibault said he expected to play five forwards, with Sanders, Hawkins, and second-year pro Myisha Hines-Allen rounding out the quintet. “It’s hard to get more than four in the game,” Thibault said. “Having five that are really good, that’s a nice position to be in.”
It is an open question, though, how Thibault will manage that rotation. Last year, Thibault often played with three guards, Delle Donne at the four, and Sanders at the five. In 2017, Delle Donne played a lot on the wing—not her natural position—while Meesseman and former Mystics center Krystal Thomas worked on the inside. Thibault said last month that Meesseman’s return would allow the Mystics to put Delle Donne on the wing “once in a while if we want to,” but a big, three-forward lineup will likely not be his primary option. We’ll also have to see how Meesseman and Delle Donne’s chemistry is after a year apart. Meesseman’s best season and lone All-Star nod came in 2015, before Delle Donne’s arrival in DC, and like Delle Donne, Meesseman might play out of position at times this season.
An Injured First-Round Pick
On April 10, the night of the 2019 WNBA Draft, Thibault was joyous after selecting Kiara Leslie with the No. 10 pick. It was the second straight year Thibault picked a player who was not expected to be drafted in the first round. Yet he said that his staff “felt that this was the most ready player as far as playing both ends of the court. Kiara is defensive ready already for our league.”
Thibault said he expected Leslie to contribute on both ends of the court this season after a senior season in which she averaged 15.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.1 steals for North Carolina State. He called her “that ultimate wing runner” and compared her to Atkins, last year’s first-round pick who started 24 of 29 games and made Second-Team All-Defense in her rookie season. “We felt [Leslie] was in the same mold,” Thibault said. “She’s not intimidated by big games. She’s kind of one of those level, steady big players that kind of translates well to our league.”
However, shortly before the Mystics’ first exhibition game, Thibault announced that Leslie had had arthroscopic knee surgery and will miss three to four months. He will likely lean on Atkins for additional minutes, and once Powers returns from a minor gluteal injury suffered in that exhibition game, she will also be relied upon on the wing. Despite learning plays on the fly at times last season, Powers posted an excellent player efficiency rating of 21.7 in 9 games with DC. (The average PER is 15.0, and Delle Donne’s 27.3 PER ranked third in the league in 2018.) If Powers can find her rhythm and give the Mystics some scoring punch in her first full season with the team, that will help Thibault keep Atkins fresh and make the team even harder to defend.
Even with so many veterans returning, the Mystics have a few unanswered questions entering the 2019 season. First and foremost, Thibault will be looking for more 3-point shooting. His team actually ranked among the top five in 3-point shooting percentage and in 3-point attempts last season, but Thibault thought a lack of 3-point shooting hurt the Mystics in the playoffs. “When you get to the highest level of our league and you get to the semi-finals or the finals, you can’t afford to have teams cheat on you defensively and leave people open,” he said. “We need players that consistently make teams pay for how they play on Elena or somebody else.” The numbers bear that out, as the Mystics made fewer 3-pointers per game and shot a worse percentage in the postseason than in the regular season:
Toliver has been known as a sharpshooter since her freshman year in college, when her late 3-pointer helped Maryland to an NCAA championship. In her WNBA career, she has shot nearly 39% from deep, but only 36% last season, so she will look to improve her percentage in 2019. Cloud shot nearly 39% from deep last season and will be counted on again, while Atkins and Hawkins shot just under 36%. The team’s best 3-point shooter (minimum 20 attempts) was actually Delle Donne at better than 40%, but her hitting threes won’t exactly solve Thibault’s problem of teams paying too much attention to the former MVP.
So who might Thibault turn to? Powers was on fire late last year, shooting 44% on 3-pointers, but is just a 33% career 3-point shooter. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough could be a breakout candidate in her third season with the team; she has received limited minutes so far in DC but shot a ridiculous 49% from behind the arc in her final two seasons at Maryland. Thibault also signed four other guards to training camp deals: Meesseman’s countrywoman Kim Mestdagh (42% 3-point shooting for Cukurova in Turkey in 2018-19), Maci Morris (45% for Kentucky in 2018-19), AJ Alix (36% for GAS Kalyvion in Greece in 2018-19), and Shey Peddy (33% for TTT Riga in Latvia in 2018-19). Morris has since been waived and Mestdagh is not in camp because of overseas commitments, but these signings underscore Thibault’s desire to find players who can shoot from deep.
One final question is whether Atkins will have a sophomore surge or a sophomore slump. She had a fantastic rookie season that few saw coming, so it is natural to wonder if she will regress. However, she endeared herself to fans for how hard she plays and to her coaches for her basketball IQ, and those two attributes are unlikely to change. In addition, despite all of her contributions, Atkins still has ample room to grow. She showed flashes of that in the playoffs, upping her scoring from 11.3 to 15.1 points per game. And her 36% 3-point shooting last season was a respectable percentage but well below the 42% mark she posted in her senior year at Texas.
All Eyes on DC
Last season, the Mystics frequently used the hashtag #EyesUpDC on social media. Their website explains, “Expectations are set and we’re now the role models. We’re locked in. We’re not looking down, we’re not looking back. #EyesUpDC, this is a whole new era of Mystics basketball.”
The Mystics certainly lived up to those words in 2018, and as a result, the expectations for 2019 are even higher. This season’s hashtag is #RunItBack, referencing the team’s desire to get back to the WNBA Finals. To do that, Thibault will have to figure out how to maximize the talent on his roster and give lots of players minutes, and players will have to avoid further injuries and excel in their roles. But behind an MVP and an experienced returning core, the Mystics are in as good of a position as any team in the league to bring home a WNBA championship this fall.
All statistics not otherwise hyperlinked are from Basketball-Reference.com.
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