“Playoff Emma” Meesseman is finally getting noticed

The path of Washington’s homegrown star

In the 2019 WNBA semifinals, the larger world was introduced to Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman, aka “Playoff Emma,” when she scored 57 points in her team’s first two games.

Against a Las Vegas front line that included two 2019 All-Stars and the Sixth Woman of the Year, Meesseman shot 62% from the field, hit seven of 11 3-point attempts, and added 16 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals. After she followed that up with 22 points in the decisive Game 4, even NBA star LeBron James took notice:

However, for those who follow the WNBA closely — not to mention opposing coaches — Meesseman needed no introduction. For the past few years, she has been a standout during the WNBA regular season, while playing in Europe, and now in the playoffs. Meesseman’s playoff performance “wasn’t surprising,” her teammate Kim Mestdagh said last week, “[but] … it’s nice that [fans are now] picking up on her and that she gets the opportunity to shine.”

Meesseman arrived in the WNBA in 2013 as a 19-year-old from Belgium whom Washington took a flier on with the No. 19 pick. She packed a single bag for training camp, expecting at most a three-week stay, but made the roster and has been a Mystic ever since. Two summers later, in 2015, she was a WNBA All-Star.

In 2019, after a year away from the WNBA to play for her national team and to rest, Meesseman averaged 13.1 points on 55% shooting from the field and 42% from behind the arc. She set career highs in points per 40 minutes, 3-pointers made and attempted per 40 minutes, offensive rating (129), and player efficiency rating (27.3). The latter two statistics ranked second in the league behind her teammate, WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne.

When Mystics head coach Mike Thibault is asked about Meesseman’s development, he frequently talks about how he had to plead with her to shoot in previous seasons. Despite being a strong shooter throughout her career, Meesseman only began taking 3-pointers regularly in games in 2016. That year, she sank 30 of her 67 attempts after taking just 17 attempts in three previous seasons. She has also changed her perspective on what constitutes good offense during her six seasons in Washington.

“When she came in the league, she always thought the players that went one-on-one … were selfish,” Thibault said during the semifinals. “[We] tried to explain to her in pro basketball, you need go-to players to make big shots late in games. … And I think she’s finally embraced it.”

Mystics assistant coach Marianne Stanley added that Meesseman is special to coach and easy to play with. “[She’s] so skilled and so smart, and also unselfish, that you can put any four people out there with her and she would make them all look good,” Stanley explained. “She just has a feel for the game that’s really unusual and really puts her in kind of an elite category as a player.”

Entering the playoffs, Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud declared that having Meesseman back in 2019 has been “the biggest difference in our play and where we are right now as a team.” Cloud added, “She’s phenomenal. … It’s almost like you’re looking at another Elena Delle Donne. … [For opponents,] it’s like pick your poison.”

The Washington coaching staff certainly deserves credit for helping Meesseman improve, but Thibault and Stanley frequently point to Meesseman’s experience on the Belgian national team as formative.

“She took a huge step a couple of years ago when she really became not only the nominal leader of the Belgian team, but she carried them,” Stanley explained. “So she’s just gained in confidence and it’s allowed her natural ability to really shine.” In the 2018 FIBA World Cup, Meesseman averaged 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, which ranked second and first, respectively, out of all players in the event. In this summer’s EuroBasket tournament, which caused her to miss 11 WNBA games, she averaged 19.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists.

With Meesseman back in the WNBA in 2019, there was some preseason buzz about what she could add to the Mystics, but she wasn’t a household name until her exploits in the WNBA semifinals. She has continued to be the hot hand in the WNBA Finals, leading her team in scoring with 16.8 points per game on 54% shooting. She has also made half of her 3-pointers, including one with 2:44 left in Game 4 that nearly won the Mystics a championship.

Despite her production, Meesseman has remained exceedingly humble. In the semifinals, she attempted to deflect a question about her strong performance with a simple, “I don’t know.” (“That’s her easy answer,” Thibault chuckled when informed of the exchange. “So she doesn’t have to give you any more.”)

At practice ahead of Game 4 of the Finals, when Meesseman was asked whether the postseason has been “special” for her, she gave the equivalent of a verbal shrug: “I’m making more points; that’s pretty much it. I just try to take my shots. And we’ve played those plays where I get that open shot … a couple of times in a row.”

On the defensive end, Meesseman has also had to help stop Connecticut’s talented frontcourt of center Jonquel Jones and forward Alyssa Thomas. Meesseman can play all three frontcourt positions for Washington, but down the stretch in Game 4, she was matched up against Jones. Despite being two inches shorter, Meesseman found success with an array of drives and crafty shots. Both head coaches seemed to like their chances with that matchup, Thibault so much so that he drew up a play for Meesseman to get the ball with under ten seconds remaining in Game 4.

With Meesseman and Jones both consistently being go-to players in this series, a potential Meesseman-Jones matchup could again be pivotal in Game 5. If so, expect Meesseman to be ready. “Everything I start, I want to win,” she said ahead of Game 4. “… We’ve been building for seven years for this moment.”

If Meesseman leads Washington to a win in Game 5, and with it the first championship in franchise history, she might need a new nickname. “Championship Emma,” anyone??

All WNBA stats are courtesy of WNBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

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