The “missing piece” returns to DC for at least one more year
“Wow, the missing piece.”
Those were the first four words Mike Thibault said to the media on October 11, 2019, shortly after his Washington Mystics won their first WNBA title. He was referring to the player next to him, WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, who had sat out the 2018 season but returned in 2019 to lead the team in scoring during the playoffs.
On Monday, four months after Meesseman scored 22 points in Game 5, the Mystics announced that they had re-signed Meesseman. Meesseman represented the last big piece of Thibault’s free agency puzzle after 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne re-signed with the team, veteran guard Kristi Toliver departed, and former Phoenix Mercury guard Leilani Mitchell was signed last week.
Thibault said in a statement, “Emma re-signing is a huge step for our team. Having one of the top players in the world back for the upcoming season gives us a lot of options in how we play. It’s a great feeling for a coach to have a Finals MVP and a League MVP in Elena Delle Donne lining up opposite each other on the court.” In her own statement, Meesseman called Washington her “home away from home” and added, “Let’s get another [title]!!!”
Meesseman was widely expected to re-sign with the Mystics, especially after Thibault revealed on the Winsidr WNBA Show on January 30 that there was a verbal agreement in place. However, her contract is only for one season, according to The Washington Post’s Ava Wallace, which surprised many given that Meesseman has played for the Mystics ever since being drafted in 2013. Thibault told Wallace that Meesseman “wants to see where her life is at the end of this year with [the] Olympics and us, everything else, and just kind of sort it out.”
Meesseman, a native of Belgium, will compete in the 2020 Olympics, where she may go head-to-head with Mystics teammates Mitchell (Australia), Delle Donne (United States), and Ariel Atkins (United States). The WNBA will take a five-week break for the Games, pausing two weeks before the opening ceremonies to give players time with their national teams. However, Thibault told Wallace last week that Meesseman will still miss about five games this season. That would be half as many as she missed last year for the FIBA EuroBasket Tournament and, barring injury, the fewest games she has missed in a single season (for any reason) since 2016.
It is hard to overstate how important re-signing Meesseman is for the Mystics. Often compared to Delle Donne due to their similar length, skill, and versatility, Meesseman’s 2019 playoff performance showed the world that she is an elite talent in her own right and earned her the nickname “Playoff Emma.” In her career, she has played in 22 playoff games for the Mystics, averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Despite flying under the radar, she has also been elite in the regular season. In 182 regular-season games over six seasons, Meesseman has averaged 11.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. Her career efficiency rating is 21.4, which ranks 20th all-time and well above the league average of 15.0. (Last season, her efficiency rating was an amazing 27.3, second in the WNBA behind Delle Donne.) In short, Meesseman was doing Delle Donne-like things well before the latter was traded to the Mystics in 2017, and it is a testament to Meesseman’s team-first mentality that she responded so well to the team acquiring a superstar at her position.
Retaining Meesseman became even more important after Toliver’s surprise departure cost the Mystics one of their top players. Signing Mitchell helps, but expect Thibault to replace Toliver by committee rather than with one player. One change that Thibault might make is to move Meesseman back into the starting lineup. She was a starter for four of her previous five seasons in Washington but started only six regular-season games last year. She could start alongside Delle Donne in a three-forward lineup, which was extremely effective late last season when Toliver was injured. Thibault told Wallace last week that “the bigger lineup … will be a part of our plan going forward.”
Thibault could also keep a three-guard starting lineup—presumably with Natasha Cloud, Atkins, and either Mitchell or Aerial Powers—but play Meesseman heavier minutes off the bench to help compensate for Toliver’s absence.
The Mystics did not disclose Meesseman’s salary for 2020, as per team policy, but High Post Hoops’ Howard Megdal reported that she will be paid the “supermax” salary of $215,000. That gives the Mystics nearly $70,000 of cap space left for 2020, most of which will likely be spent on the No. 12 pick in the WNBA Draft. The team currently has 12 players under contract: 11 returners from 2019 plus Rebecca Greenwell, a 2018 draft pick who has battled injuries but expects to be ready for training camp.
The Mystics only had a few free agents to negotiate with this offseason—albeit arguably their three best players. Thibault may be a little busier next year, as half of the roster has contracts that expire after 2020: Meesseman, Cloud, Tianna Hawkins, Powers, Latoya Sanders, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. However, Thibault has been operating this year with an eye toward the future. According to Wallace, Toliver left partly because Thibault would not offer her a three-year deal, which would have given him less room to pay other players in future offseasons.
Luckily for the Mystics, Thibault was able to put most of the puzzle pieces from 2019 back together in 2020. And, crucially, he retained Meesseman, the one who made a world of difference in the playoffs.
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