2019 WNBA Team Preview: Washington Mystics

Elena Delle Donne led the Washington Mystics to the WNBA Finals last year (Photo: Chris Poss)

A year after reaching their first WNBA Final, expectations are running high at Mystics training camp, which began last week at the new Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights, Washington DC.

With all of last year’s starters returning and some key additions, the team are the Vegas odds favorite (5–2) to win the WNBA championship. As half a dozen superstars are slated to miss significant time this season, teams are eager to fill the void. Arguably, no team is in better position to do this than the Washington Mystics.

  1. 2018 Recap [22–12 Record]

Last season, Washington exceeded expectations with a run to the WNBA Finals. Both Elena Delle Donne and LaToya Sanders suffered key injuries late in the playoffs, and the Mystics were swept by the Seattle Storm that included three All-Stars and the WNBA’s Most Improved Player.

While the Mystics ranked in the top half of the league in points per game (82.0, sixth of 12), their offensive pace was slow, ranking 11th out of 12. Their pace became a liability in the Finals, when their three-point shooting went cold and their offense stagnated. On defense, they were more consistent and limited opponents to 79.0 points per game (third of 12).

2. Projected 2019 Starting Five

Elena Delle Donne [2018 Stats: 20.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 40.5 3P%]: 2018 All-Star and First Team All-WNBA forward, Delle Donne is fully recovered from a bone bruise suffered in the semifinals last year. After dedicating her off-season to rehabilitation, she looks poised for another MVP-caliber year in a field missing the likes of Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore, and Angel McCoughtry. Delle Donne welcomed raised expectations at the Mystic’s media day, saying, “I like it. It means you’re good.” She explained, “You want to know that you’ve earned being at the top and people are coming for you.”

Kristi Toliver [13.9 PPG, 4.4 APG, 6.1 3PA]: Second-leading scorer and veteran shooting guard, Kristi Toliver emphasized the team’s collective hunger. “When you reach the finals and you lose, it sucks. You want to start playing immediately. I think that’s where everybody is at.” Fresh off a stint as a player development coach with the Washington Wizards, the experience’s impact on her already prodigious basketball knowledge is noticeable. Delle Donne noted, “I didn’t think Kristi’s IQ could get much better and it did,” and head coach Mike Thibault added, “Her confidence is at an all-time high.”

Ariel Atkins looks to build on her breakout rookie campaign (Photo: Chris Poss)

Ariel Atkins [11.3 PPG, 35.7% 3P%]: With a breakout rookie campaign, Atkins was a surprise for the Mystics last season. While rookies often have trouble with the physicality of the W, Atkins was a quick study and made Second Team All-Defense. In the playoffs, she elevated her scoring to 15.2 PPG, her 3P% from 35.7 to 42%, and showed a knack for timely offensive rebounds. After a stellar rookie year, the team is looking to her to evolve into a nightly scoring threat, with outside shooting and dribble penetration.

Point guard Natasha Cloud directs the offense for the Mystics (Photo: Chris Poss)

Natasha Cloud [8.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, 38.6 3P%]: After not starting a game in 2017, Cloud came roaring back in 2018. Locking down a starting role by early June, she posted career bests in nearly every statistical category. She became an emotional spark, no better evidenced than by her late season buzzer-beater over the Los Angeles Sparks, a win that secured the third seed for the Mystics in the playoffs. Of Cloud’s growth, Delle Donne said, “You can see she’s got a comfort and a feel like, this is my team. I’ve got to lead it.”

LaToya Sanders rises for the block against Alyssa Thomas (Photo: Chris Poss)

LaToya Sanders [10.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 60.7% FG%]: Sanders started 2018 battling chronic anemia issues. After working with medical staff, Sanders bounced back and went on to post career bests in points, rebounds, steals, and assists. At 6-foot-3 and 170 lbs, she uses her superior mobility against players who can have up to 5" and 50 lbs on her. She may see her role reduced when Meesseman returns in July, but if anyone can impact a game in limited minutes, it’s Sanders.

3. Key Additions and Bench

Emma Meesseman [2017 stats: 14.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 2.8 APG]: The Mystics welcome back Meesseman, a six-year veteran and 2015 All-Star, after spending 2018 with her Belgian national team. This year, she will also miss three weeks mid-season to play in EuroBasket but will return for the rest of the WNBA in July. With three-point range and elite footwork, she has already provided a shot in the arm with 19 points in a preseason game versus the Lynx. Delle Donne said of her front-court partner, “There’s nothing that fits our system more than Emma’s style of play.”

Kim Mestdagh [2018–19 Turkish League Stats: 10.5 PPG, 50.5 3P%]: Mestdagh is a 5-foot-9, 29-year-old sharpshooter and another Belgian national. Thibault has been eyeing Mestdagh since 2017, when she averaged 16.6 points and 48% 3P% in the World Cup for Belgium. In addition to her perimeter shooting, the chemistry she and Meesseman can bring will be intriguing, provided she gets playing time. Mestdagh joins training camp after playing in the Turkish League finals for Cukurova with Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Bone. She will also miss three weeks for EuroBasket.

Tianna Hawkins [16.6 MPG, 3.5 RPG, 35.7 3P%]: Forward and sixth-year veteran Tianna Hawkins was a mainstay in the rotation last year. Hawkins is a physical defender and brings something different against the league’s best centers, than say, Sanders or Delle Donne. She has also recently added a much improved three-point shot to her arsenal, in addition to her ability to put the ball on the floor. Last season, she attempted 3 times as many threes as in 2016 and shot 35.7%.

Aerial Powers during Washington Mystics Media Day, 2019 (Photo: Michelle Kim)

Aerial Powers [6.1 PPG, 43.8% 3P%, 12.7 MPG]: Powers joined the Mystics in mid-season 2018 from the Dallas Wings. A tenacious rim attacker, the Mystics sorely needed a consistent slasher and this year, they will look to Powers to continue to penetrate to the basket. Her ability to compress defenses will also give time and space for Washington’s perimeter threats.

Myisha Hines-Allen [3.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 10.5 MPG]: At 6'2", 200 lbs, Hines-Allen is another strong defender with subtle offensive savvy. She passes well for a post and shoots with both hands around the basket. Even at 6-foot-2, she can body up opposing posts from small forward to center. Last season, she did well with her limited minutes. This year, with Tierra Ruffin-Pratt gone, the Mystics expect Hines-Allen to fill in with the same toughness.

4. Key Losses

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt [5.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG]: When small forward Ruffin-Pratt signed with the Sparks this off-season, the Mystics lost one of the league’s best defenders and the team’s longest-tenured player. She brought a physical and mental toughness that will be missed, especially in the postseason. Natasha Cloud, who routinely guards the opponent’s best perimeter player, will likely be expected to fill this role, along with Hines-Allen.

Monique Currie [15.9 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG]: Currie, a thirteen-year veteran and DC native, ended her WNBA career back in Washington after spending 2007–14 with the team. She retired in the top 35 all-time in total points (4253, rank 30th), rebounds (1666, rank 33rd), and free throws (1273, rank 11th). She begins a new career at Nike.

Kiara Leslie [Rookie]: Not a loss from 2018, but 10th overall draft pick Kiara Leslie had her meniscus repaired in preseason and will miss 3–4 months. Before surgery, she drew high praise from Thibault, “I think she has a huge upside. Here is a 6-foot, strong guard who can make threes, who can rebound, who can attack the basket.” She flew under the radar at the draft, but Thibault has shown an ability to uncover hidden gems, like Atkins. It was not a given that Leslie would break into the rotation, but will now have a year to observe from the bench. We wish her a speedy recovery.

5. Questions to Address

Meesseman and Delle Donne at Mystics Media Day. (Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

With Meesseman’s return, how will Coach Thibault manage his post rotation? At 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 respectively, Meesseman and Delle Donne present a tough match-up. Meesseman will come off the bench to begin the season, but it’s unclear what will happen in July. Shifting rotations may require sacrifice from Delle Donne, Sanders, and Hawkins, but this group is well-versed with this rotation. Thibault stressed, “We can play big, we can play small. It’s going to be partly by scouting report, partly by the rhythm of our team.”

Can the Mystics consistently attack the rim? They ranked 11th out of 12 in field goals attempted within six feet of the basket. They also ranked last for percentage of shots from layups at 23% (league average was 31%). Whether off-the-dribble or in transition, the Mystics need to attack the rim to keep defenses honest and generate points during inevitable cold shooting spells.

Mystics FG% Map (Left) and Mystics FG% minus WNBA Avg FG% (Right). In addition to taking fewer shots around the rim, the Mystics were less efficient than the league average (Image: Andrew Patton).

6. Outlook for 2019

The Mystics are the front runners for the first time in their franchise history. If chemistry or complacency post challenges this season, the results could be underwhelming. However, compared to most, the Mystics have champagne problems and it’s hard to name a team in a better position at the start of the season. They will be energized by their new home at the Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA), which should sell out regularly and provide a true home court advantage. Meesseman is an improved player since her All-Star turn in 2015 and the rotation will have plenty of time to gel before the playoffs. With a corp of young, physical wing players and veteran leadership like Delle Donne and Toliver, this author predicts the Mystics will return to the WNBA Finals and secure their first championship.


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