February 2, 2021 

‘A perfect fit’: How Alysha Clark and the Washington Mystics got together

A quick courtship, and Clark makes sense in DC on and off the court

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Then-Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark dribbles against the Washington Mystics and Natasha Cloud (far right, in red) on June 14, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

When Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud heard rumors that her friend Alysha Clark was signing with the Mystics, she reacted much the same as fans did on social media. Clark revealed, “As soon as [Cloud] heard, she messaged me and was like, ‘Uh, so is this real? Am I hearing this right?’”

It wasn’t official yet, but seemingly in the blink of an eye, Clark and the Mystics agreed to a guaranteed two-year contract worth $183,000 per year, a development that virtually no one had seen coming just a few weeks prior. Clark started peppering Cloud and fellow Mystic Elena Delle Donne with questions, including about life in the nation’s capital and, crucially, the DC traffic.

It had seemed likely that Clark would re-sign with Seattle, where she had played for nine seasons, but she told the media on Monday that, in her first time as a high-profile free agent, she wanted to “give respect to the process” and hear what teams had to say. Thibault—having tried unsuccessfully to acquire Clark in the past—moved quickly to make his pitch, and Clark was enthusiastic from the start.

Clark effectively replaces Aerial Powers, a key reserve on the Mystics’ 2019 championship team who agreed to terms with the Minnesota Lynx last week. Although he was reluctant to compare them directly, Thibault acknowledged that both Powers and Clark “are physical players and are not afraid of any competition or matchup.”

Clark averaged 10.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.5 steals last season for Seattle, which won its second championship in three seasons. It was arguably the finest season of her career on both ends of the court: she shot a career-high 52% from 3-point range and was a unanimous pick by the league’s coaches for the WNBA’s All-Defensive first team. On Monday, Thibault and Clark spoke with the media about how Clark ended up making the cross-country move this offseason.

How the Powers talks fell through

Thibault entered free agency negotiations in January with the same mindset as he had in the fall: re-sign all of his free agents and have the full roster that he never got to put on the court in 2020 due to injuries and opt-outs. He began negotiating with Powers and they soon reached a verbal agreement on “the basic parameters” of her contract.

However, the situation quickly changed: according to Thibault, Powers “started to kind of backtrack and drag her feet a little bit.” At the same time, he caught wind that Clark might be willing to leave Seattle and opened up discussions, and the two negotiations proceeded in parallel.

“It felt like, to me, we were being strung out a little bit by Aerial Powers,” Thibault said. “… We had an enthusiasm coming from Alysha Clark … and the other one was kind of going the other way. And we had told Aerial somewhere in that process that we couldn’t wait. We weren’t going to be sitting here today holding the bag…

“For whatever reason, somewhere in this process, Aerial had lost her enthusiasm for it. There’s probably more to it than that, but that’s probably the easiest way for me to put it right now. And so it was an easy pivot for us at that point to say, ‘Okay, we have somebody who’s excited to be here and we’re excited about her game. It’s somebody we’ve always liked, and [she’s] ready to make a commitment. And we’re going to move forward with that.’”

What the Mystics see in Clark

Thibault did not hold back his excitement about what Clark will bring to the Mystics. “Alysha just to me jumped out as a perfect fit for this team,” he told the media on Monday.

Clark epitomizes the Mystics’ style of play: tough on both ends of the court, able to play in transition, and of course, able to space the floor. Thibault expects her to take a few more 3-pointers with the Mystics than the 3.0 she attempted per game last season. And he likes her versatility, consistency, and willingness to play whatever role the team needs each game.

“The fact that we move the ball and share the ball, she’s all about that,” he said. “She has the ability to play inside, outside, [and] handle the ball… She’s consistent in her attitude, her approach, her demeanor, her effort.”

On defense, putting Clark next to Cloud and guard Ariel Atkins gives Thibault an array of options. That trio has six All-Defensive selections between them, and any of them can guard an opponent’s best player depending on matchups. (So can guard Kiara Leslie, who frequently drew that assignment last season as a rookie.) Thibault expects to be able to “wreak a lot of havoc” defensively, then convert that into a lethal transition attack with Cloud relentlessly pushing the pace and Clark and Atkins spacing the floor.

Clark joins a veteran Mystics team that has a bevy of potential leaders, from Delle Donne and Cloud to Leilani Mitchell, LaToya Sanders, and Tina Charles. In that respect, too, Clark fits right in.

“Her leadership and her demeanor is something that has always stuck out to me, going all the way back to her college days,” Thibault said. Watching her play for the Storm, he often noticed how whenever she spoke, her teammates listened, and he is confident that that gravitas will travel cross-country.

When Clark (center) talks, her teammates listen. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

Why Clark chose the Mystics

Clark described herself as someone who struggles with change, and being in such a good situation in Seattle, it would have been easy to stay put. “The Storm did everything right,” she said. Yet her instincts told her that DC was the best place for her right now, on and off the court.

“When something sits right in my gut, I know it’s the right move,” Clark said. “And it wasn’t easy by any means… but to be walking into this team and this organization is something that I’m really excited about at this stage in my career.”

On the court, Clark became a two-time WNBA champion by being willing to reinvent herself, from leading the NCAA in scoring her final two seasons in college to becoming a defensive stopper in the WNBA. At age 33, she wants to continue to expand her game and believes that Thibault can help her get there. She mentioned developing her mid-range and pick-and-roll skills on offense—nothing “fancy,” she said, just becoming more well-rounded late in her career.

Defensively, Clark is excited to team up with Cloud and Atkins, two players she had talked with about that part of the game even before she became a free agent. “I’m actually really looking forward to our sessions together moving forward,” she said, relishing the thought of being part of a defense that is “so secure and so locked down everywhere.”

A bonus for Clark is that Seattle and Washington have relatively similar styles of play, so she does not expect to face much of an adjustment period. Just as she teamed up with stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart in Seattle, she is looking forward to being one of many excellent players in DC.

“Having as many offensive threats and as many stars as we do, that’s something that plays to your advantage,” Clark said. “When you have selfless players, selfless stars, that’s when something really special happens and that’s what they have in DC.”

Off the court, the friendship Clark already had with Cloud was certainly helpful, but the sense of comfort she felt was broader than that. “It felt like a family from the first time we all spoke and that was really special to me,” she said. She recalled being impressed by the Mystics’ obvious bond in the WNBA bubble in 2020, even when things weren’t going well on the court. “It spoke volumes, and … that’s something I’m really excited to be walking into.”

Clark will lean on her new teammates as she adjusts to life in DC, which she considers the biggest city she will have lived in despite spending nine seasons in Seattle. There is perhaps a little trepidation from the Tennessee native about that, but she also sees clear opportunities off the court. For one thing, Clark loves to cook and is considering that as a career path after basketball, so she is excited about DC’s food scene and culinary diversity. For another, she recognizes the significance of living in the nation’s capital as she strives to participate more in social justice conversations.

“I’ve found my voice in that space,” Clark said. “And for me, that was something that was really life-changing… So obviously with [Cloud] opting out this year and being in DC and being really active, she’s going to be somebody that I use as a sounding board to be able to grow in that area.”

The rest of the roster

Clark’s signing was the first domino to fall for the Mystics in free agency, but Thibault is confident that others will soon follow. He indicated that Cloud and Sanders, who are technically not under contract but can only negotiate with the Mystics, will re-sign with the team this week, and he hopes that Charles’ deal will be completed in the same timeframe.

That would leave 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and reserve forward Tianna Hawkins as the team’s remaining free agents. Thibault didn’t have an update on Hawkins but said that Meesseman is likely to re-sign with the Mystics. The wild card is that she may wait to do so until after the Olympics rather than going back and forth between the WNBA and the Belgian national team this summer.

Whenever Meesseman presumably arrives in DC, she will see many familiar faces on the roster along with at least one new teammate in Clark. Yet, given how well Clark fits with everything the Mystics want to do, it may well seem like she’s been there all along.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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