June 4, 2020 

Catching up with Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault on the roster, the season, and current events

There is optimism in Washington about the 2020 WNBA season

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Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault takes in the scene before a game against the Chicago Sky on September 8, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra.

There are lots of unknowns about a possible return to play for the WNBA, but team rosters are not one of them after the WNBA required teams to finalize their rosters last week. For Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, that process was relatively straightforward. 

It’s not that Thibault was not excited about his two 2020 draft picks, Creighton’s Jaylyn Agnew and Texas’ Sug Sutton, who were both waived on May 25. On the night of the draft, Thibault said that the Mystics staff “kept praying” that Agnew would still be available to them at No. 24 and emphasized that both players would have “every opportunity” to make the final roster.

However, the Mystics ultimately went with familiar faces for their 11-player roster: nine returners from last season’s championship team and two veteran additions, point guard Leilani Mitchell and center Tina Charles, who have both previously played for Thibault. The cancellation of WNBA training camps due to the coronavirus pandemic effectively eliminated Agnew and Sutton’s chance to beat out a more established player for a roster spot. As a result, Thibault had “no reason” to give a rookie a spot over a player with WNBA experience at the end of Washington’s bench, such as 2018 second-round pick Myisha Hines-Allen.

“Somewhere down the road someday, [Agnew, Sutton, and their peers] will get their opportunity,” Thibault told The Next. “… I feel sorry for all these college seniors who missed the end of their season, missed their graduations, and are missing these opportunities.”

Thibault also opted to retain 2019 first-round draft pick Kiara Leslie, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. He has watched Leslie work out over the past few months on video and reports that the NC State alum is able to jump and run at full speed.

“Before this all started, she was in the gym shooting already,” Thibault said. “And so hopefully that’s a good sign of things to come. But we valued her a lot when we drafted her … [and] she deserves the opportunity to show us what she can do.”

Likewise, 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne is recovering well from offseason back surgery. According to Thibault, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how much progress a player has made without having her do basketball activities, but Delle Donne is feeling good. In addition, the additional rest and time to recover due to the season being postponed will likely benefit lots of players and Delle Donne in particular.

The next time Delle Donne takes the court, she will have a new but familiar frontcourt partner in Charles. Charles and Delle Donne have never played together in the WNBA, but they are USA Basketball teammates. Charles also played with current Mystics assistant coach Asjha Jones in Connecticut from 2010 to 2012, when Thibault was the Sun’s head coach. That familiarity “helps tremendously,” Thibault said, referring not only to Charles, but also to Mitchell, who played ten games for the Mystics in 2016. Four other players from the 2016 roster remain on the 2020 roster, including point guard Natasha Cloud and 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. Thibault added of Charles and Mitchell, “They know how I think, how I act, what I expect … There’s a comfort zone for [them] walking in.”

Team USA’s Tina Charles is introduced before an exhibition game against Kia Nurse (right) and Canada on September 8, 2018. Photo credit: Chris Poss.

Thibault can certainly lean on those established relationships, but he will also have to chart new territory in figuring out how to allocate minutes across such a deep roster. Thibault confirmed that he expects Meesseman to play for the team this season, despite the added logistical hurdles that will be required for foreign players.

“We just need some dates solidified so that she can finish all her [visa] paperwork,” Thibault said. In the meantime, he has already fielded questions from eager fans about his starting lineup and rotation. “‘I said, ‘Ma’am, we haven’t played one minute of practice together. How do I get to who starts yet?!’”

Indeed, juggling lineups may be premature with no firm schedule, venue, or protocols in place for the league to return. Thibault is on a committee that is meeting this week to evaluate possible return-to-play scenarios. “I’m not really at liberty to talk about it other than there’s been a pretty thorough vetting of various scenarios,” he said. “… Hopefully [an agreement] will be fairly soon … The NBA is getting ready hopefully by the end of this week to make some decisions that are concrete. And I don’t know that we’ll be that far behind.”

On Wednesday, the Associated Press’s Doug Feinberg reported that the preferred venues for all teams to gather in one place and play a condensed season are MGM Resorts in Las Vegas and IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Whenever and wherever the league is ready to return, the 69-year-old Thibault said he will be comfortable coaching in person because he is confident that the league will take the proper health precautions.

He explained, “We’re gonna lean on medical experts to tell us how to go about it, as is the NBA and any other league. We’re not going to jeopardize the safety of our players, coaches and staff in the process.”

Perhaps Mike Thibault (left) and Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller (right) will be able to do this again soon. Photo credit: Chris Poss.

The Mystics, like most other professional sports teams, have been passing the time with regular Zoom calls. Last Friday’s call centered around police brutality, the killing of George Floyd, and the ensuing protests across the nation, and Thibault said that the Mystics are working with the Washington Wizards “to have some unity on some things that we want to do.” As with the Mystics’ previous social justice efforts, such as a media blackout last June to raise awareness of gun violence, Thibault stressed that the team’s response to recent events must be player-led.

“The staff can give them perspective on past history and events and all those things,” he said. “…But this has to be in the hearts of the players to start out with… And I feel like we have responsible, thoughtful players that will do the right things.”

Few WNBA players are as involved in their local communities and in social justice efforts as Cloud. Over the weekend, she published an article in The Players Tribune urging people to speak out about Floyd’s death and racism in America, and on June 5, she will participate in Everytown for Gun Safety’s virtual programming for National Gun Violence Awareness Day. In response to the latter, Thibault tweeted, “So proud of [Cloud] for always taking a stand. She gets that … we have to use our voices and our platforms.”

The team has also used Zoom for basketball activities, including workouts with the team’s strength coach and film sessions. The film sessions cover a range of topics, but last week, the players picked different episodes of The Last Dance, the ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan, to review. Thibault, who was part of the Chicago Bulls staff that drafted Jordan in 1984, watched the entire documentary as it came out in April and May.

Asked who in women’s basketball would be a good subject for a similar documentary, Thibault suggested the Houston Comets, who won four straight WNBA championships between 1997 and 2000. And while he did not suggest his own team, he did get a mini version of that last month when the Mystics released a one-hour special on the 2019 championship team.

“[The producers] did a great job of capturing kind of the sense of our team and the season. It was fun to do,” Thibault said. The Mystics have also initiated several other efforts to keep fans engaged this offseason, including a virtual home opener, a watch party for a rebroadcast of Game 5 of the 2019 Finals, and 2K simulations of Mystics games.

In addition, Thibault has managed to squeeze in one other new series this spring: “BakEDD,” Delle Donne’s weekly baking show on YouTube. He was one episode behind when he spoke with The Next but said he has “definitely been enjoying them. … I was dying watching the one with the Jell-O.” He has particularly enjoyed Delle Donne’s transformations into various characters, including Elsa from Frozen. “I told her she won’t lack for another career when she’s done playing,” he added. “She’s got all these other things she can do.”

Whether discussing Delle Donne’s culinary talents, his own roster decisions, or the medical ramifications of returning to play, Thibault sounded prepared for and optimistic about the 2020 season. That is certainly welcome news: while watching Delle Donne don a chef’s hat has been a treat, nothing would be sweeter than seeing her and the rest of the league safely return to the court.

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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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