September 21, 2020
Inside Jacki Gemelos’ remarkable, improbable 2020 season
The mayor of the #wubble accomplished much, eyes even more
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Washington Mystics guard Jacki Gemelos drives to the basket against the Atlanta Dream on August 19, 2020. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images
The WNBA’s plan for the 2020 season involved putting all 12 teams in a so-called “bubble” in Bradenton, Florida, away from the rest of the world and from COVID-19. It was almost like its own city—and so naturally, it needed a mayor.
But “The Mayor” of the WNBA bubble isn’t who you might expect. It’s not WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. It’s not Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the players’ association, or Sue Bird, the league’s all-time leader in games played.
“The Mayor” is Washington Mystics guard Jacki Gemelos, so nicknamed by her head coach, Mike Thibault, because she seemingly knows everyone in the bubble, thanks to her genial demeanor and experience playing on many different teams around the world. The moniker is starting to stick, Gemelos told The Next last week: “People … around the bubble are starting to call me ‘The Mayor.’”
The fact that Gemelos even made it to the WNBA bubble is a dream come true for the 31-year-old, who grew up watching Ticha Penicheiro, Ruthie Bolton (now Bolton-Holifield), and the Sacramento Monarchs in the WNBA.
At one time, Gemelos was considered a near-lock to follow in their footsteps: Thibault recently said that Gemelos was one of the best 18-year-olds he had ever seen, and current Las Vegas Aces guard Danielle Robinson told Her Hoop Stats, “Her dominance [in high school] reminds me of Diana Taurasi.”
But in the last game of Gemelos’ high school career, she tore her ACL, denying her a freshman season at USC and beginning a string of five ACL injuries between her senior year of high school and her sixth year at USC.
The Minnesota Lynx still selected her with the 31st pick of the 2012 draft, but she didn’t make the opening-day roster. Other WNBA teams invited her to training camp in subsequent years, and she finally made her WNBA debut with the Chicago Sky on June 19, 2015, playing just under four minutes and recording a lone turnover.
In total, Gemelos played in 17 games with the Chicago Sky that season, averaging 1.1 points and 0.5 rebounds in 5.0 minutes per game. She didn’t get off the bench in three playoff games, yet she told Her Hoop Stats last month, “It was the greatest year of my life.”
Gemelos played in Europe both before and after her season with the Sky, making the Greek National Team in 2018 and being named the Most Valuable Player of the Greek League in 2019-20. Gemelos told The Next that playing overseas has sharpened her basketball knowledge, gotten her more experience, and given her the consistent minutes on the court that eluded her in college due to injury.
In 2020, Gemelos was signed, cut, and re-signed by the Connecticut Sun, all before the team flew to Bradenton. Days before the team entered the bubble, Sun head coach Curt Miller said, “In this unique and uncertain season, you can’t undervalue the impact a positive player with a reputation as a uniter can have on a team. I truly appreciate Jacki’s history of fighting through adversity … She is someone I want in the foxhole with us in Florida.”
Gemelos debuted for Connecticut on July 28 in a loss to Washington, nearly 1,800 days after she last played in a WNBA game. She played just 4 minutes and 55 seconds but made them count, hitting two 3-pointers to help the Sun cut a 13-point deficit to two. She didn’t get on the court much going forward, appearing in six of the team’s first 11 games and contributing 11 total points (on 50% shooting), two rebounds, and two assists in 29 minutes. But off the court, she soaked in her second WNBA experience, forging “a pretty special bond” with her Sun teammates and feeling “happy no matter what … to be a part of this league.”
Gemelos’ WNBA return was seemingly cut short on August 17, when Miller told her that he was waiving her.
“I had no idea I was gonna get cut,” Gemelos told the media earlier this month. Despite her lack of playing time, Miller said that Gemelos “did everything we asked and more” and that cutting her was “one of the most difficult conversations that I’ve had in my coaching career and certainly my time as a GM.”
About 24 hours later, the Washington Mystics threw Gemelos a lifeline in the form of a seven-day contract, looking for shooting ability and fresh energy to boost a team that had lost seven straight games. (Her contract would later be extended for the rest of the season.)
“She just has a great love and passion for the game,” Thibault said on August 19. “And right now, in the circumstances we’re in, it’s kind of fun to have somebody who’s totally appreciative of playing and the opportunity and … [is] playing for all the right reasons. … Unfortunately, with all the ACL injuries, her career has never been what she had hoped for. And hopefully this is something, at least for now, [that] she can enjoy and we can enjoy having her.”
Ironically, The Mayor didn’t know many Washington players when she was signed, though Elena Delle Donne — Gemelos’ former Chicago teammate and a current Mystic who missed this season due to injury — texted her almost immediately.
“She told me to be aggressive, be me, do my thing,” Gemelos said. “Obviously, I wish she was here; I’ve told her that like every day that I’ve been in the bubble. But she’s been really supportive from afar.”
Gemelos also clicked right away with point guard Leilani Mitchell. “I think we were FaceTiming each other three days into me being there and it was just like, ‘Okay, we’re besties,’” Gemelos said.
The rest of the team was similarly welcoming. “We all fell in love with her, just because she’s a people person,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen said. “You just want to be around her … She’s a great player [and] a great person, too, so what more can you ask for?”
Despite the warm welcome, changing teams left Gemelos “emotionally drained.” But she quickly realized she was going to get a lot more playing time than had been available with Connecticut.
“I had signed my contract at 10pm [on August 18],” she said. “And then the next day, I was going to shootaround and Coach T was like, ‘You’re going to play tonight. We’re just going to throw you in there.’ … My head was definitely spinning those first few games.”
Luckily for Gemelos, Washington was playing Atlanta, a team Connecticut had played nine days prior, so she knew the scouting report. It also helped that she had been staying in shape with Connecticut by running on the treadmill and lifting weights. But it took her a few games to settle in, get her legs under her, and shake a shooting slump in which she made just 3 of 24 shots (13%), including a 1-for-4 performance against her former team on August 30. She admitted it was “strange” to play against Connecticut, and it was a tough game for the Mystics all around as they lost 76-63, their eleventh loss in 12 games in the month of August.
But the Mystics found their groove in September—and so did Gemelos. She scored a career-high 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting in a close loss to Seattle on September 2, and two days later, she played a then-career-high 21 minutes and had four assists in the Mystics’ upset win over Chicago. Her minutes increased again, to 27, in a loss to Dallas on September 6, and she capped the week with her first career start against Minnesota.
“I was definitely nervous, excited, emotional, just so many different things running through my head,” Gemelos said of the Minnesota game—though she admitted that she gets nervous for every game, even scrimmages. She gave herself a pep talk: “I’m like, ‘Okay, we have to win this game. … I need to get my emotions together and under control and do what I do.’”
Gemelos did that, playing over 18 minutes and making her only shot of the night in an 89-86 Mystics win. Two days later, forward Tianna Hawkins put it simply: “She’s the epitome of perseverance.”
By the end of the regular season, Gemelos had helped the Mystics to an improbable playoff berth while contributing more than she ever had in the WNBA:
Data includes regular-season games only and is from Basketball-Reference.
In the Mystics’ last seven regular-season games, Gemelos made 12 of 24 shots, including five of 15 attempts from behind the arc. “Being more experienced and having gone through shooting slumps in my career, I always knew that that drought was going to end,” Gemelos said. “… The biggest thing for me was the support of the coaching staff. They knew I know how to shoot the ball. That wasn’t a question for them, so it was just a matter of time [of] when I was going to kind of dig my way out.”
The slump did little to shake Gemelos’ conviction that she deserved a roster spot in the WNBA. She described the league as “a place where I felt like I belonged my whole life,” and that self-belief kept her motivated during her years overseas. And although the 2020 season was “a roller coaster” for her, she indicated on the eve of the playoffs that she felt comfortable with the Mystics players and staff and appreciated how they always held each other accountable. “I think I ended up exactly where I’m supposed to be,” she said.
The Mystics entered the playoffs on a four-game winning streak, leapfrogging three teams in the standings and winning what amounted to an elimination game on the final day of the regular season. Hours before the team’s first-round playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury on September 15, Gemelos said, “We are just in a mind frame right now and just a zone where we don’t feel like we can be beat. … I don’t know what the result is going to be, but I know that we’re locked in.”
That night, Gemelos came off the bench to play 11 minutes and record three points, three rebounds, and two assists in her WNBA playoff debut. The Mystics were in control for three quarters but lost on a last-second shot by Phoenix guard Shey Peddy, a former Mystic who has spent a similar amount of time as Gemelos playing in Europe and chasing her WNBA dream. That ended the Mystics’ season and meant the players would leave the bubble and scatter to their respective homes the following day.
After departing the bubble, Gemelos took to Instagram to sum up her 2020 season. “I’ve grown as a person and player from this experience,” she wrote. “I made friendships that will last a lifetime. How could you ask for more? You can’t.” Many of her Sun and Mystics teammates commented on her post, including Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner: “one of the nicest/dopest teammates on the planet!!! Made a friend for life!! [heart emojis]”
One of those friendships that particularly stands out is Gemelos’ relationship with Mystics guard Ariel Atkins. As a rookie in 2018, Atkins initially avoided making conversation with Delle Donne and then-Mystics guard Kristi Toliver, two of the team’s stars, because she didn’t want to bother them. She has grown immensely as a leader and a communicator since then, even speaking for her team about social justice on national television, but is still quiet at times off the court.
Yet when Gemelos joined the Mystics, Atkins began asking her questions about her experience.
“I remember one time we were in the bus and [Leilani Mitchell] was like, ‘She’s talking to you! She’s asking questions!’” Gemelos said. “… I feel like I’ve been able to kind of bring out [Ariel] to talk to me.”
After the win over Minnesota, Atkins was asked what Gemelos brings to the team. “She’s been in the game a while, so there’s some things that she sees and she’s constantly talking, constantly making sure that she’s bringing energy,” Atkins said. “She’s just a positive and really full heart, and I’m really glad that she’s here.”
Those one-on-one conversations, which Gemelos also had with players such as Mitchell and rookie Kiara Leslie, were Gemelos’ way of being a leader as one of the team’s newest, but also most experienced, players. Because everyone was living in the Bradenton bubble this season, there was much more opportunity for those conversations than in a typical season, and Gemelos said that that extra time to hang out with teammates and players around the league was what she appreciated most about playing in the bubble.
Despite the increased minutes she earned in a Mystics jersey and the bubble’s unforgiving schedule of games nearly every other day, Gemelos said just before the playoffs that she felt healthy and had had no issues with her knees in the bubble.
“It’s a unique situation for me,” she said. “I kind of explain it as I’m a young 31-year-old, because there was a span in my career [in college] where I didn’t play for five years … I wasn’t putting on the miles like every other 31-year-old.”
Through all of the injuries, she learned how to take care of her body and how to prepare for and recover from playing—though she joked that she misses being able to run out on the court without much of a warm-up. “Those were the days,” she said wistfully.
Gemelos plans to continue playing for the foreseeable future—including in Turkey this offseason—before potentially pursuing a career on the business side of basketball. In July, she told the Journal Inquirer that she had been playing her best basketball recently. “It’s crazy to think … that I’m peaking at this age,” she said. “But I look at Sue Bird at 39 and Diana Taurasi at 38 and they’re still balling and playing well. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer.”
Gemelos will be a free agent this offseason and hasn’t yet talked to Thibault about her WNBA future, but she would “absolutely 100%” like to re-sign with the Mystics. “I’m really close with Tina Charles and Delle Donne; those are two people that I grew up playing with and against, and that would be amazing to be able to play with them next summer,” Gemelos said. “…I can only hope that there’s a spot for me to sneak in.”
WNBA teams cannot sign free agents this offseason until early 2021, and the Mystics have several players to try to re-sign, so it will be several months before Gemelos finds out what her prospects are for next season. But, given all that she’s accomplished in her career and how well respected she is around the league, don’t count out The Mayor to win another term in the WNBA.
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.