March 10, 2021 

How LaToya Sanders’ retirement and Theresa Plaisance’s signing remake the DC frontcourt

Free agency hasn’t gone according to plan for the Mystics, but “Plan B” looks promising

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Washington Mystics center LaToya Sanders (30) shoots during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena on July 24, 2018. Photo credit: Chris Poss

For four seasons in a Washington Mystics uniform, LaToya Sanders stayed largely out of the spotlight, doing all the little things that the Mystics needed to advance to the WNBA Finals in 2018 and win their first championship in 2019. Her teammates recognized her contributions and were quick to sing her praises, but her importance was sometimes overlooked outside of the team.

On Monday, Sanders moved further away from the limelight but into a role where she can make just as big of an impact as she did on the court. The 34-year-old center retired from the WNBA after seven seasons and will join the Mystics’ staff in a multifaceted role that includes player development, community relations, social justice initiatives, youth programming, and marketing. She becomes the second former Mystic to retire and join a team’s front office in 2021, following Crystal Langhorne, who played for the Mystics from 2008 to 2013 and is now the inaugural director of community engagement for the Seattle Storm.

Sanders was selected by the Phoenix Mercury with the No. 13 pick in the 2008 WNBA Draft, and she also played for the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks before being traded to the Mystics in 2012. She didn’t debut for the Mystics until 2015, but she proved to be worth the wait. In 89 career games and 59 starts in a Mystics uniform, Sanders averaged 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.0 steals while also taking on some of the toughest defensive assignments.

“LaToya has meant so much to our success and championship culture,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said in the team’s announcement. “As one of the premier defensive players in the WNBA, she set a tone for our growth, improvement, and maturity as a team over the past several years.”

After sitting out the 2020 season, Sanders re-signed with the Mystics on a one-year, $117,000 contract last month, but she apparently had a change of heart. In her own statement, she said only that she “felt that retirement was the best option for me” after consulting with her family. Thibault was a little more expansive, saying that Sanders “has had to work so hard on and off the court to be physically ready to play.” Sanders missed the 2017 season due to surgery for chronic heel pain and plantar fasciitis and was diagnosed with anemia in 2018, which required her to get regular blood transfusions.

“[You are] the anchor of our team,” Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud wrote to Sanders in an Instagram story on Monday. “Thank you OG for not only your presence on, but your guidance off the court. You have left this league and this team better than what [sic] you found it.”

“Goodbye and hello LaToya Sanders. Retiring as a @WashMystics player and joining our player development group,” Mystics owner Ted Leonsis tweeted. “LaToya is best of best in preparation, dedication, grit and performance. True leader and competitor and Champion.”

Without Sanders, the Mystics still boast one of the most talented frontcourts in the WNBA, including former league MVPs Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles and 2020 Second-Team All-WNBA honoree Myisha Hines-Allen. Those players can likely compensate for the loss of Sanders’ counting stats, but replacing her defensive intensity will have to be done by committee, and her presence on the court and leadership off of it will also be tough to replace. As Delle Donne told High Post Hoops’ Lindsay Gibbs in 2018, “She brings a calm throughout the team, where it’s always like, ‘I got this.’”

Another frontcourt player who could help with both counting stats and leadership is Theresa Plaisance, a 6’5 forward whom the Mystics signed on Monday. Plaisance was a third-round draft pick in 2014 and has played for three teams in seven seasons, most recently the Connecticut Sun. In 156 career games, Plaisance has averaged 4.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists, and 0.4 blocks in 12.3 minutes per game.

Plaisance could fill a role similar to that of Tianna Hawkins, who was a candidate for WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year in 2019 with the Mystics and signed with Atlanta as a free agent this offseason. Like Hawkins, Plaisance can space the floor, as she has shot 35% from behind the arc in her career on 2.0 attempts per game. She is also listed as two inches taller than Hawkins and three inches taller than Sanders, which could be important for a Mystics team that has been undersized at times over the past few seasons.

Notably, Plaisance has also posted some remarkable statistics overseas, including a 51-point, 31-rebound performance in China in December 2019 while suffering from what she believes was COVID-19. The previous year, she averaged 22.6 points and 15.8 rebounds per game for the same team, the Shaanxi Red Wolves in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association. That rebounding prowess could be particularly helpful to jumpstart the Mystics’ transition attack and give them more easy baskets and put-backs.

From a leadership standpoint, Plaisance was the Sun’s alternate players union representative and has the reputation of being an excellent teammate and a mentor for younger players. When she is on the bench, she is an extremely supportive cheerleader: The Athletic’s Charlotte Carroll referred to her as one of “the ringleaders of the Connecticut Sun’s now famous bench celebrations,” which Sun guard Briann January credited as the difference-maker in Game 3 of the 2020 WNBA semifinals.

Theresa Plaisance (in white shirt) reacts to the on-court action alongside teammate and “co-ringleader” Natisha Hiedeman (far right).

“We are excited to welcome Theresa to the Mystics. She is a versatile post player who can play both inside and on the perimeter and particularly fits our style of play,” Thibault said. “She has spent the off season getting herself healthy and ready to contribute and will provide us the depth we need to compete for a championship.”

Plaisance has dealt with a torn ACL and multiple back surgeries in her career, and her back reportedly limited her at times last season. However, she recently posted on Instagram that her training this offseason has made her “more aware of how my body should function,” which she hopes will keep her injury-free and help her have a longer professional career.

One Mystics player who is especially excited about Plaisance’s signing is forward Alysha Clark, Plaisance’s former teammate with CCC Polkowice in Poland. In an Instagram story that also included five smiley face emojis, Clark wrote,” We’re baaaaack to being teammates [three heart emojis] Yalla!!!!”

“What’s up DC?!” Plaisance wrote in her own Instagram story, photoshopping a pair of sunglasses on the picture of her that the Mystics posted.

Screenshots from Natasha Cloud, Alysha Clark, and Theresa Plaisance’s Instagram stories.

This offseason, the Mystics have had more moving pieces than anyone expected. Thibault had hoped to keep his core group of players from 2019 and 2020 relatively intact, but the departure of Aerial Powers as well as Sanders’ retirement created space to add new players. Thibault signed Plaisance, McCall, and Clark this offseason and also add Charles, who was acquired last offseason but has yet to play for the team after receiving a medical exemption for the 2020 season.

It remains to be seen how all of these moves affect the Mystics’ rotations and chemistry on the court, but there is no denying that Thibault has assembled an impressive collection of talent. Even without Cloud and Emma Meesseman, Mystics mainstays who have not yet officially re-signed with the team, the Mystics have two former WNBA MVPs (Delle Donne and Charles); another All-WNBA player (Hines-Allen); three WNBA All-Defensive selections (Charles, Clark, and Ariel Atkins); and an Australian national team point guard (Leilani Mitchell).

Perhaps Plaisance was on to something with the choice of sunglasses in her Instagram story: the future looks bright for the Washington Mystics, even if it’s not how Thibault drew it up heading into 2021.

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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