June 27, 2021
Inside Megan Gustafson’s first week with the Washington Mystics
Cross-country flights, a reunion with a former mentor and a game against the team that cut her
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A whirlwind week for Megan Gustafson ended with something familiar as the newest Washington Mystic faced off against her former team, the Dallas Wings, on Saturday.
Gustafson signed with the Mystics on Jun. 21 on a hardship contract, after a rash of injuries in recent weeks left the team with as few as seven healthy players and a single available post player. The 6’3 center was the No. 17 pick in the WNBA Draft in 2019 and played for the Wings in 2019 and 2020 before being waived at the end of training camp last month.
Gustafson spent the ensuing weeks working on her game, though she admitted that she wasn’t necessarily expecting her agent to call on Jun. 18 with the news that the Mystics wanted to sign her. No matter: She flew to Washington, DC, that night, got settled in her apartment the following day and flew with the team to Seattle on Jun. 20, all before the team even publicly announced her addition.
“It’s been quite the fast, very overwhelming few days, but definitely in a good way,” Gustafson told the media on Jun. 22.
Gustafson has now played in three games, taken part in two shootarounds and had just a single practice — on Jun. 21 in Seattle — with the Mystics. “Her experience with us is in a game,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on Jun. 26. “She’s learning things on the fly.”
Thibault could have opted for a post player who was more familiar with the Mystics’ playbook, such as Jillian Alleyne, his final cut in training camp, or Alaina Coates, who played 21 games for the team in 2020. But Thibault was “intrigued enough” by Gustafson’s WNBA experience, her basketball knowledge and her previous teams’ style of play to give her the opportunity.
“Even in Dallas a little bit but certainly in college [at Iowa], she was a post player who was used to the running game, running the middle lane of the floor and getting early post-ups,” Thibault said. “If she was involved in pick-and-rolls rolling to the basket, she’s a good finisher around the basket. She’s worked on her face-up game and extended her range … It helps that she’s played in the league. It helps that she’s smart in general … Some of the things we do are things that she’s done in the past. And she picked up things quickly.”
According to Thibault, Gustafson could be with the Mystics for anywhere from a week to the rest of the season, depending on the rest of the roster. Amid that uncertainty, Gustafson is focusing on giving the team energy, playing hard and doing whatever the team needs with its depleted roster.
“I’m trying to take everything in one step at a time, focus on the day ahead of me, what it’s going to take to be able to help my team,” she said after the Mystics’ loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on Jun. 24. “… I’m just trying to come in and give our posts a break. I know our bodies are tired, but I’m fresh. So I’m ready to go. I’m going to try to keep doing that.”
“[She’s] wide-eyed, really excited to be back in the league and just a very sweet, sweet woman,” Charles said. “… She has great size. She’s going to drag in the defense, her running the floor hard, she’s going to get boards and she’s going to finish around the rim … Coach T’s really great at bringing in specific individuals into this organization, and he did really well with her.”
Gustafson called it “a post player’s dream” to learn from Charles, who was the WNBA MVP in 2012, has earned All-WNBA honors eight times and was recently named to her third Olympic team. But Gustafson knows she can’t try to be Charles when she subs in for her.
“If … she needs a break, I can’t let down,” Gustafson said. “I need to keep that same energy going. Obviously, nobody can replace her when she’s not in the game. She’s a legend. But my goal when that happens is to bring that same amount of energy. … I like that back-to-the-basket feel, that physicality, and I think I can match that part.”
Gustafson’s adaptability and willingness to do whatever Thibault asks is perhaps most evident when, instead of spelling Charles at center, she replaces Theresa Plaisance at power forward. Gustafson has actually played about two-thirds of her minutes for the Mystics with Charles rather than in her natural position alongside Plaisance, but it has largely worked out for the Mystics. “There’s a couple tough defensive matchups” with a Gustafson-Charles lineup, Thibault said on Jun. 26, “but I thought [Megan has] done a good job in the short amount of time.”
Gustafson got the Mystics’ playbook “the minute we knew we were signing her,” Thibault said, but with just one practice under her belt, she is still learning it. She has compensated for her lack of tactical knowledge by relying on her basketball instincts. That includes focusing on rebounding—a perennial strength for the Big Ten’s career rebounding leader—and on playing off of Plaisance and Charles.
“If Tina’s inside down low, I’m obviously going to give her space to do what she needs to do because she’s really good at that,” Gustafson said. “[Plaisance], she’s going to pop, usually, get that three going, and so I can get inside.”
Although she hasn’t previously played for the Mystics, one advantage for Gustafson is that she played with Plaisance in Dallas in 2019. They developed a close relationship, with Plaisance mentoring the rookie Gustafson, and are thrilled to be teammates again.
“She was the one that was always making sure I was okay, helping me out, getting me used to the system at Dallas,” Gustafson said, “… and she’s kind of doing the same thing now.”
“I love Megan. She has a special place in my heart,” Plaisance added. “… To see her have another opportunity in this league is really awesome. Megan’s a really great person and extremely hard worker. … She fit in instantly. And for her to provide the minutes that she’s providing in such a short period of time—we’re asking a lot of her to know our entire offensive scheme, to be on the same page as us on the defensive end. I think Megan’s coming in and giving us solid minutes, and she’s doing everything that we can ask her to do.”
Ahead of the Mystics’ game against Dallas, Gustafson and Plaisance joined forces to help with the scouting report. Thibault explained that the coaching staff can see opponents’ visual play calls, such as hand signals, on film, but opponents might also have verbal calls that are harder to discern, which is where the former Dallas players could contribute. Guard Ariel Atkins also said that learning from a player like Gustafson about opposing players’ tendencies can help, especially when plays break down and players have to respond on the fly.
While Plaisance, who was traded from Dallas to Connecticut during the 2019 season, said that she had “no bad blood” with the Wings and was excited to see all the Dallas fans who had supported her, Gustafson’s emotions about returning to the College Park Center were a little more complicated. “I’m really, really excited to play in that game,” she said on Jun. 24. “And so I think I’ll be more motivated than ever, to be honest.”
Gustafson looked the part early on Saturday, as she subbed in for Plaisance with 4:03 left in the first quarter and scored just 44 seconds later. She got good post position, saw her defender gamble for a steal and converted the easy layup.
About two minutes later, she contested a Dallas 3-point shot, then outran the Wings in transition and made a layup. She finished with six points and four rebounds on 3-of-5 shooting in 16:31.
Before the game, first-year Wings head coach Vickie Johnson had said that she was happy to see Gustafson back in Dallas: “I enjoyed my time with Megan. She’s a great young player. Unfortunately, the roster didn’t permit her to be on our team, but she deserves a chance in the WNBA and I’m very happy that Washington has given her a chance.”
And Gustafson is determined to capitalize on that chance. Through three games in an unfamiliar system, she is averaging 4.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in 12.3 minutes per game while shooting 60.0 percent from the field. She has increased her scoring in every game and—although the sample size is small—has collected a whopping 39.3 percent of available defensive rebounds when she is on the court.
“I’m just excited to be here, excited to be able to put on a WNBA jersey,” Gustafson said hours before her Mystics debut. “… Being able to be on the biggest stage of basketball possible and learning under people that have been playing the game for so long and that they’re legends, I mean, it’s all I could ever ask for.”
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.