January 28, 2022
Mystics notebook: Delle Donne to USA Basketball camp; Cloud debuts with Athletes Unlimited
Longtime WNBA assistant coach Shelley Patterson is heading to DC
The breaking news out of Washington, DC, was supposed to start next week, as WNBA free agents can officially sign contracts starting on Feb. 1. With only four players currently on guaranteed contracts, that leaves room for general manager and head coach Mike Thibault to maneuver—and he’ll need it in order to bring back star free agents such as Tina Charles, Myisha Hines-Allen and Emma Meesseman.
(Editor’s Note: The Daily Briefing returns Saturday.)
However, several pieces of Mystics news arrived ahead of schedule this week, from Elena Delle Donne’s imminent return to practice to a new assistant coach to Natasha Cloud’s debut in Athletes Unlimited. Let’s run through what you need to know from a busy week.
Delle Donne leads Mystics playing for national teams
On Thursday, USA Basketball announced its 17-player roster for the women’s national team training camp scheduled from Feb. 5-7 in DC. The Mystics have two representatives, Delle Donne and 2020 Olympian Ariel Atkins. Atkins is also expected to be one of the 12 players chosen from that roster to compete in the FIBA World Cup Qualifying Tournament.
The tournament will consist of games against Belgium on Feb. 11 and Puerto Rico on Feb. 12, and Meesseman is expected to play for Team Belgium.
Delle Donne will not play in the qualifying tournament as she continues to rehab a back injury. She herniated three discs in the 2019 WNBA Finals and had two back surgeries in 2020. She also adjusted her biomechanics so that when she walks, runs and jumps, those movements put less pressure on her back. The two-time WNBA MVP made her comeback on Aug. 22, 2021 against the Seattle Storm but played just two more games in 2021 after experiencing more nerve pain in her back.
However, Thibault has been optimistic about Delle Donne’s 2022 prognosis since the 2021 season ended. During the WNBA draft lottery on Dec. 19, he told ESPN, “Elena’s making great progress right now in the offseason.”
A few days prior, he spoke about Delle Donne and forward Alysha Clark’s rehab processes on the Slappin’ Glass podcast: “We’re going to probably get them back, hopefully at full strength. … If somebody were to tell me, ‘Hey, they’re not going to play again [in 2022],’ I think our whole approach might be a little bit different … But we have to go in and assume that we’re going to have our core group.”
Delle Donne’s participation in a Team USA training camp for the first time since her 2019 injury bolsters those hopes. It is not known whether she is cleared to participate fully, but getting back on the court in any capacity is an important step toward suiting up for the Mystics in May.
Mystics add veteran assistant Shelley Patterson
Also on Thursday, the Mystics announced a new addition to their bench in longtime WNBA coach Shelley Patterson. The team had had a vacancy for a while alongside Mike Thibault and associate head coach Eric Thibault: In 2020, a rule change allowed teams to have three assistant coaches, up from two, as long as one of the four total coaches is a former player. But the Mystics had never filled that extra spot despite having former players Asjha Jones (2020) and LaToya Sanders (2021-present) on the bench.
Now, that spot is filled by someone who has coached for over 30 years in the college and professional ranks, including over 20 years in the WNBA. Patterson has won WNBA championships with the Houston Comets in 1999 and the Minnesota Lynx in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017. She has also served as an assistant coach with the Indiana Fever (2000-03), Phoenix Mercury (2004), Seattle Storm (2007-09) and New York Liberty (2020-21).
“Shelley is an exciting hire for our Mystics coaching staff,” Mike Thibault said in the Mystics’ announcement. “… She knows the league inside and out and her scouting preparation and player development experience will make us a better staff and team. I can’t wait to have her in D.C.!”
Eric Thibault added on Twitter, “Fired up!”
Patterson is an important hire for a Mystics team that will likely get younger in free agency. The Mystics were the oldest team in the league last season, and Mike Thibault said in September that he would carefully consider how many older players he signed for 2022 because of the added injury risk. Patterson is known for her work with guards and for her ability to help players hone their shots, according to The Next’s New York Liberty beat reporter Jackie Powell, and will be a valuable resource for the Mystics’ young players in particular.
In her most recent positions with the Lynx and Liberty, Patterson has helped develop players such as Olympian Lindsay Whalen; 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier; and 2021 WNBA All-Rookie Team member DiDi Richards, who shot 45.5% from 3-point range last season despite questions on draft night about her offensive skills.
Powell and women’s basketball analyst LaChina Robinson both praised Patterson’s hire on Twitter, and WNBA agent Stephanie Stanley also spoke highly of Patterson last week while discussing Athletes Unlimited, where Patterson is currently working as a “facilitator.” (The league is player-led and has no formal coaches; facilitators are people with coaching experience who can advise players.)
“Kudos to Athletes Unlimited for bringing [Patterson and Pokey Chatman] in because that’s definitely going to help development with players,” Stanley said. “I don’t know of any better coaches for developing players than those two right there.”
Cloud leads Athletes Unlimited after Day 1
Cloud’s offseason has taken her all over the world, including to Jordan for the FIBA Asia Cup and back home to Philadelphia before she headed to Las Vegas for Athletes Unlimited. The inaugural five-week season of Athletes Unlimited basketball kicked off on Wednesday, and Cloud’s hope is that Athletes Unlimited can be a permanent domestic option for players who don’t want to go overseas in the offseason.
The Athletes Unlimited system differs from the WNBA in several ways, most notably that players receive points in every game for their individual and team statistics and that the top four point-getters draft new teams each week. Cloud was picked just eighth overall in the Week 1 draft, but she starred in her first game for Team Carrington with 18 points, 13 assists, six rebounds and two steals with just one turnover in 38 minutes. That effort helped her team recover from an eight-point halftime deficit to win 92-85 and put her atop the individual leaderboard with a whopping 562 points.
Cloud also showed off some of the skills she has worked on with trainer James Clark this offseason. In particular, she has focused on “changing my paces, utilizing my strength of being a bigger guard and slowing down and being able to create and dissect those pick-and-rolls,” all of which she demonstrated in this drive to the basket:
Cloud had pushed for Athletes Unlimited to expand to basketball after watching her wife, Aleshia Ocasio, play in its inaugural softball season. After the league added volleyball and lacrosse, basketball was finally next, and Cloud was thrilled to be part of opening night.
“For this moment to finally be here is amazing. It’s everything, especially when you believe in this league so much and you know the future that it holds,” she told Khristina Williams of Girls Talk Sports TV on Wednesday. “Like, we are the pioneers behind it, so it’s an extreme blessing to be here at this moment with these 44 women. This is going to be a really good night, but this is the first of many years to come.”
The Athletes Unlimited season continues this weekend, on Friday, Jan. 28 and Saturday, Jan. 29. Cloud will take the court at 7 p.m. ET on both nights, and both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports 2.
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.