July 11, 2021 

How Shatori Walker-Kimbrough helped the Mystics get to the Olympic break on top

And what you need to know about Washington's next five weeks

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Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough warms up before Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

The Washington Mystics’ 89-85 overtime win against the Chicago Sky on Saturday was just the second time that guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had worn a Mystics uniform since 2019. She had been a key reserve on the Mystics’ 2019 championship team but was traded away in April 2020. She bounced around four different teams before rejoining the Mystics on July 1 on a seven-day contract.

Now on her second straight seven-day contract, Walker-Kimbrough has reacclimated quickly to the Mystics. She scored eight points in a loss to the New York Liberty on July 3, then made her first start of the season on Saturday and scored 12 points to help the Mystics get a crucial win heading into the Olympic break.

“I kind of feel like I just took a mini vacation … it feels like I never really left,” Walker-Kimbrough said after Saturday’s game. “When I came in, the team embraced me. It was kind of weird because I didn’t forget like any plays. It really felt like I was just on a little vacation.”

Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault turned to Walker-Kimbrough after making three cuts in late June. In her first three WNBA seasons from 2017-19, Walker-Kimbrough averaged 5.2 points, 1.2 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 13.6 minutes per game for the Mystics. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, as she scored in double figures 15 times and had a then-career-high 17 points in June 2019.

Thibault had seen Walker-Kimbrough’s 3-point shooting improve in 2020, as she shot 43.1% on 2.4 attempts per game with the Phoenix Mercury compared to under 34% in her three previous seasons with the Mystics. And he still believed that the player he had drafted sixth overall in 2017 could help his team with her athleticism, instincts and energy, especially given that the Mystics are missing several players due to injury.

“We’ve always loved her athleticism and her quickness,” Thibault said on July 1. “She’s aggressive, and the way we’re playing and the kind of guards we’re playing against, we felt that somebody who had her kind of elite speed and quickness would be really beneficial to our team.”

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The excitement about Walker-Kimbrough’s return was obvious during her first few days back in Washington. She said she had answered Thibault’s phone call on the first ring, and her teammates had reached out to her about the news before she had a chance to text anyone.  Fittingly, the first teammate to greet her at her first practice was the Mystics’ vocal leader, point guard Natasha Cloud.

“I was walking in and I had walked past the weight room and Natasha was in there and, you know, she has some volume to her voice,” Walker-Kimbrough said with a heavy dose of understatement. “So she called my name and [Elena] Delle Donne embraced me. … Even the players that I’m not familiar with, Tina [Charles] and [Shavonte] Zellous and Alysha Clark and Sydney Wiese, they were embracing me, too.”

“It just feels like home,” the Maryland alumna added. The list of people who welcomed her back at that first practice extended even to the staff of the Washington Wizards, which practice in the Mystics’ arena and have the same ownership.

Cloud told the media on July 8 that she was proud of how Walker-Kimbrough had handled the ups and downs of her career over the past year. Those experiences helped the 26-year-old grow and mature as a professional, which can only help her and the Mystics this season.

“Tori has been in a pretty hard situation over this last year,” Cloud said. “… [But] she came right in and it was like she never left. So that was calming for us as well because we know how much we need Tori right now, especially with having [players] out and what she can bring to our team. So the fact that she came into her first game and it was like she never left, she never missed a beat, I was just like, ‘Welcome the F back, Tori, because you are doing the damn thing.’ So it’s been really cool to see her growth as she continues to push through her career.”

Walker-Kimbrough’s play so far has reflected that comfort with her teammates and an understanding of where she fits in the Mystics’ offensive and defensive systems, even as she is still learning some of the team’s newer schemes. Against Chicago, she played 37 minutes, hit five of her 10 shots and added two rebounds and an assist. Nine of her 12 points came in the third quarter, as she hit two pull-up jump shots, a layup off of a backdoor cut and pass from Charles, and a fast-break layup plus the foul. Thibault also praised her tough defense against the Sky’s explosive backcourt, which features All-Stars Courtney Vandersloot and Kahleah Copper.

“One of my points to myself while I was not on a team was just staying ready, getting those reps in, because you never know when that call is going to happen,” Walker-Kimbrough said on Saturday. “… You don’t know who’s going to call, you don’t know what your role is going to be, so I was preparing myself as if I was on a team. I was in the gym every day, I was lifting, I was just making sure I was going to stay ready in case that call [did] come in, and it eventually did.”

Walker-Kimbrough wasn’t the leading scorer against Chicago, as Charles had yet another MVP-caliber performance with 34 points and 17 rebounds. But Charles has scored at least 25 points in her last seven games—a WNBA record—and the Mystics nevertheless entered Saturday on a four-game losing streak. Charles needed more help from the supporting cast, and Walker-Kimbrough provided it.

“She just fits right in,” said Charles, who coincidentally came to Washington in the trade that sent Walker-Kimbrough out of town. “… And she’s a scorer. I was kind of heartbroken when the trade happened and I knew she was involved in it, because … I really like her game. She brings great energy. She’s always competing and looks like she’s always having fun and just a great teammate. But I’m glad it came full circle and she’s back.”

Despite the excitement about Walker-Kimbrough’s return and her strong play, there are no guarantees that she will stay in Washington long term or even for the rest of the season. The Mystics started their Olympic break on July 11, which effectively stops the clock on Walker-Kimbrough’s seven days. She will be with the team at least through the break, but per WNBA rules, she can only sign one more seven-day contract with the Mystics this season before Thibault will have to decide whether to give her a rest-of-season contract.

Walker-Kimbrough insisted that her approach with a seven-day contract is the same as it was when she was on a multi-year rookie deal: “I don’t try to even think about, oh, this is my last day on this contract. I just try to attack the day and try to get that 1% better and try to see what I can bring to the team that day.” In her case, that starts with bringing energy, wreaking havoc on defense, running the court in transition and hitting open shots.

Walker-Kimbrough (32) shoots during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena on July 24, 2018. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

After Saturday’s game, the Mystics dispersed to begin the five-week Olympic break. Players like Walker-Kimbrough, Cloud, Wiese and Zellous will visit family; Charles and Ariel Atkins are both on the U.S. Olympic roster and will fly to Las Vegas for training camp on July 12; and some of the coaches are taking a rare vacation.

“I don’t remember what that is, but we’re going to try to find out,” Thibault quipped of the time off.

“The thing I’m looking most forward to is just being able to reset my body,” added forward Theresa Plaisance, who also scored in double figures on Saturday with 10 points. “I think everybody’s a little beat up right now … I’m also really looking forward to seeing my family and my dog. I miss them a ton.”

The players will get 16 days off before resuming individual workouts in Washington, though Walker-Kimbrough said she might return early to get more work in. Delle Donne, who has missed the entire season due to a back injury, will also come back early, and the Mystics hope she can practice with physical contact for the first time this season in the third week of the break.

The last two weeks will be similar to a preseason training camp, though the Mystics won’t implement too many new plays in the absence of Atkins and Charles. “It’ll probably be getting back to more fundamentals on both sides of the ball, individual skill work that you don’t have as much time to do during the season,” associate head coach Eric Thibault said earlier this week. “… And we’ll probably have a couple things defensively where we’ll be able to do more adjustments that you just don’t have practice time normally to do.”

Mike Thibault also expects that the WNBA’s COVID-19 protocols will allow practice players for the first time all season, which will help the Mystics do five-on-five drills much more consistently. “I think it’ll help us tremendously,” he said. “It’ll help the whole league. Too many teams are shorthanded and trying to manufacture practices.”

The break comes at a good time for the hobbled Mystics, who have played with as few as six available players this season and finished the first half of the season with an 8-10 record. They hope to get several players back to make a second-half push: Delle Donne, Myisha Hines-Allen and Erica McCall could all return from injury, and the team might even be able to add Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP who has been playing with the Belgian national team ahead of the Olympics.

Because the break is so lengthy, it feels to some players like the end of one season and the start of another. Wiese said she’d never experienced anything quite like it in the middle of a season: “I think there’s no way to really simulate it except for treating it like you’re starting another season. I think because of what we do, where we go from [WNBA] season to [overseas] season, it’s almost like an in-between period of time between those two seasons … And so that’s our job: when we’re called to perform, you perform. Doesn’t matter how much time you have off; you’ve got to be able to be prepared for when the lights come back on.”

When those lights come back on in the Mystics’ practice gym, there will also be a lot of excitement, just as there was for Walker-Kimbrough’s arrival. “It’ll be like the first day of school again, where you’re just excited to see all your friends and you can’t go to sleep the night before,” Plaisance said. “I think that’s how it’s going to be for me coming back from break.”

Walker-Kimbrough is similarly excited to keep playing with the Mystics during the break and as long as she can afterward. Her performances so far have made a strong case for a rest-of-season contract—and just as importantly, they helped the Mystics enter the break feeling good about themselves after a hard-fought overtime win.

“I’m super thankful that the organization and Coach T believed in me and gave me that call,” she said after Saturday’s game. “No matter what the contract says, I’m just going to try to take full advantage of the opportunity.”

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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