April 2, 2021
Tina Charles is ready to make her long-awaited Washington Mystics debut
At USA Basketball minicamp this week, Charles said she feels “great” after a year away from the WNBA
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It’s fair to say that Tina Charles’ media availability on Wednesday wasn’t the typical press conference for a much-anticipated addition to a WNBA roster.
The new Washington Mystics center and 2012 WNBA MVP didn’t take the Acela train from her native New York City to D.C. to be introduced at the Entertainment and Sports Arena. In these COVID-19 times, she didn’t answer questions from her home over Zoom, either. Instead, Charles spoke briefly with reporters over Zoom from San Antonio, Texas, on the second day of a USA Basketball minicamp ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
Charles has represented Team USA for over a decade, with a career record of 85-6 in international competition, and is looking to make her third Olympic team in 2021. She is grateful to be in the national team pool again and eager to test herself against the best players in the world, both at the minicamp and potentially in Tokyo. “It’s overall fun to be competing against the best of the best, just to see where you’re at. And it’s also humbling,” Charles said.
The minicamp is giving Charles her first taste of five-on-five basketball in a while, as she received a medical exemption and did not play in the WNBA in 2020. But Charles is far from rusty: since June, she has been doing individual workouts with her trainer, Tim Burns, in what has amounted to an extended offseason.
“I feel great,” she said. “… It’s just second nature, like … riding a bike: you just start, you get it, it clicks. Playing five on five, same thing. So everything just comes back.”
The minicamp may also feel a bit like an early Mystics training camp, as guard Ariel Atkins and point guard Natasha Cloud are also participating. Charles got to watch from afar as Atkins took on a bigger role for the Mystics last season, and Charles was impressed with what she saw up close this week.
“Playing alongside and competing against Ariel Atkins, a couple of times in my mind I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, she’s good,’” Charles said. “Then I have to remember that I’ll be playing alongside of her this season.”
Meanwhile, Cloud is in a similar situation to Charles, doing her first five-on-five workouts after missing the 2020 season. The opportunity for both players not only to reacclimate to team workouts but also to develop chemistry with one another could be beneficial before WNBA training camps open at the end of this month.
The Mystics acquired Charles from the New York Liberty in April 2020 in hopes that she would add another dimension to what was a record-setting, 3-point-loving Mystics offense in 2019. “We’re gonna be able to balance our offense,” head coach Mike Thibault said at the time. “… We like to see, in at least 50% of our possessions, the ball somehow touch the paint because it draws defenders. It gives 3-point shooters … an opportunity on the wing … it’s a ‘pick your poison’ thing now for the defense.”
In 330 career games with the Liberty and the Connecticut Sun, the 6’4 Charles has averaged 18.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 45.0% from the field.
The pandemic delayed Charles’ Mystics debut, but she said on Wednesday that she is “definitely looking forward” to playing with the Mystics. She has been honing all aspects of her game this offseason in preparation, but she will let her game speak for itself and plans to lead mostly by example. “I’m someone who’s very quiet; I’m not gonna say too much,” Charles said. “… I know I have expectations for myself and I know what Coach T needs of me.”
That understanding comes from the fact that Thibault drafted Charles into the WNBA in 2010, when he was the head coach of the Sun, and coached her there for three seasons, including her MVP season. “Having coached Tina before in Connecticut, I know what a huge impact she can have on the game every single night,” Thibault said last April, citing not only her scoring but also her rebounding, passing, and competitiveness.
Some observers questioned the trade for Charles, pointing to a drop-off in her efficiency over the past few seasons, but Thibault wasn’t concerned. Charles ranked in the top three in usage rate in each of her last five seasons with New York, but she won’t have to do nearly as much offensively for the Mystics. She had expanded her game in part because of the consistent double teams she got in the post, but she will have more room to operate in Washington, playing next to a two-time WNBA MVP in forward Elena Delle Donne and with shooters such as Cloud, Atkins, and point guard Leilani Mitchell.
Along with Thibault, another familiar face on the Mystics’ staff will help Charles continue to refine her post game: Asjha Jones, Charles’ former Sun and USA Basketball teammate who is now an assistant coach in Washington and works primarily with the team’s bigs. “Asjha and I have a great rapport; she’s like the big sister,” Charles said, recalling how Jones mentored her in Connecticut. “… I always tell Asjha to be hard on me. She knows that I want to be a great player, I want to be a champion, so whatever is needed of me, to just definitely relay that.”
What the Mystics need from Charles could evolve as the season progresses, as other players take on new roles or have to miss games. That was reinforced on Monday, when the team announced that forward Alysha Clark would miss the entire season due to a foot injury she sustained playing overseas. Two days later, the Mystics signed veteran Shavonte Zellous, who played with Charles in New York from 2016 through 2018.
“Shavonte gives us a veteran, versatile wing player with championship experience,” Thibault said in the team’s announcement. “She is having a terrific season in Turkey – the third-leading scorer [in the league]. She is an excellent defender, and her defensive ability will fit in perfectly with our team.”
Zellous has played 11 WNBA seasons for four different teams, most recently the Seattle Storm in 2019. She has averaged 8.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in just over 22 minutes per game. Many of her points come from the free-throw line, where she is a career 80.1% shooter on 3.3 attempts per game.
“Z is a really good player, a pro, a vet, really heavy on defense, willing to do anything, great communicator, and has expectations for herself,” Charles said. “Z was not in the league last year, so I’m happy to see that she’s back where she belongs and … I’m looking forward to playing alongside of Z.”
Charles and Zellous will return to the WNBA at a time when momentum continues to build around player activism and social justice. Charles has a history of activism: she participated in player demonstrations in 2016 following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and she donated her entire 2020 salary to the Black Lives Matter movement. (Because she was medically excused last season, she was still paid in full, unlike players who opted out for other reasons.) She said it was “really beautiful to see” WNBA players engage with the Say Her Name campaign and the African American Policy Forum about social justice last summer—and she expects them to pick up right where they left off.
“When it comes to the need for social justice, when it comes to speaking up [about] women who have been falling at the side of police brutality, I don’t think that’s something that’s going to stop. I don’t think it’s going to be a need for something else ‘to happen.’ That’s just who we are in the WNBA: we use our voices when needed. We have a platform; we take advantage of that for those who don’t.”
Charles also sees a connection between WNBA players’ activism around social justice and politics and women’s college basketball players’ efforts to address inequities in the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments over the past few weeks. “For the women that continue to play and use their voice, I’m very proud of them,” Charles said. “I’m very happy that they exposed the NCAA and what they were doing because along the way, that’s all that us WNBA players are trying to do. We’re just trying to make an influence on the next generation. And I think that’s panning out really well. …
“When you do the work, you’re not the one that sees the results most of the time. … Fortunately for them, they were able to see the results right then and there with forcing the NCAA and forcing their hand to make up for what they did.”
Although Charles enjoyed the chance to be “a true fan” of the WNBA last summer and experience games without the mental and physical demands of playing, she is ready to get back to competing. At age 32, she said, “I have more years behind me than ahead of me when it comes to my basketball career, so I’m just taking advantage of every day that I get to play.”
With the WNBA season just around the corner, that focus on the present and drive to continue playing is exactly what Mystics fans want to hear. Although it is a year later than expected, Charles is locked in and ready to go, and she and frontcourt partner Delle Donne could finally wreak havoc this summer, both for Team USA and for the Mystics.
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.