August 10, 2021
Can anyone slow down Tina Charles?
'This is a legendary season'
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After Tina Charles scored 30+ points three times in her first five games for the Washington Mystics this season, some of her teammates naturally assumed she would come back down to Earth.
“We were saying to ourselves, ‘We can’t rely on Tina [this much]; she’s not going to be able to keep doing this,’” point guard Leilani Mitchell said in late June. “But every time we look at the stat sheet, she’s doing it again and again and again. She’s just like a machine, hasn’t stopped, hasn’t slowed down.”
Indeed, Charles’ first half of the season has constituted one of the most impressive performances in WNBA history. In her first season with the Mystics after sitting out in 2020, the 6’4 center is averaging a league-high 26.3 points per game and adding 10.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks in 33.8 minutes per game. Her scoring average is over five points higher than the league’s No. 2 scorer, Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones, and would be the highest in WNBA history over an entire season:
Even while playing heavy minutes and being the focal point of the Mystics’ offense, Charles has been remarkably efficient. Her player efficiency rating (PER) of 28.7 is a career high and ranks second in the league behind Jones. As a result, PointsBet currently gives Charles the second-best odds to win WNBA MVP, behind Jones and ahead of preseason favorite Breanna Stewart.
But Charles isn’t motivated by winning an MVP award, a scoring title or any other individual honor. Instead, she has her sights set on a WNBA championship, which was a major reason why she requested a trade from her hometown New York Liberty after the 2019 season and wanted to join the Mystics.
“I have things that I would like to accomplish and that’s to win a championship,” Charles said in June. “And it starts with the way that I carry myself out on the court and how dominant I can be each and every single night. … I’m just going out there, doing my job and trying to hold myself accountable to my teammates.”
“Doing her job” has meant carrying the Mystics every night, as six players have missed at least four games with injuries. In her 11th WNBA season, the eight-time All-WNBA player, 2012 MVP and future Hall of Famer has become more versatile—and dominant—than ever before.
A ‘superhuman’ season
Let’s start with Charles’ scoring, since that is the statistic that many people notice first. In addition to her 26.3 points per game, she leads the league in total points (447), field goals made (169) and field goals attempted (361)—even though the Mystics have played the fewest games of any team and Charles missed one game to attend the premiere of her film “Game Changer.”
In June, Charles became the first player in WNBA history to have consecutive 30-point, 15-rebound performances—and she did it again in July. She also scored at least 25 points in a WNBA-record seven straight games heading into the Olympic break. To put the volume of her scoring in perspective, Charles has already scored 75 percent of the total points she scored in her 2012 MVP season, in half as many games and half as many minutes.
Charles is scoring this prolifically despite frequent double- and even triple-teams. Even the Las Vegas Aces’ All-Star frontcourt of 6’4 A’ja Wilson, 6’8 Liz Cambage and 6’3 Dearica Hamby couldn’t stop Charles one-on-one in the first half on June 5, so they double-teamed her in the second half. That did slow Charles, but only because she deferred to teammates Myisha Hines-Allen and Ariel Atkins, who combined for 61 points in that game.
Yet doubling Charles comes with risks, even if players like Hines-Allen and Atkins don’t get hot. To be blunt, if teams don’t put two All-Stars in that double-team like the Aces did, it’s unlikely to affect Charles. According to Synergy, Charles is averaging 1.022 points per play overall, which it rates as “excellent” efficiency. In post-up situations against a single defender, that number goes up to 1.137. And in post-ups against a “hard double-team,” that number is 1.122, a negligible difference from single coverage.
Teams have also tried many other tactics to slow Charles down, but few have worked. “We come in, we have a game plan, but she’s obviously having a phenomenal season,” Chicago Sky forward and two-time MVP Candace Parker said after Charles had 34 points and 17 rebounds on July 10. “… In terms of [isolation] on the block, she’s one of the toughest to defend.”
So tough, in fact, that the New York Liberty effectively waved the white flag on May 21. Charles feasted on single coverage to score 34 points, and head coach Walt Hopkins admitted afterward, “I told the team that she would probably have between 30 and 40 [points] tonight. The goal was to stop everybody else.”
But an MVP case isn’t built solely on scoring, and the 32-year-old Charles has had a career year nearly across the board. She ranks second in the WNBA in rebounds per game (10.0), has the sixth-lowest turnover percentage (8.7%) and often guards the opponent’s best frontcourt player.
“Throughout most of her career, she’s been a dominant rebounder, and early in the season, that was kind of up and down,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on July 10. “… But over the last two or three weeks, we’re seeing 15 rebounds in a game,  in a game, tonight 17. That looks like the rebounding Tina when she was young. She was one of the best rebounders in the whole league back then, and I think she’s getting herself back there.”
Defensively, Thibault said, Charles uses her length and foot speed to great effect and doesn’t fall for pump-fakes. And she ends possessions by securing defensive rebounds, then passing quickly up court or even bringing the ball up herself.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Charles’ game this season has been her consistency, as her longtime Olympic teammates Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles pointed out in separate interviews last month. She is averaging 27.8 points per game when she gets at least three days’ rest and 26.6 on just one day’s rest. She has had fewer than 20 points just three times and fewer than six rebounds just once. And when the Mystics lose, it’s rarely because Charles had a merely human performance, as she is averaging 23.4 points and 8.9 rebounds in those games.
Whichever way you slice and dice Charles’ numbers, then, they add up to one thing in the eyes of Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud. “What she’s done in this first half of the season is unbelievable,” Cloud said on July 8. “And so she should be the front-runner for an MVP.”
Charles’ evolution from Hall-of-Famer to historic
2021 has been the best season of Charles’ career—and that’s saying something. In addition to her 2012 MVP award, she won a scoring title in 2016 and made two Olympic rosters and seven WNBA All-Star Games before this season. Her career average of 18.1 points per game entering this season already ranked tenth in WNBA history, ahead of legends such as Parker, Sheryl Swoopes and Seimone Augustus, and her 9.5 rebounds per game ranked third. She is outdoing herself in both categories.
“Anybody who’s been able to be in the game that long and still continuously is getting better and better, being able to put up the numbers that she’s been able to put up, it’s pretty amazing and it impresses me every day,” Atkins said on July 26.
Charles is also posting career highs in nearly 20 statistical categories, from usage rate to free throw shooting percentage to win shares per 40 minutes. Perhaps the most obvious improvement, though, is from behind the arc, where she has already set a career high with 34 makes this season on 37.0 percent shooting.
Charles did that by working with trainer Tim Burns to bring her release point forward instead of shooting above her head. She ranks ninth in the WNBA this season with 2.0 made threes per game—not bad for a player who didn’t make more than one in a season until her seventh year in the league in 2016.
“She was an MVP without even having that in her game,” Thibault said. “So now she’s made teams [pay] for every kind of way they’ve played her.”
Delle Donne described what that feels like from a player’s perspective: “Her post moves have always been impossible to guard. She has had post moves that nobody else in this league can do. So now that she’s got an outside shot to open her up, it’s like, what are you even supposed to do?”
As Charles has become a bigger threat from behind the arc, she has also become more efficient inside it, trading mid-range shots for close-range shots or threes. In 2019, about 50 percent of Charles’ shots came less than 10 feet from the basket, about 40 percent were mid-range shots and about 10 percent were threes. This season, 53 percent of her shots are from close range and 26 percent are from deep—and she’s shooting better from both distances.
“I like to think that the grind goes unnoticed, but the results don’t, and I’m a person who reflects that,” Charles said in May. “… I’m just trying to be more efficient, trying to take better shots, get my [teammates] involved, be very selective … [I’m] trying to be smarter as I get older and not have to force anything, not settle for anything and just keep driving to the basket.”
Beyond her improved shot selection, her ability to handle the ball is relatively new to her game, she is more comfortable guarding smaller players and she is in the best shape of her career. She doesn’t tire late in games, and her efficiency numbers reflect that. Against Chicago on July 10, for example, she played 37:34 of regulation and still had the energy to get an offensive rebound and a buzzer-beating putback to force overtime.
These improvements are obvious to people who have worked with Charles throughout her career, from Thibault, who coached her in her first three WNBA seasons with the Connecticut Sun, to her Olympic teammates to her former Liberty teammates and coaches.
Mystics guard Shavonte Zellous, who played with Charles for the Liberty from 2016-18, said in May, “If anybody is sleeping on Tina, they’re a fool. … Of course we know she’s a back-to-the-[basket] killer in the paint, she can shoot the three, but now she’s got a little bit of handles with her. So anybody sleeping on Tina, beware.”
Bill Laimbeer, Charles’ coach with the Liberty from 2014-17, said on June 5 that she “looks much better and much more comfortable right now than I’ve ever seen her.” And after Charles had 34 points, 16 rebounds and 5 assists against Seattle on June 22, Zellous said, “[I’ve] been playing with her for a while, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as dominant as she was today.”
The impact on the Mystics—and Team USA
The Mystics entered the Olympic break in eighth place with an 8-10 record, and without Charles’ elite performances, things would look a lot worse. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton estimates that Charles has already created 4.4 more wins for the Mystics this season than they would have with a player on a minimum contract in her place. Notably, she averaged 33.0 points and 13.7 rebounds in narrow wins over Minnesota, Seattle and Chicago, which are all championship contenders. On those nights, the Mystics looked like a top team in the league because Charles played like one of the best players of all time.
“34 [points] and 17 [rebounds]? Like, what? That’s crazy!” Atkins said after the Chicago win.
Charles tends to do much of her scoring early, getting about one-third of her points and shooting her highest effective field goal percentage in the first quarter. In the second half, she’s more likely to get teammates involved. In fact, she’s not even the Mystics’ leading scorer in fourth quarters—that’s Atkins, with 5.3 points per game to Charles’ 5.1.
That formula has kept the Mystics in games: With Charles on the court, the Mystics score 0.3 more points per 100 possessions than their opponents, compared to 10.9 fewer than opponents when she is off the court. They have better offensive rebound, defensive rebound, steal and turnover rates than opponents when she’s on the court, but the opposite is true without her.
Crucially, Charles is not putting up massive numbers because she is a ball hog or a selfish player. Rather, her production reflects how badly she wants a championship and how she has embraced the role that her team needs her to play—even though she had hoped to be one of several scoring options for the Mystics rather than the single go-to player.
“What she’s doing is statistically … unprecedented,” Thibault said on July 6. “But I think she would give that up in [a] heartbeat if you could add three more wins … I think the frustrating part for her and for others is we’ve come to try to win a championship and all of a sudden, the pieces you intended to play with aren’t out there.”
“I can’t wait for these [injured players] to get back so I’m not taking 20-plus shots,” Charles confirmed with a laugh on July 10.
Charles happily played a supporting role this summer for the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, averaging 4.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 17.1 minutes per game. She came off the bench and focused on details such as setting screens, running the floor and playing tough defense. But when the team needed her to score, she was ready: On Aug. 2, Charles had 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and five assists to help the U.S. slip by France.
“Tina just really gave us a shot in the arm when we needed it,” U.S. head coach Dawn Staley said after that game. “… We see offensively what she gave to our team, but defensively I thought she was a glue out there, just directing traffic. So it’s a luxury to have a three-time Olympian come off the bench and impact the game the way she did.”
The ripple effects
In addition to her on-court numbers, Charles has been an outstanding leader and mentor for her teammates. In Tokyo, Charles mentored Atkins, who was selected for her first Olympics at age 24. After the team was announced, Charles promised Atkins, “I’ll be by your side every step of the way, any questions that you have,” and she kept her word.
“She’s really taken care of me since we’ve been here [in Tokyo],” Atkins said on July 26, “and even in my time in DC. Even though it’s new for her [in DC], she’s still very caring and wants to make sure that everyone’s okay. And that’s something that I really appreciate.”
With the Mystics, Charles consistently holds her teammates accountable and demands that they are as committed and focused as she is. She has publicly praised Zellous and Mitchell for holding her accountable in return, and she and Cloud called a players-only meeting to discuss the team’s identity after the Mystics lost five of their first seven games.
“I just wanted to make sure there was a sense of urgency,” Charles said, “because I’m someone who’s very intense, and I want to make sure that everybody else, nobody’s feeling relaxed around me or anything. We should not be comfortable. This is still a season we can get.”
Charles’ younger teammates haven’t seemed intimidated by that intensity, instead trying to absorb as much as they can from her. “To learn under people like Tina Charles, it’s kind of a post player’s dream, to be honest,” center Megan Gustafson said on June 22, one day after she joined the team on a seven-day contract.
To Atkins and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Charles’ professionalism and businesslike demeanor stand out, even though they both played with many veterans on the Mystics’ 2019 championship team. “She just makes sure that she’s always ready for the game, and I’m just glad that I can see that firsthand,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “She gets her shots up [and] she gets her treatment done, no matter what.”
And when that businesslike preparation, intensity, Hall of Fame talent and grueling offseason workouts come together, the result is a history-making season.
“It’s like you’re watching a video game right before your eyes,” guard Sydney Wiese said on July 10. “The moves that she does, the shots that she’s making, it’s high level. … To see it firsthand, to witness it and to be a part of it in a small way, it has been—like, I won’t forget it. I can’t wait to tell my kids about it one day down the line.
“This is a legendary season, and I think it should be appreciated and viewed that way.”
Just one question remains: Is it possible to stop Tina Charles this season, or even to slow her assault on the record books?
“I don’t know,” Thibault said after Charles’ 34-point performance against Seattle in June. “We’ve joked in our office—I mean, it’s not a real joke, but … how would we play against her? We’re thinking, Man, that’s really hard.
“And what I think we would do, I will never tell anybody else, ever.”
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.