April 13, 2021
2021 WNBA Draft Preview: Washington Mystics
Mike Thibault on how to succeed in business without any draft picks
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault is not having any fear of missing out—popularly known as FOMO—about the 2021 WNBA Draft.
“[I’m] happy to be out of picks,” he told The Next last week. “… Thrilled. I have no interest in being in this draft.”
The Mystics shed all three of their 2021 draft picks last April as part of one massive trade for 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles. They had a difficult season in 2020, largely due to a rash of injuries, so the 2021 picks they traded ended up being higher than expected, at fifth in each round. But for Thibault, the tradeoff was still well worth it.
“The idea in when you make a trade or get rid of picks is to have the best player available to you,” he said. “We have Tina Charles; we don’t have this draft, which is absolutely thrilling for me.”
The main reason Thibault is so uninterested in the 2021 draft is because it is widely considered to be weaker than both the 2020 draft and the next few drafts. The NCAA gave all winter sport student-athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and dozens of seniors are taking advantage of that option, which has limited the pool of prospects. As a result, Thibault said, some players who may have been later-round picks in other drafts will likely be first-round picks on Thursday.
Thibault and his staff still scouted players this season, though they focused less on that than on free agency. And they will still watch the draft, as they’ll potentially have some work to do at the end of the night.
Thibault said he will likely sign “one or two” undrafted players to participate in training camp at the end of the month. The Mystics currently have 15 players on their roster, which is the maximum that teams can have on the court at one time in training camp. However, several of those players are injured or will be late to camp because of overseas commitments, so they won’t count toward the maximum. Myisha Hines-Allen and Kiara Leslie will definitely report late, and Erica McCall could also be late, according to Thibault.
This will be Thibault’s ninth WNBA Draft since he joined the Mystics in December 2012, and he has leveraged the draft very well during that span to improve his roster. He is not one to stockpile picks — he has had an average of just 2.4 picks per draft and a total of seven first-round picks in nine years — but he has gotten good value out of his 22 selections.
Six players who were drafted by the Mystics under Thibault are still with the team, despite the Mystics’ flurry of free agent signings in the past two offseasons. Four of those six players were picked outside the first round, which is remarkable in a league in which even first-round picks can struggle to make a roster. (Those numbers include free agent and former second-round pick Emma Meesseman, who is expected to return to the Mystics late in the 2021 season or for 2022.)
Looking at the Mystics’ five first-round picks who are no longer with the team, three were traded in exchange for WNBA MVPs Charles and Elena Delle Donne, and a fourth, Tayler Hill, was traded for Aerial Powers, who was a key contributor to the Mystics’ 2019 championship. That, too, is an excellent return on investment.
Thibault didn’t reveal what attributes or positions on the court he is looking for in undrafted players, but he has often thought outside the box when it comes to draft picks and may do the same on Thursday. Seven of his 22 picks with the Mystics have been players from mid-major colleges or from overseas; his selection of Texas’ Ariel Atkins with the No. 7 overall pick was a surprise at the time but is now considered a home run; and he has not leaned much on local or powerhouse programs, drafting just one player each from Maryland and Connecticut over the past nine drafts. His selection of Creighton’s Jaylyn Agnew in the second round last season made Agnew the first-ever Creighton player chosen in the WNBA Draft.
Could Thibault uncover another player on Thursday who could surprise, either right away in training camp or in years to come? That’s a big ask for a general manager with zero draft picks, but if anyone can do it, it’s Mike Thibault.
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.