May 20, 2021 

Don’t panic, Mystics fans: Washington’s on-court woes could soon fix themselves

Hines-Allen's return, Wiese and McCall's emergence have the Mystics poised for better results

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The Washington Mystics have struggled in their first two games, as their facial expressions in this photo show. But some of their problems may not last long. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

WASHINGTON — After the Washington Mystics dropped their season opener to the Chicago Sky on Saturday, 70-56, head coach Mike Thibault didn’t overreact.

“We’re not going to judge our team by what happened today,” he said. “… I didn’t expect us to be the best version of ourselves and I don’t expect it for a while.”

But after his team lost again on Tuesday, 91-70 to the Phoenix Mercury, he was clearly frustrated. The Mystics got outrebounded by 16, despite rebounding being “all we talked about for two days.” And they shot a paltry 31% from the field and 18% from 3-point range—which were actually better than Saturday’s 25% and 13%, respectively.

“The big improvement was from 25 to 30%,” Thibault said. “That’s terrible. … Can’t shoot 30% and win games.”

The issues extend throughout the lineup: center Tina Charles leads the Mystics with 18.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, but she is shooting just 33% from the field this season and 14% from behind the arc. Three other starters are shooting 25% or worse from the field, including guard Leilani Mitchell, who is typically a major threat from behind the arc but has yet to score a point this season. And only one reserve — forward Erica McCall—is averaging more than four points or two rebounds per game.

The Mystics clearly miss forward Elena Delle Donne, the two-time MVP who is still recovering from offseason back surgery; forward Myisha Hines-Allen, who is currently in quarantine after finishing her overseas season last weekend; and forward Alysha Clark, who was the team’s marquee offseason addition before suffering a season-ending foot injury overseas.

However, just as Thibault said he wouldn’t judge the team on one game, Mystics fans shouldn’t panic over two early losses. Delle Donne’s back injury could be a more intractable problem, but two of the Mystics’ other issues are likely to fix themselves. Here’s how:

A second—and third and fourth—scoring option

The problem: Through two games, the Mystics have just two players averaging double figures in scoring, Charles and point guard Natasha Cloud. Charles led the team with 14 points against Chicago and 22 against Phoenix, while Cloud rebounded from a 2-for-10 outing against Chicago to score 18 points against Phoenix, mostly on crafty drives to the rim.

“I think we do a really good job of getting Tina going early and getting her touches early,” Cloud said after Tuesday’s game. “… Today I called my number a little bit more because I can attack their bigs off of ball screens, so putting pressure on them to either engage two [defenders] or to get to the bucket.”

Cloud was one of the few players Thibault praised after Tuesday’s game, both for carrying some of the scoring load and for her defense on Phoenix legend Diana Taurasi. If Cloud can consistently be the second scoring option until Delle Donne returns, that could be a major boost for the Mystics. But Cloud is naturally more of a playmaker: she averaged 5.6 assists to go along with 9.0 points in 2019, and she has the seventh-highest career assist rate (25.9%) of any active player.

Thibault appeared to recognize this, as he pointed to guard Ariel Atkins as his preferred second option after Charles. (Cloud was more equivocal, naming herself, Atkins and Mitchell all as co-second options.) Atkins had a stellar season in 2020 as the second option behind Hines-Allen, averaging 14.8 points per game on 44% shooting. But she has had a rough start to the season, averaging just 8.5 points on 25% shooting.

The solution: In 2020, Hines-Allen was the runner-up for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player and was named Second Team All-WNBA after averaging 17.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game. She also shot 51% from the field and 42% from 3-point range while starting all 22 regular-season games. She kept up that torrid pace this offseason, averaging nearly identical numbers for her French team, Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomeration (BLMA).

BLMA advanced to the league championship game on May 15 before falling to Basket Landes, and the following day, Hines-Allen flew back to the United States and entered a mandatory quarantine. Thibault indicated that she could be released from quarantine late on May 22, so she could potentially play as soon as May 23 against Indiana, though she would not be able to practice with the Mystics before that game.

Hines-Allen’s return is significant because she can immediately slide in as the second scoring option, taking some pressure off of the Mystics’ guards and giving Thibault more flexibility with his lineups. “When Myisha gets here, it will kind of put some people in the natural, normal rotation spots,” Thibault said on Saturday. “So if you start Myisha with Tina, you can play big or small, you can … bring Theresa [Plaisance] as your first post off the bench instead of in the starting lineup, or you could start her and play Myisha at the three and play big.”

Washington Mystics forward Erica McCall (#24) blocks Phoenix Mercury guard Shey Peddy’s shot in a game on May 18, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Impact players off the bench

The problem: If healthy and available, Delle Donne, Hines-Allen and Clark would all potentially start for the Mystics, so their absences dramatically impacted the rotation. With a full roster, Mitchell and Plaisance would likely be reserves, but both have started the first two games, leaving Thibault searching for impact players off the bench. He spoke in the preseason about needing to identify a fourth guard behind Cloud, Atkins and Mitchell, and he pointed to rebounding as a need that a reserve forward could fill.

The solution, part 1: The frontcourt has been more clear-cut than the backcourt, not just because Hines-Allen and Delle Donne will both eventually return but also because McCall has gotten off to an excellent start. The fifth-year forward, who joined the Mystics via trade this offseason, is averaging 8.5 points and 6.5 rebounds through two games, well above her previous career highs of 3.3 and 2.7, respectively. She is also shooting a team-high 50% from the field and made her presence felt defensively against Phoenix by blocking a shot and taking two charges.

“I think she’s the most consistent in her role, just being a star in her role and what’s expected of her,” Charles said on Tuesday. “Just coming off the bench and giving a great presence and energy on the glass and rolling hard and making sure she’s aware of where the ball is and finding her spots. It’s just everything you would want.”

McCall has even made a case for herself to start over Plaisance on Friday against New York. If she does, the change could also help Plaisance get going offensively, as she has been a reserve for most of her career and may thrive there again.

The solution, part 2: Meanwhile, Thibault dipped into the trade market last week to bolster his options at guard, acquiring Sydney Wiese from Los Angeles just before the deadline to finalize his opening-day roster. Wiese did not arrive in time to practice with the team on Friday and played just four minutes on Saturday, but the training wheels came off on Tuesday as she was the first guard off the bench. She scored eight points and made all five of her free throws in 19 minutes. 

Cloud said after Tuesday’s game that Wiese was an underrated acquisition for the Mystics and is poised to be a difference-maker. “She came in and she came ready,” Cloud said. “She picked up our plays, our game schemes, our game plans immediately. … That’s what we need right now with waiting for players like Myisha to come back, Elena to come back. 

“Sydney’s been great. She’s great for our locker room. … She’s a player that I don’t think a lot of people respect, but from the time that [she] came in[to the league], she’s a completely different player now.”

Wiese’s arrival noticeably altered the Mystics’ rotation on Tuesday, a game after Thibault said that everyone was going to have to “earn their minutes … pretty soon” rather than getting minutes simply because the team was shorthanded. On Saturday, guards Shavonte Zellous, Kiara Leslie and Stella Johnson all played between 12 and 16 minutes. On Tuesday, Zellous played 13 minutes but didn’t check into the game until just over three minutes remained in the third quarter, while Leslie played just six minutes and Johnson did not play. Thibault will likely continue to experiment—this was only the second game of the season, after all—but Wiese seems to have claimed the top backup guard spot for now.

In a fun twist of fate, McCall and Wiese’s emergence for the Mystics is also a full-circle moment for the former Pac-12 rivals. They graduated from Stanford and Oregon State, respectively, in 2017 and attended the WNBA Draft together.

“My mom actually just sent me a picture of us together at the draft,” McCall said on Tuesday. “We sat right next to each other. So Syd is my girl, been competing against her for a long time now and so I’m happy that we’re finally teammates.

“And she’s just an amazing competitor, but an even better leader … She just makes sure you’re always in the right place, making sure you have the right mindset when you go and check into the game. Every time I checked in the game, Syd was right there telling me, ‘Hey, we want to win these minutes.’”

That mindset fits perfectly with the Mystics’ motto this season, “Win the day.” They are focusing on what they can control in the short term and understanding that they are striving to be at their best come playoff time. So, although the Mystics are still seeking that elusive first win, they are not panicking—and neither should anyone else, because much of what ails the Mystics could work itself out shortly.

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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