April 24, 2021
On the eve of training camp, Washington Mystics announce new players, assistant coach
Asjha Jones leaves the Mystics bench for a job with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers
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As the Washington Mystics prepare to begin training camp on Apr. 25, the roster has seen a flurry of changes over the past several days—and not only in terms of players.
On Thursday, the team announced that assistant coach Asjha Jones would resign in order to become the director of basketball strategy for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. The following day, the Mystics promoted former player LaToya Sanders from a player development role to fill Jones’ spot on the bench.
Jones had been on Mystics head coach Mike Thibault’s staff for the past three seasons, first as a player development assistant and then as an assistant coach. During that span, the Mystics won 63% of their games and made two WNBA Finals appearances, winning a championship in 2019.
“Asjha has been an important part of our success the past several years,” Thibault said in the team’s announcement. “While I am sad to see her leave on both a professional and personal level, I am excited for her and the opportunity in front of her in Portland. She will be a tremendous asset to the Trail Blazers organization. … She is one of the best all-around pros, on and off the court, that I have had the pleasure to be associated with. All of us here wish her well in her new job.”
As a player, Jones was drafted fourth overall by the Mystics in 2002 but was traded in 2004 to Connecticut, where she spent nine seasons playing for Thibault. In 2011, Thibault called Jones “one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached” because of her professionalism and consistency. In 12 WNBA seasons, Jones averaged 10.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game; made two All-Star teams; and won a championship in 2015 with the Minnesota Lynx.
Jones acknowledged the impact Thibault has had on her basketball career in a heartfelt Instagram post on Friday. “Back in 2004 Coach T saw potential in me and made the moves to bring me to the Connecticut Sun,” she wrote. “There under his watch and coaching I grew into an elite player. When I retired and was trying to find my way he gave me the opportunity to join him in DC. I trusted him back in 2004 and I still do now because he continues to help me grow into my best self. For that I will be eternally grateful.”
Jones will bring an impressive amount of hardware to Portland: according to the Mystics, she is the only person in women’s basketball history to win a WNBA title as a coach and an NCAA title, a WNBA title, a gold medal at the World Championships and an Olympic gold medal as a player. That pedigree will likely go a long way with Portland fans, as the Trail Blazers have won just 55% of their games in nine seasons under current head coach Terry Stotts and have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in four of the past six seasons.
Indeed, many Trail Blazers fans took to Twitter to share their enthusiasm—and desire for more. “She deserves a promotion IMO [in my opinion], maybe head coach?” one fan wrote. “STOTTS IS MEETING HIS REPLACEMENT. WELCOME SISTA,” said another. (A woman has never been a permanent NBA head coach, but Jones will join eight female assistant coaches currently working in the league.)
Mystics stars Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud shared a mix of excitement and sadness about the news in their Instagram stories. “I’m sad about this but super super excited for your next move!!” Atkins wrote. “Do your thing Asjha all love on this end always!”
“Gonna miss you @asjhaj [tired face emoji],” Delle Donne said. “Portland sure got a good one!”
Fittingly, one of Jones’ former players will succeed her in Washington, as Sanders earned the promotion just 47 days after she retired from playing and joined the staff in a role that encompassed player development, community relations, social justice initiatives, youth programming and marketing. “She’s going to be good on our staff,” Thibault told The Next last week, after Sanders was pictured watching the WNBA Draft alongside Thibault, Jones and associate head coach Eric Thibault.
In the team’s announcement, Mike Thibault elaborated on that assessment, calling Sanders “an easy and natural choice for this position.” He added, “She was a great student of the game as a player. She was an exemplar leader on the court, a strong voice in the locker room and a great mentor for younger teammates. She was one of those players who was respected by everyone in the organization. She has done a great job this preseason in her role as a player development coach and has shown us that she is ready for this new role.”
Sanders played seven seasons in the WNBA between 2008 and 2019, including four seasons with the Mystics. She averaged 5.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in her career, the latter of which ranks 13th in WNBA history. Her best offensive season came in 2018, when she averaged a career-high 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting over 60% from the field. Meanwhile, she was consistently a defensive stopper for the Mystics and led the WNBA in defensive rating in 2015 with just 86.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Sanders said in the announcement that she was “humbled and honored” to accept the job and that the Mystics organization had prepared her for a future in coaching during her playing career. “During my years with Monumental Sports & Entertainment and the Mystics, I not only grew as a basketball player but I also became a student of the game,” she said. “I look forward to sharing what I have learned with our players.”
In the hours between when Jones’ departure and Sanders’ promotion were announced, the Mystics also released their official training camp roster, which sits at 18 players. (WNBA training camps can have a maximum of 15 players on the court at one time, but three Mystics players will arrive late because of overseas commitments.)
Sanders will coach five former teammates from the 2019 championship season: Delle Donne, Atkins, Cloud, Myisha Hines-Allen and Kiara Leslie. The roster also includes three other players who have appeared in at least one game for the Mystics as well as 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles, who will make her Mystics debut this season after playing three seasons under Thibault in Connecticut at the beginning of her career.
The atmosphere promises to be very competitive, with ten players on training camp contracts competing for just a few roster spots. Those players include veterans Theresa Plaisance and Shavonte Zellous; young players in Stella Johnson and Sug Sutton who got their first WNBA minutes with the Mystics last season; and four players who signed with the team in the past eight days, following the WNBA Draft.
Although the Mystics had zero picks in the 2021 WNBA Draft, the training camp roster has five WNBA rookies on it, including three players in Blanca Millán (Maine), Pre Stanley (Appalachian State) and Tyra Whitehead (San José State) who were in college last season but went undrafted. Thibault has stated that Johnson, a midseason pickup in 2020, will be considered the team’s 2021 draft pick, which indicates how highly he and his staff think of her.
There was also one notable name not on the roster: veteran Alysha Clark, who signed with Washington to much fanfare on Feb. 1 but suffered a serious foot injury less than two months later while playing overseas. She had surgery on Apr. 2 and will miss the entire 2021 WNBA season. On Apr. 20, the Mystics quietly suspended her contract, which means that she will not be paid and will not occupy a roster spot this season, giving the Mystics more financial and lineup flexibility.
Thibault, Sanders and the rest of the Mystics staff will get an early look at the roster against other competition on May 5, when the team will scrimmage the Atlanta Dream in Washington. Expect some cuts soon after that, as teams have to finalize their opening-day rosters, with a maximum of 12 players, by May 13.
In the Mystics’ case, though, it’s almost like they have a 13th player with Sanders on the staff. The loss of Jones—a perennial winner and someone Eric Thibault called “the unsung hero anywhere she’s ever been”—will surely hurt. But just as Mike Thibault has signed several players this offseason to fill holes on the roster, he has kept the cupboard stocked when it comes to his coaching staff, too.
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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.