February 5, 2021 

How the Sanders, Hawkins deals impact the Washington Mystics’ frontcourt

More Myisha; Tina time?

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The Washington Mystics soaked in their WNBA championship on October 10, 2019. Tianna Hawkins is the second player from left, holding her son Emanuel, and LaToya Sanders is the fourth from left. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

In the span of just a few days, the Washington Mystics’ frontcourt for 2021 has gotten a lot more settled. Center LaToya Sanders signed a 1-year, $117,000 contract to return to the Mystics, and forward Tianna Hawkins is headed to Atlanta on a 2-year contract worth an average of $142,100 per year.

Sanders returns to the Mystics after sitting out last season for health and family reasons and will make the same salary she was slated to earn in 2020. Although her contract expired after 2020, she was not a free agent and was only able to negotiate with the Mystics, so her return was expected. The 34-year-old has played for the Mystics since 2015 and was a starter on the 2019 championship team, averaging 6.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 blocks in 24 minutes per game.

“We are so glad to have LaToya back with us this season,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said in the team’s announcement. “She was a huge contributor to our Championship season and we definitely missed her last summer. LaToya’s defensive presence and offensive efficiency has been so valuable to our success, and her leadership is greatly respected by her teammates.”

At 6’2 with a slight build, Sanders is an undersized WNBA center, but she is extremely effective on both ends of the court and is one of the team’s most important players. Defensively, despite giving up six inches to the league’s tallest centers, Sanders has ranked among the top 25 players in the league in block percentage, defensive win shares, and defensive rating in each of her three full seasons with the Mystics, all while steadily reducing her fouls.

In July 2019, forward Myisha Hines-Allen called Sanders the best interior defender in the WNBA and explained what makes Sanders so tough to beat: “She’s not always up against the post player. She has space and she’s contesting with her arms, so she’s never using her body. So she’s using her feet and her quickness.”

Sanders’ offensive game gets less attention, but she is adept at making teams pay for helping off of her, often by hitting an elbow jumper or getting an offensive rebound and the putback. She attempted just 5.1 shots per game in 2019, all from inside the arc, but shot better than 50% from the field and had the sixth-best offensive rating in the league (116.3).

Sanders is also a leader for the team, by example and with her body language as much as with her voice. She is calm on the court and, along with point guard Natasha Cloud, helps organize the team defensively. That continued in 2020 even though Sanders wasn’t with the team: before the season opener, Hines-Allen said she received a text from Sanders with some defensive advice.

Forward Elena Delle Donne may have summed up Sanders’ impact best after the Mystics won the 2019 title. “We wanted to win this for the person next to us; it wasn’t about winning it for ourselves,” Delle Donne said. “And to get this done and to get this for somebody like Toya, who’s an absolute anchor for this team, that’s what means the most.”

However, re-signing Sanders made the frontcourt that much more crowded for Hawkins, an unrestricted free agent. Hawkins had played in Washington since 2014, and her best season came in 2019, when she averaged 9.5 points and 4.2 rebounds and was a candidate for WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year. The 6’3 forward also shot a career-high 36.3% from behind the arc on nearly three attempts per game, and her offensive rating of 116.1 ranked seventh in the league—right behind Sanders.

In 2020, Hawkins’ minutes jumped from 15 to 19 per game, even as she battled injuries that caused her to miss five games. Her points and rebounds decreased slightly from 2019, and her field-goal percentage dropped from 51.4% to 40.8%. But she did enough to earn a contract from Atlanta that nearly doubled her 2020 salary, an increase that the Mystics likely couldn’t match while retaining their other free agents.

“Tianna has been a big part of our success and while I am sad to see her leave, I am happy for her to have a great opportunity in Atlanta,” Thibault said in a statement released via Twitter.

Atlanta is getting not only a player who seemingly fits its style of play perfectly, but also a leader who is willing to speak up both in a basketball context and on social justice. “She takes on a lot of that responsibility,” Mystics guard Jacki Gemelos told The Next in September. After police killed Jacob Blake in August, Hawkins spoke candidly about how racism and police brutality were taking a toll on her and how she feared for her 5-year-old son Emanuel, who was with the team in the WNBA bubble.

Hawkins is a DC native and the third Maryland alumna to leave the Mystics in the past two offseasons, following Kristi Toliver (left in free agency) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (traded) last offseason. And beyond the local ties, fans will be disappointed to see Hawkins depart because, at just 29 years old, she has a strong chance of continuing to improve if she can stay healthy.

But there is a silver lining for the Mystics: Hawkins’ departure frees up more minutes and shot attempts for Hines-Allen, who was last season’s breakout star. Hines-Allen can match Hawkins’ physical inside play and 3-point shooting, and the Mystics still have plenty of quality post players in Delle Donne, Sanders, Hines-Allen, and Tina Charles, who is expected to re-sign with the team soon. (That’s not even counting Emma Meesseman, who is also expected to re-sign but may not join the team until after the Olympics.)

Not signing Hawkins to a multi-year deal also gives Thibault more flexibility to re-sign Hines-Allen and guard Ariel Atkins, who are both considered franchise building blocks and will need raises when their rookie contracts expire in 2022.

On Thursday, Hawkins posted a farewell message on Instagram thanking the Mystics organization and fans.

“Dear DC! Where do I even begin!!!!” she wrote. “I could write a whole book about my experience playing here at home in front of my family and friends. My time here has been nothing short of AMAZING! Not just because it’s home for me but because of the organization, my sisters and most importantly, the fans!! I appreciate you all for welcoming me back home in 2014. Additionally, I’ve had the opportunity to grow as a Mother, person and basketball player. 

“Memories were created that will forever be embedded in my heart and for that I THANK YOU!”

Atlanta welcomed Hawkins and her family, which includes Emanuel and her fiancé Jarrod, in a statement of its own on Thursday. The Dream may be uniquely excited to see Emanuel, whom Thibault proudly called “our lucky charm” after a playoff-clinching win over the Dream in September. Meanwhile, Thibault may need to add “new good luck charm” to his free agency wishlist, even as Tianna Hawkins and Sanders’ decisions help solidify the Mystics’ roster and position the team to contend again in 2021.

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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