May 4, 2022
2022 WNBA season preview: Washington Mystics
Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics have ‘razzle dazzle,’ depth and championship dreams
In the 2021 WNBA season, the Washington Mystics were missing their “edge,” as head coach and general manager Mike Thibault put it recently. Facing unprecedented injuries, guard Ariel Atkins said at the team’s 2022 media day, “we just kind of got jolted a little bit.” As a result, they missed the playoffs for just the second time in nine seasons under Thibault and the first time since 2016.
The Mystics regrouped in the offseason by adding center Elizabeth Williams and point guard Rui Machida; re-signing forward Myisha Hines-Allen; and bringing back forward Tianna Hawkins and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, both reserves on the Mystics’ 2019 championship team. Led by players such as 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and two-time WNBA All-Defensive selection Alysha Clark — the two best at fostering team bonding, according to Thibault — the returners also made a concerted effort to rediscover their edge.
“After the  season, there was a noticeable discussion among our players about they need to start getting on the same page now,” associate head coach Eric Thibault said on the Slappin’ Glass podcast in December. “Those core guys that were here [in DC in the offseason], they’ve been making an effort to connect more … You get that sense like, ‘Okay, no, we need to put some things right. This group needs to figure out who it can be.’ Because I would say it’s a noticeable energy from the ones we have here.”
On the Mystics’ first day of training camp on April 18, their edge was clearly back. Point guard Natasha Cloud told reporters that many of the players were especially excited for the upcoming season, and Atkins brought up missing the playoffs three separate times in her 15 minutes with reporters.
“We didn’t make playoffs last year. Ain’t nothing else we need to be talking about but work,” she said three minutes in.
“We didn’t make playoffs last year,” she repeated a few minutes later. “… That’s not okay. It’s unacceptable.”
That outcome can motivate the Mystics’ returners, and even though Atkins said that it doesn’t put undue pressure on the team to excel this season, Thibault has lofty goals.
“We’re in a ‘compete for a championship’ mode,” he told reporters after the WNBA Draft on April 11. “… It feels like we’re kind of back into our rhythm.”
The Mystics will look to become the sixth team in WNBA history to win a championship one year after missing the playoffs. The last team to do it was the Minnesota Lynx, which improved from 13 regular-season wins in 2010 to 27 plus the trophy in 2011.
A 14-game turnaround in just a 34-game season may seem daunting, but the margin between missing the playoffs and hoisting the trophy isn’t always so large: Seattle missed the playoffs in 2003 with 18 regular-season wins and won it all in 2004 with 20. For the Mystics, improving enough to make the playoffs and compete from there starts with two things: health and defense.
The injury bug has already bitten the Mystics this season, as No. 14 overall pick Christyn Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice and had to be waived due to salary-cap considerations. But 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and two-time WNBA All-Defensive selection Alysha Clark are trending in the other direction as they recover from back and foot surgery, respectively.
Delle Donne has been playing five-on-five in practice and played 18 minutes in the team’s exhibition game against Minnesota on April 27, scoring 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Clark may miss the start of the season but is reportedly close to being able to play: At practice on April 26, she cried “happy tears” — momentarily alarming her teammates — because she made an aggressive move and “felt like the new version of myself.” Whether those two players can stay on the court and play like their pre-injury selves will go a long way in determining the Mystics’ ceiling.
Defense will also be crucial for a franchise that has been more of an offensive juggernaut than a defensive stalwart in recent seasons. The Mystics haven’t ranked higher than sixth in defensive rating since 2015, despite having several talented individual defenders during that span. But this year could be different: The starting lineup could feature as many as four All-Defensive Team players in Clark, Atkins, Cloud and Elizabeth Williams. They have eight selections between them, all since 2018.
Off the bench, lightning-quick guards Machida and Walker-Kimbrough and No. 3 overall draft pick Shakira Austin will look to prevent any drop-off, and Austin, at 6’6, provides the size that the Mystics have sometimes lacked. In her two exhibition games, Austin recorded eight blocks and 19 defensive rebounds, and she has earned consistent praise in training camp for her defensive presence and intelligence.
“Every year Coach T is like, ‘We gotta defend, we gotta defend,” Hawkins said at media day, “so I think this is the year where he won’t have to say it as much.”
But most coaches anywhere will say that championship dreams start with defense and health, so here are three other questions that will impact the Mystics’ success in their 25th season.
How deep can the Mystics go?
At media day, Hines-Allen convinced Thibault to flex for the cameras before he answered questions. “Starting with flexing. That’s how our season is going,” he said.
Thibault feels that way in part because he has depth on the roster, even with Delle Donne and Clark not at full strength and Elizabeth Williams still overseas. He delighted in being able to mix and match players in the exhibition games after spending last season cobbling together one healthy lineup. He has two high-level point guards in Cloud and Machida; Clark, Atkins and Walker-Kimbrough rounding out the perimeter; and an abundance of frontcourt talent in Delle Donne, Hines-Allen, Williams, Hawkins and Austin. (Notably, that is only 10 players — another guard will likely make the roster, too.)
The guard rotation seems fairly clear: Cloud, Atkins and Clark will start when healthy, with Walker-Kimbrough replacing Clark in the two exhibition games. Machida can spell Cloud or shift her off the ball, and the Mystics experimented with both options in the preseason.
The post rotation is less obvious, but however the players rotate, the combinations are exciting to imagine. Delle Donne and Hines-Allen will likely be the starters with Williams overseas, and Thibault said that he might start that relatively small lineup even when Williams is available. From there, any pairing is possible — and Thibault can also fashion bigger lineups with Hines-Allen, Delle Donne or Hawkins at small forward.
“We can spread the wealth a little bit,” Thibault said of his frontcourt. “… We’ll get back to kind of playing how we did offensively … a few years ago. With Tina [Charles, the WNBA’s scoring leader in 2021], there was a lot thrown at her and on her shoulders, but we became a little bit one-dimensional at times, too, through no fault of hers. But … we have post players that have different strengths right now on our team and we can use each of them a little bit differently. So I think that depth will really help us, and it was a big focus of what we did this offseason.”
It’s also worth watching whether Thibault regularly plays all five posts or just four — and who the odd player out might be. Thibault has spoken in previous years about the challenges of playing five posts, and if he sticks mostly with four, Austin or Hawkins could be watching from the bench a lot when Williams returns. In fact, Thibault said on draft night — only somewhat jokingly — that Austin would need to be a good cheerleader given the number of veterans ahead of her on the depth chart.
But Austin has impressed so far in practices and exhibition games, and Thibault might not be willing to keep her rebounding and defense on the bench. In that case, the player seeing fewer minutes might be Hawkins, who is known as an exemplary teammate and had a down year for the Atlanta Dream in 2021. However, Hawkins won the inaugural Athletes Unlimited season in 2022 by averaging 23.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and she means business this season.
“A personal goal that I have for myself is to be more impactful on the offensive end and to be the [WNBA] Most Improved Player this year,” she told reporters on April 28.
How quickly will the chemistry come — and what can Delle Donne and Hines-Allen be together?
Most of the Mystics’ rotation players have played together, in fits and starts, since 2018: Cloud, Atkins, Walker-Kimbrough, Delle Donne, Hines-Allen and Hawkins. Clark hasn’t played with any of them but was around last season to share her wisdom and get to know her teammates. Williams played with Hawkins last season in Atlanta; their lockers were even side-by-side. The only total newcomers are Austin and Machida, who by all accounts have been quick learners. As a result, the players are bullish about their on-court chemistry.
“We’ve grown together. I mean, our core group has been together for at least four or five years now,” Cloud said on media day. “… There was a lot of free agency movement and all that stuff, but we have our core here. We know each other in and out. We know our strengths and weaknesses. And we’re continuing to grow every single season.”
Or, as Walker-Kimbrough said on April 28: “[It’s] the experience from 2019, with a little more razzle dazzle.”
However, Thibault doesn’t think the chemistry is so ready-made, especially as he experiments with different lineups. “This whole group is going to kind of be a work in progress that way,” he told The Next on April 23. He expects it to take time for everyone to learn to play with Clark and Machida, the latter of whom has hit at least one teammate with an unexpected pass due to her elite court vision. Thibault also plans to play Hines-Allen at three positions and even have her handle the ball at times, so the team will have to adjust to all of those configurations.
One pair to watch is Delle Donne and Hines-Allen, two ultra-versatile All-WNBA players who have been teammates since Hines-Allen was drafted in 2018 but have played just 93 regular-season minutes together. (Hines-Allen was playing behind several more experienced players in 2018 and 2019, and Delle Donne’s back injury cost her most of the 2020 and 2021 seasons.)
|Season||Regular-Season Minutes Hines-Allen and Delle Donne Have Played Together|
“It’s funny — this offseason, when we would talk about who’s coming back and it’s going to be Myisha, I’m like, ‘It’s crazy. I feel like we haven’t played together,’” Delle Donne told The Next on April 23. “I’m excited to learn her tendencies and read off of one another. She’s so good and so talented and skilled and can do so much that it’s fun, and we’re so interchangeable.”
Thibault expects Hines-Allen and Delle Donne’s chemistry to “take a little while” to develop, especially defensively. About a week into training camp, he wasn’t sure how he would deploy them defensively, adding that it might change game-to-game. They can both guard multiple positions, but at 6’5, Delle Donne provides more length, whereas the 6’1 Hines-Allen brings considerable strength and physicality.
However, Delle Donne and Hines-Allen both shrugged off the question of how long it would take to develop chemistry. Delle Donne believes that “it’s going to come pretty naturally” because of their strong off-court friendship, and Hines-Allen added that Delle Donne is “such an easy player to play with … You don’t have to play more than 100 minutes, I guess, on the court to have chemistry with E.”
Hines-Allen added that her own improvement over the past few years will help because not only does she know where Delle Donne wants the ball, but she also understands her own strengths and “where I can help her.” In a recent practice, they each filled spots on the floor that the other had vacated and put pressure on defenses from all over the court.
“The versatility that they those two bring just adds so much spacing,” Walker-Kimbrough said on April 28. “… They can do so many things, and that gives us so many different looks on offense. And it’s just like a read and react. I feel like it makes it kind of unscoutable.”
How impactful will Machida be for Mystics?
When Thibault signed Machida in February, the fit made sense from every angle. Leilani Mitchell, the Mystics’ backup point guard last year, will turn 37 in June, and she and her wife are expecting their second child. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Machida won a silver medal with Japan in last year’s Olympics, is an elite passer who set an Olympic single-game record with 18 assists, and was available on a veteran minimum salary to fit within the team’s salary cap.
Machida gives the Mystics an international-caliber backup point guard instead of a backup who has struggled to stick in the WNBA (Linnae Harper) or is fresh out of college (Katie Benzan). She will make it easier for Thibault to rest Cloud during games and for the Mystics to exploit their depth by pushing the pace for 40 minutes.
By all indications, Machida has impressed so far. Thibault pointed out how, by her second practice, she knew the Mystics’ plays better than some of her teammates because of her basketball IQ and her preparation before her arrival. Her teammates have gushed about how talented — and quick — she is, even as some of them learn the hard way to have their hands ready to catch the ball.
“My favorite part about Rui’s game is that she watches the plays develop before they even happen,” Atkins said on April 27. “… I’m excited to continue to develop and grow with her.”
“She’s so good,” Walker-Kimbrough added on April 28. “Oh my gosh, and … this is just her first week. I’m scared [of] what she’s going to look like in June and July.”
Less than five days after Machida landed in the United States and with just one team practice completed, she played nearly 19 minutes in the Mystics’ exhibition game against the Minnesota Lynx on April 27, finishing at plus-12 with two points and two assists against three turnovers. Those numbers don’t jump out, but plenty of other plays did.
There was the play with 4.3 seconds left in the first half, after a made free throw by Minnesota, when Machida ran the length of the court “in like two,” Atkins said postgame. “And we still had time to rebound. That’s insane. That’s a different type of speed that we haven’t played with in a while.”
There was also a “questionable travel,” as Kareem Copeland of The Washington Post put it, when one of her pass fakes might have faked out the referee. And there was pesky defense, a part of Machida’s game that some people had questioned in part because she is listed at 5’4.
“Everybody’s heard about her passing and her offense, but I think yesterday they saw what she can do defensively, too,” Thibault said on April 28. “I mean, [the Lynx] weren’t having a lot of fun bringing the ball up against her.”
As Machida settles in and develops chemistry with her teammates, she will likely be even more impactful. The question is, will she be a good backup point guard or a great backup point guard this season? If it’s the latter, Machida could be an underrated X-factor in the Mystics’ push for a championship.
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.