May 15, 2023 

2023 WNBA season preview: Washington Mystics

‘Underdog’ Mystics could challenge WNBA’s superteams with elite defense, improved offense

WASHINGTON – When WNBA fans and media alike buzzed about the talent that the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty assembled in free agency this offseason, the Washington Mystics took notice.

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“I understand that there are two good teams out there that everybody’s talking about,” guard Kristi Toliver said at the Mystics’ media day on May 1. “That’s cool. … We’ve always thrived under having an underdog approach.”

“I think there’s some people that would think, ‘Just fast-forward to the end of the season and let those two compete for the championship,’” forward/guard Elena Delle Donne added. “But … we’re excited to make our mark.”

The Mystics appear to have the necessary high-end talent and depth to challenge the Liberty and the Aces, even though they’re not considered a “superteam” like those two. They’ll be led by Delle Donne, who enjoyed her first healthy offseason in five years after suffering a knee injury in the 2018 playoffs and then a back injury in 2019 that required several years of rehab. Delle Donne told reporters on May 1 that she is “by far” the strongest she has ever been and does not plan to sit out any games in 2023.

Around Delle Donne, the Mystics return a group that has largely been with the franchise since at least 2018 and led the team to the 2019 WNBA title. Those players are guards Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and forwards Tianna Hawkins and Myisha Hines-Allen. Those players, plus second-year center/forward Shakira Austin, have played 36 of their combined 42 WNBA seasons (85.7%) for the Mystics.

Toliver, who played for the Mystics from 2017-19, also returned in free agency to bolster the offense, and according to Delle Donne, the chemistry is still strong enough that Toliver can convey information with just a look. And the Mystics shored up both sides of the ball with two veteran free agent signings, guard Brittney Sykes and center Amanda Zahui B.

It’s the ideal mix of continuity and newness, according to Mystics players. As Delle Donne put it, “There’s the comfort and the people who know what this organization is about and where we want to go, and then there’s the new people who are bringing a joy and excitement and new skill set to this team that we need as well.”

With the season opener approaching on May 19, let’s take a look at what we know and don’t know about the Mystics for 2023.

Washington Mystics guards Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, as well as forward/guard Elena Delle Donne, come together after a play.
The Washington Mystics’ guards include Ariel Atkins (7), Natasha Cloud (9) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (32), all shown here during a game against the Las Vegas Aces at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 2, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

What we know: The Mystics have enviable guard depth

The Mystics are extremely deep at every position, but especially point guard. Last season, Cloud played 31.3 minutes per game, mostly on the ball, and 5’4 backup point guard Rui Machida had to stay on the bench in some games because of her size and limited ability to score. This year, though, there will be no shortage of point guards, and they have enough size and versatility that two or three of them will nearly always play together. Cloud and Toliver played point guard interchangeably in 2019, Sykes will also get minutes there, and Atkins is a natural off-ball guard but got more comfortable running the point with Team USA last fall.

“That’s a hell of a group,” said Toliver, who teamed up with Sykes in Los Angeles in 2021 and 2022. “… I think it’s going to be a great mix. It’s served [us] well in the past, and I think we’ve only gotten better now, in 2023.”

Add in Walker-Kimbrough, whose speed and defense can change a game from the off-guard position, and the guard rotation will be deep and versatile.

“The idea is to have as many playmakers and ball-handlers on the floor as we can,” head coach Eric Thibault said at media day. “… [Cloud and Toliver] can both shoot off the ball; they can both handle the ball. And that’s kind of the approach we’re looking at for our guard rotation in general.”

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins stands in a defensive stance with her left hand raised as Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman dribbles with her left hand.
Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) defends Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman (2) during a WNBA game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 28, 2022. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

What we know: The Mystics will play lockdown defense

Last season, the Mystics had the best defense in the league, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions. It was the first time they’d allowed fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions since 2015, and they are committed to being just as good this season — or even better.

Although the Mystics lost two-time All-Defensive wing Alysha Clark in free agency, Sykes fills that hole more than capably as a three-time All-Defensive honoree herself. The Mystics are expected to start three guards with a combined 10 All-Defensive awards in Cloud, Atkins and Sykes, and Sykes has already noticed that the Mystics’ perimeter defense is on a different level. She told reporters that, when the Mystics were practicing off-ball defense on May 3, she and Cloud “kind of looked at each other and [were] like, ‘Ooh, this is nice.’ Like, I get to look across from [me] and know that I have somebody that is right up there with me when it comes to not even defensive ability, but defensive effort …

“It just feels really, really, really good to look to my right and look to my left and know that I can give a defensive assignment away and trust that they’re going to handle that defensive assignment with just as much intent and care as I would.”

In the frontcourt, 6’3 backup center Elizabeth Williams, another excellent defender, also departed. But the 6’5 Zahui B. brings more size and similar rim protection, and Austin has the potential to win Defensive Player of the Year one day, according to Thibault.

On the sidelines, associate head coach LaToya Sanders has taken a lead role in coaching the defense, which is only more reason for optimism. Sanders was a defensive stopper in her days as the Mystics’ starting center in 2018 and 2019, and even last season as an assistant coach, she often challenged Austin in warmups one-on-one.

“She’s touching all of our players in a different way,” Thibault told The Next last season. “Yeah, she works with the posts, but she’s a great perspective for even some of the veteran guards … [with] the way she saw the game, the way she knew how to play with them, and being able to explain … the bigs’ perspective. I think it’s helpful for everybody.”

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Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud attempts a right-handed layup in the middle of the lane. A Seattle Storm defender attempts to slide toward her but is too late.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud (9) gets to the rim in a game against the Seattle Storm at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 31, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

What we don’t know: Will the offense be better than last season?

While the Mystics don’t want to change much defensively, the offensive end is due for a renovation. The Mystics ranked just seventh in the league in offensive rating and seventh in effective field goal percentage last season. They also ranked last in pace and fast-break points despite forcing the fourth-most turnovers per game. All of that, the Mystics said, needs to change, and it starts with defensive stops.

Getting stops, and particularly forcing turnovers, will allow the Mystics to push the pace in transition. As Atkins pointed out, having a lot of point guards helps with that: “We’re not looking for somebody to outlet it to. Anybody can push the ball. That makes for a scary, scary offensive transition team.”

The Mystics also want to make their halfcourt offense less predictable. Last season, Thibault said, the Mystics ran too many pick-and-rolls and didn’t have enough variety in their attack. This season, they hope to diversify, and they also want to adjust better to how defenses are guarding Delle Donne. Last season, Delle Donne didn’t practice consistently as she rested her back between games, so it was difficult for the team to walk through the many schemes opponents use against Delle Donne and discuss how to attack them.

Another crucial aspect of any Thibault-led offense, whether under general manager and former head coach Mike or current head coach Eric, is spacing. The Mystics ranked sixth in 3-pointers made and attempted and 10th in 3-point shooting percentage last season, uncharacteristically low marks for them. This season, there is a sense of urgency to space the floor for both 3-point shooting and drives to the basket. In fact, spacing was the first in a litany of things that Eric Thibault mentioned wanting to see from his team in its first exhibition game on May 5.

“We’re only going to be as great as our spacing is,” Cloud said at media day.

At times, the Mystics may play more five-out offense. Toliver, a career 38.4% 3-point shooter, should help improve the Mystics’ outside shooting, and Zahui B. is also a capable shooter. That’s not Sykes’ strength — she has been best driving to the rim in the WNBA — but the Mystics are hopeful that she can improve at it and also use the team’s improved spacing to make plays.

“Even if they’re not great 3-point shooters, [they] have to be great spacers,” Eric Thibault said of his roster. “… [Sykes] is a good playmaker for others, so allowing our shooters around her to open up the floor for her to attack the rim and [get] in the paint and kick out for threes … One of the best things that [Sykes] does is, as the ball gets reversed to her, even if she’s not going to shoot it — and we’d like her to shoot open shots, but if she’s not going to shoot it — being able to attack a defense in the middle of rotation and make the next play.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin dribbles with her left hand from near the top of the key, her eyes focused down at the lane ahead. A Los Angeles Sparks defender is at the elbow looking to cut off her drive.
Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) drives in a game against the Los Angeles Sparks at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 7, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

What we don’t know: Which young players could grow into roles?

Nine players on the Mystics’ roster have at least five years of WNBA experience entering 2023, and three have played nine or more seasons. Yet there still might be room for a few young players to develop alongside the veterans.

Austin, an All-Rookie selection and No. 3 overall pick in 2022, is an obvious candidate for a sophomore leap. She flourished last season despite the Mystics not running offense for her, and she built on that overseas, winning MVP and Finals MVP of the Israeli League.

“Her teammates and coaches have a lot of faith that she can do more than she showed last year,” Thibault said. “… Year 2, we’re gonna let her try some things and roll with a couple mistakes along the way … We’ve challenged her to be great and that’s what she wants to be, and that’s what excited us about drafting her in the first place is we felt that drive from her. So we’re gonna push her and let her try some things and see where it takes us.”

Austin is the only player with less than five years’ experience who is a lock to make the Mystics’ roster, but guard Li Meng (zero years of WNBA experience), forward Emily Engstler (one) and guard Jazmine Jones (three) are all in contention for one of the final roster spots. The 28-year-old Meng averaged 16.0 points per game while shooting 40.7% from 3-point range for China in the 2022 FIBA World Cup, and she could provide additional offense off the bench.

Engstler was waived by Indiana on April 26 despite being the No. 4 overall pick in 2022, and Sanders told The Next on May 14 that she sees lots of potential in the versatile young forward. “We see things that maybe won’t show up this year, but maybe two, three years down the line,” Sanders said. “… She just has instincts that sometimes you can’t teach.”

Jones, meanwhile, played against Austin in the Israeli League and had a strong season in her own right. At 6′, she could provide more size on the perimeter and depth on the wing.

“I think Jaz is just getting to a point where she’s maturing as a pro,” Thibault told reporters on May 5 with Jones seated beside him. He turned to her and continued: “Maybe your first couple years [in the WNBA, you were] trying to make some home run plays and jumping over my head on the bench and all that stuff. But she’s just making good plays at both ends, keeping the game simple but being aggressive.”

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What it could all add up to

The Mystics currently have the third-best odds to win a championship in 2023, according to FanDuel, at +1400. Las Vegas (+115) and New York (+125) are the prohibitive favorites, but the Mystics are well clear of the next-closest challenger, the Phoenix Mercury (+2500). They are also projected to win the third-most games in the 40-game regular season with 24.5.

To reach their potential and challenge for a title, the Mystics will need Delle Donne to stay healthy and play consistently. They’ll also need Hines-Allen to recover fully from offseason knee surgery. She has been playing five-on-five in training camp, but her status for the season opener is uncertain as she continues to work on her conditioning. When she is healthy and confident, she can be the ultimate X-factor with her physicality and versatility.

“I want to win a championship. I feel like we have every single piece that we need to do that,” Cloud said on media day. “And now it’s just about plugging those pieces in. And it’s not about where we are [for the season opener on] May 19; it’s about where we are when that championship series comes around.”

“In the best movies,” Delle Donne added, “the underdog ends up on top, so remember that.”

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, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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