May 1, 2024 

2024 WNBA season preview: Washington Mystics

Ariel Atkins: ‘Everybody knows it's different. But I think it's OK’

WASHINGTON — This season, Washington Mystics training camp sounds and feels different than it has in several years. Instead of one voice — that of point guard Natasha Cloud — rising above the din, there are a flurry of voices giving guidance almost interchangeably. And instead of two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne quietly commanding much of the attention, there is a roster with lots of talent and potential but no singular central figure.

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Cloud was the Mystics’ heart and soul, dictating the offense. And Delle Donne set the bar for excellence both on the court and in the training room, as she improbably returned from two back surgeries to play at an elite level.

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Cloud had been with the Mystics since 2015 but signed with the Phoenix Mercury in free agency. Delle Donne had been with the franchise since 2017, but she stepped away from basketball this offseason after letting the Mystics’ core qualifying offer expire. Now, the only signs of them on the Mystics’ practice court are their names, listed on a wall honoring the franchise’s WNBA MVPs, All-Stars and Community Leadership Award winners.

“It’s definitely different,” veteran guard Ariel Atkins told The Next on the first day of training camp. “… I’m not gonna sit here and lie. … Everybody knows it’s different. But I think it’s OK.”

Head coach Eric Thibault echoed that, telling reporters, “Now that we don’t have some focal points in the same way as we did a year ago, either with the ball in their hands or who we ran stuff for, it’s gonna look different. So I think different is exciting at the same time.”

However, Cloud and Delle Donne’s absences leave a big question for the Mystics this season: Who will be their leaders, on and off the court?

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes high-fives general manager Mike Thibault as they walk off the court. Both are smiling and looking at each other.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) high-fives general manager Mike Thibault after a season-opening win over the New York Liberty at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Statistical leaders

The Mystics’ leading returning scorer is guard Brittney Sykes, who ranked second behind Delle Donne with 15.9 points per game last season. Through her first six WNBA seasons, Sykes was known as a slasher. But in her first year with the Mystics last season, she became much more confident in her 3-point shooting and made a career-high 35.0% on four attempts per game.

Sykes was also second to Cloud with 3.8 assists per game last season as they shared point guard responsibilities. This season, Sykes’ assists are likely to increase, both because she will run the point more and because she has had a full year in the Mystics’ system.

Sykes hadn’t run the point as much before coming to Washington, and at Monday’s media day, she identified some challenges she’d faced in doing so. “In the past, when I’ve tried to label myself as a point guard, I stopped being me. I stopped doing what Slim does,” she told reporters, using the nickname nearly everyone in the league calls her. “And that’s just affect the game in any positive way possible, whether it’s stealing the ball, whether it’s shooting, whether it’s scoring.”

This year, Sykes is calling herself a “ball distributor,” not a point guard. She knows she needs to balance her own scoring with setting up her teammates, and she’s working on establishing a consistent tempo and pace for the team.

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The Mystics also return two more of their top five scorers from last season in Atkins (11.5 points per game) and center/forward Shakira Austin (10.0). Both dealt with injuries last season and are likely to score more this season. Atkins battled an ankle injury and a broken nose, and her scoring average was her lowest since 2019. Meanwhile, a hip injury that required offseason surgery derailed a promising second season for Austin.

“I’m really just excited to put it all together,” Austin told reporters at USA Basketball training camp on April 5. “I know I can be a dominant offensive player, but for me, I really want to make everybody else around me better, and I’m a player that can do that. So we gonna see what I can do with it.”

Austin was cleared for live 5-on-5 action shortly before training camp began, and the Mystics are monitoring her workload as she gets back into a rhythm on the court. But the injury hasn’t dampened their expectations for how good Austin can eventually be.

“I just assume she’s going to keep getting better,” Thibault said. “I don’t know if it’s gonna be a leap or small steps and then a step back and then a big jump. It’s probably going to look like [the latter] more than just the steady growth, but she’s only going one way.”

Sykes, Atkins and Austin will also be the Mystics’ linchpins defensively. They are all elite individual defenders who know the Mystics’ system, and Thibault indicated that the system won’t change much this season.

Offensively, there will be more changes: The Mystics will look to create more movement, especially off-ball action, and they want to take more 3-pointers than they’re 23.1 per game last season. That ranked fourth in the WNBA, but it’s not enough for a franchise that has long emphasized 3-point shooting — and a team that has a bevy of threats from distance this season.

Those shooters include Sykes, Atkins (36.3% in her career), guard Karlie Samuelson (39.5%), guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (35.6%), forward Myisha Hines-Allen (35.0%), center Stefanie Dolson (38.7%) and guard Julie Vanloo (38.1% playing in Turkey this offseason). That collective shooting could keep the Mystics in games, and it could also produce different leading scorers every night, creating unpredictability for opponents.

“We have to maximize and set up our shooters to be successful so that it creates opening and space for everybody else,” Thibault said on Monday. “It has to be a two-way street where we put pressure on the rim and we get open threes. Generating catch-and-shoot threes is a big deal for us. It’s something that’s probably been … underdeveloped through the league and certainly by us. I think that’s what great offense looks like.”

Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough runs along the baseline away from the rim as teammate Ariel Atkins goes up for a layup. New York Liberty defenders look on but can't contest Atkins' shot.
Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (32) turns back up the court as guard Ariel Atkins (7) shoots a layup against the New York Liberty at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Locker room leaders

Just like having many offensive options, Thibault believes having many players who speak up and lead, rather than one or two main voices, is a luxury.

“That’s not any one person’s job to be somebody else or fill a big void,” he said on Sunday. “We need a lot of voices and a lot of leaders. … Everybody’s got the choice to come in and contribute that way every day. So we just want to be consistent with that. We want consistent voice, consistent leadership, saying the right things, acting the right way.”

Still, two players whose names come up early and often as leaders are Atkins and Austin. Atkins won an Olympic gold medal in 2021 with Team USA and is one of the franchise’s longest-tenured players, entering her seventh season. Austin is the 23-year-old whose star power on the court practically cries out for her to lead in other ways, too.

“I think it’s pretty obvious and easy to say Ariel is a really great leader,” newcomer DiDi Richards told reporters on Monday. “… Ariel is great because she is a vocal leader but also quiet. It’s like she kind of appeals to both sides of the room, and I think that’s huge in being a leader is just being able to appeal to each and every person on your team.”

Vocal leadership hasn’t always come naturally to Atkins, but she spent her offseason as an assistant coach for player development at Michigan. That helped her practice speaking up in tough moments and adapting her communication to fit individual players’ needs.

In contrast, Austin is “more of the rah rah, in your face” type of leader, Atkins told reporters on Monday. That makes them a good pair, though they’re still figuring out how they work best together as they take on more responsibility.

“The past two years, I was able to let people take control of the boat. … I was more so in the back seat,” Austin said on April 5. “So now that I’ve seen what it looks like from certain people … I think me and Ariel are great to start this off. We’re just simple, great culture kids. We want to win. … So to be able to build around that, I think it’s gonna be great.”

Both players also lead loudly by example: Atkins does it with her consistency and work ethic, and the Mystics’ coaches have raved about Austin’s professional approach to her hip rehab, which has made her a role model for teammates.

“She has long days,” associate head coach LaToya Sanders told The Next about Austin. “She has to get all this stuff done before practice; she has to get all this treatment after practice. … You know, when you’re healthy and you’re young, ‘Oh, I don’t need this. I don’t need that.’

“But taking care of your body, eating right, stretching, getting whatever you need to be healthy and available for practice and games, I think [that] is where she has grown so much and has also been able to show and mentor the new players and the young players about how to take care of yourself.”

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Beyond Atkins and Austin, Sykes will step into a larger leadership role in her second season in Washington, especially given that she’ll have the ball in her hands so often. She set the standard early in training camp, some of the rookies said, by getting on them when they repeated mistakes instead of fixing them right away.

And while Dolson just rejoined the Mystics this offseason, she is the oldest player on the roster at 32, started her career in Washington and is naturally very vocal. On Day 1 of training camp, for instance, she was often the one ensuring the right combinations of players were on the court for 5-on-5 drills, rather than too many guards or too many forwards.

Hines-Allen and Walker-Kimbrough, too, will have their moments as leaders. Both are franchise stalwarts who have experienced everything from missing the playoffs to winning a WNBA title.

“The beauty behind this team is that we are led by just people that have been here, done that, and so I think it’s cool to be on a team like that,” Richards said.

Over the years, Hines-Allen has been known for being especially welcoming to new players. That is vital on a team that has 10 newcomers in training camp, six of whom are age 24 or younger.

“It’s not what I tell them. It’s just the feel I give for them where it’s welcoming,” Hines-Allen told The Next in 2023. “You can be yourself no matter what that looks like, what that is. The coaches brought you in for a reason. So do what you do.”

“Myisha could make an animal talk,” Atkins said in 2023. “She’s just, that’s who she is. … She just makes people feel like home, like we’ve been knowing her for years.”

What else to know about the 2024 Mystics

UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards shoots a right-handed layup. A Seton Hall defender extends an arm toward Edwards but is unable to block the shot.
UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards (3) shoots a layup during a game against Seton Hall at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 7, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Aaliyah Edwards’ fit

In April, the Mystics drafted UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards with the sixth overall pick. They have high hopes for her playing alongside Austin, both this season and in the long term.

“That’s a real mobile, athletic post combo,” Thibault said on Monday. “I think the defensive fit’s going to be a cinch from very early on.”

That’s because both Edwards and Austin have quickness and versatility on defense and can adapt to different schemes. They each have experience guarding both frontcourt positions, and they are good defensive rebounders. They’ll provide plenty of interior help defense, allowing the guards to play even more aggressively in front of them.

Offensively, Thibault believes Austin and Edwards ooze potential. They could both expand their range in the long term, but for now, they can each hit midrange shots, which gives them good spacing together.

“We’ve been having great chemistry,” Austin said on Monday. “Naturally when we’re in our sets together, it just really flows. … Defensively we’re like-minded, and offensively we can definitely play off each other. So I’m excited.”

The Mystics have an abundance of versatile forwards, so it’s not clear how much Edwards will play early on. But as she gets comfortable, expect to see more and more of her with Austin as the Mystics look to develop their frontcourt of the future.

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes jumps in stride with Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner and blocks Bonner's shot with her right hand.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) blocks the shot of Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on July 9, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

A new mentality

According to Walker-Kimbrough, this year’s team has a different level of competitiveness than in previous seasons. In part, that reflects the type of players the Mystics targeted in free agency: those who have something to prove and are eager for an opportunity. It’s also likely happening because roles are much less settled than in past years.

“We’ve said it from kind of once the roster was set and we started messaging and talking with everybody: The theme has been competing,” Thibault said. “So minutes and involvement in the offense and everything is there for the taking. … Nothing’s been promised to anybody on the roster, and we hope a lot of people make a jump.”

One way players are competing more this season is in how they respond to failure. Last season, Sykes said, players sometimes reacted negatively to a bad call or a bad play, which put the team at a further disadvantage and reinforced negative energy. This season, they want to move on immediately and play through whatever happens.

“A really big point of emphasis this year is, what kind of team are we going to want to be?” Sykes said. “Are we going to be the complaining team, or are we going to be the team that it does not matter? Are we going to be the team that when teams come to play, they [say], ‘Damn, we got to play Washington. We know they gonna go hard’? We want to be that team.”

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The Mystics want to compete down to the small details — like screening, which has been an early emphasis. On the first day of training camp, Thibault borrowed a saying from the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers: “No block, no rock.” Adapted to basketball, it means if you don’t set a good screen, you won’t get the ball.

“We got to be a great screening team. That’s everybody from our guards to our bigs,” Thibault said.

Hard screens can open up the Mystics’ many 3-point shooters, and they can open up the screeners for dives to the rim or other easy baskets. In particular, Dolson is known as a great screener and has already shared some of her terminology and tips with her new teammates.

It’ll take time this season, with all the newcomers, for the team to grasp the intricacies of how Thibault wants to screen and cut and move. He’s fine with things looking “a little awkward and ugly” for a while. Early on, the competitive mindset will be worth a lot, and the details will come.

“I think,” Atkins said, “we’ll be able to play through anything.”

The Next’s Tee Baker contributed reporting for this story.

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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