May 16, 2023
‘I feel home’: Amanda Zahui B.’s long road to happiness with the Washington Mystics
'The highs [have] been absolutely amazing. The downs, they've been hard'
As part of the Washington Mystics’ media day on May 1, Amanda Zahui B. stood against a white backdrop on the team’s practice court, wearing a brand-new red jersey and posing for photos. Teammate Brittney Sykes strolled onto the court, but then she saw Zahui B., whom she’d played with in Los Angeles before both players joined the Mystics this offseason. Sykes broke into a run.
Zahui B. heard her, turned, and flexed her arms downward. Sykes leapt into her teammate’s arms, and the camera flashed to capture their joy.
It seemed like a moment in which two teammates were reuniting after an overseas season apart. But the reality was much more mundane. “That was just good morning,” Sykes told The Next. “That was my first time seeing her for that day … I was like, ‘Oh, Amanda!’ And I get excited.”
It’s been a long road for Zahui B. to reach this point, playing for an organization she loves alongside two of her closest friends in Sykes and guard Kristi Toliver. She was forced to sit out the 2022 WNBA season and didn’t know what her future held. Happiness on the court was elusive for a few years. But in Washington, Zahui B. is beaming again, and she’s ready to reignite her WNBA career.
“I’m really grateful to be here,” Zahui B. told reporters at media day. “… It’s honestly a little bit emotional because it’s like, I feel home.”
Zahui B., a 6’5 center, grew up in Sweden and was an AP First Team All-American at Minnesota before being picked second overall in the 2015 WNBA Draft. She has played seven WNBA seasons with the Tulsa Shock, New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks, starting about a third of her 197 career games and averaging 6.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. In the winters, she often played in the EuroLeague, fulfilling a childhood dream.
All told, Zahui B. had played year-round basketball since she joined the Swedish national team at age 13. But that screeched to a halt in May 2022, when Los Angeles, facing a roster crunch, suspended Zahui B.’s contract for the season. The Sparks pointed to visa issues and her overseas commitments as reasons for their decision.
Zahui B. told The Next that she had planned to renew her visa in Istanbul, Turkey, because she was playing there at the time and her team, Fenerbahçe, was willing to help with the process. But members of the Sparks organization wanted her to do it in Sweden, for reasons she doesn’t understand. Doing so would have taken more time than she had to spare before reporting to Los Angeles, she said, and the Sparks opted to suspend her rather than let her renew her visa more quickly in Istanbul.
“We all can speculate” on their reasons, she said. “I’ve speculated a lot.”
Missing the 2022 season was hard for Zahui B., and she wasn’t sure what her WNBA future would look like because her contract would expire after that season. She leaned on friends such as Sykes, whom she surprised with a mid-summer visit, and tried to find the positives, including getting to rest and spend time with her family. Then it was back to the EuroLeague, this time to play for Famila Schio in Italy.
Over the past few years, playing in the EuroLeague has been a “mental grind,” Zahui B. said. Though she advanced to the EuroLeague championship game in 2021-22 with Fenerbahçe, she had plenty of ups and downs over her past two European seasons, averaging about six points in only 16 minutes per game. She left Schio before the 2022-23 season ended, which she said wasn’t the original plan but at least gave her more time to prepare for the WNBA season.
“The highs [have] been absolutely amazing. The downs, they’ve been hard,” Zahui B. said. “You play with the best Europeans and the best Americans all coming together, and it hasn’t really been how I envisioned myself playing these last two years.”
Overall, she revealed in a tweet on May 6, she hadn’t felt “that real genuine happiness out on the court” for much of the two years before joining the Mystics. “[It] did not matter if i [sic] was playing great or not,” she wrote. “i’ve struggled with finding myself and finding peace out there.”
A happier WNBA future came into focus for Zahui B. on a EuroLeague road trip before she left Schio. In January, Los Angeles traded Zahui B.’s rights to Las Vegas, but the Aces had a logjam of talent and agreed to let Zahui B. talk to teams that might be interested in acquiring her. The Mystics knew they weren’t going to be able to re-sign backup center Elizabeth Williams, so they were looking for a player with size and, ideally, shooting ability, Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told The Next.
So Zahui B. fielded a call from Mystics general manager Mike Thibault on Schio’s bus back from a road game. He told her, “We’re going to help you find yourself on the court again.”
“[That] is something that I haven’t talked about a lot, but something that I’ve felt,” Zahui B. said. “… I was kind of taken by it because no one has actually said it to me. But then I was like, yeah, this is real. You genuinely care for me as a basketball player, and you don’t know me like that yet.”
Both Thibaults had consulted Toliver about whether her former Sparks teammate would be a good fit, and Toliver also texted Sykes, whom she had already helped recruit to Washington. Both players supported adding Zahui B. and texted her excitedly after her call with Thibault, and soon after that call, the trade was finalized.
“I think I just won GM of the Year,” Toliver joked on May 1.
Zahui B. arrived in Washington from Sweden almost three weeks before training camp began, allowing her to get over her jet lag and settle in. One of her first stops was the team facilities, which impressed her so much that she took a video as she walked around to send to family and friends. She spent her first few days in Washington working out, struggling to get the WiFi to work in her apartment, and eating at the seafood restaurant The Boiling Crab with new teammate Myisha Hines-Allen.
“Coming here … I’m starting a new book — not a new chapter, but more so a new book where I’m just starting over,” Zahui B. told The Next soon after she arrived. “Just like Coach T said, finding myself again, regaining that confidence. So I’m feeling really good.”
Zahui B. is expected to anchor the Mystics’ second unit this season, and her teammates have raved about how her game fits with what the team needs.
That starts with her defense, where associate head coach LaToya Sanders said she is an underrated shot blocker. “That’s kind of one of the things that stuck out is she can protect the rim,” Sanders told The Next during training camp. “… That’s why we wanted her to be here, because she can continue and carry that [defensive] load … whenever [starting center Shakira Austin is] out the game.”
Offensively, Zahui B. is versatile, able to play in the low post but also pop out and shoot 3-pointers. The Mystics are asking her to balance both of those skills, be a good passer in the halfcourt offense, and set hard screens. With the depth the Mystics have, Zahui B. won’t need to score a lot. But, assistant coach Shelley Patterson told The Next, she has an opportunity to hone her post moves and better demonstrate why she was a top-two draft pick.
Eric Thibault added, “She’s somebody that can spread the floor but also protect the rim, and there’s not a lot of people on that list. You have the very obvious ones — [Breanna Stewart], [Jonquel Jones], Elena [Delle Donne], people like that — but you need more than one of those on a team.”
The next step for Zahui B. is developing chemistry with the players she will likely partner with in the frontcourt, particularly Hines-Allen and Delle Donne. Hines-Allen, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery, didn’t play with Zahui B. until May 12, but she was immediately impressed with how Zahui B. communicated as Hines-Allen pressured the ball in a defensive drill.
Zahui B. has had more reps with Delle Donne, but she is still learning the two-time MVP’s expansive game. “I’ve always been fortunate enough to be on teams with All-Star post players … but I’ve never played with one that’s asking me to come and set a ball screen,” Zahui B. told reporters on May 12. “So now it’s like, I have to think of her as a guard and then make the reads from that, which is really hard. … I keep asking her questions … I love it, but I have no idea what I’m doing.”
To Zahui B., it feels like fate that she ended up in Washington, a place she can thrive on and off the court, alongside two people who know her best in Sykes and Toliver. Zahui B. calls them the Three Musketeers, while Toliver — seven years older than the other two at 36 — refers to Sykes and Zahui B. as her “babies.”
“We’re really meant to be together,” Zahui B. thought to herself after the trade was finalized.
At the same time, Zahui B. has branched out and forged deep connections with her new teammates. “She’s one of those personalities that I think naturally connects with people,” Eric Thibault told reporters on May 10.
For example, Hines-Allen and Zahui B. struck up a conversation in the training room on Zahui B.’s first full day in Washington, and the topic of crab legs came up. “So then I started craving Boiling Crab,” Zahui B. said, having eaten at the chain restaurant when she played in Los Angeles. She and Hines-Allen visited the Washington location the next day.
“I guess that was the first thing we bonded over,” Hines-Allen said.
The pair has since fit in brunch, too — though not as often as Zahui B. would like. “She wants brunch every single day,” Hines-Allen said. “D.C. brunch is Saturday-Sunday. It’s not [on] a Monday or a Tuesday. … I’m like, ‘Zahui, no, we don’t do brunch on [these] days.’”
As they’ve gotten to know each other, Hines-Allen and Zahui B. have discussed the low points they’ve each been through recently, including Hines-Allen’s recovery progressing slower than expected and Zahui B. being out of the league. They both check in on each other regularly: Zahui B. asks Hines-Allen how she’s doing daily and reassures her that she looks fluid on the court, and Hines-Allen is committed to making every day with the Mystics joyful for Zahui B.
By the start of training camp, the two seemed like years-long friends. Seated side-by-side as they fielded reporters’ questions at media day, they could barely make it through a single answer without bursting into laughter, exchanging a look, or inserting a side comment. And Zahui B. has developed similarly close relationships throughout the organization, leading her to say partway through camp that it felt like she had been in Washington “[her] whole life.”
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Seemingly every time Zahui B. speaks with reporters, she mentions how happy and grateful she is to be on the Mystics. But even when she doesn’t mention it, it shows in her voice and her body language.
“She’s in a hell of a space of peace,” Sykes said.
“I just see joy,” said Patterson, who also coached Zahui B. on the Liberty in 2020. “… She’s always been that person … but it’s constant. It’s been consistent.”
Beyond the joy Zahui B. feels, there is a sense of safety that she said she hasn’t felt in a few years. “I’m allowed to be me, and that’s something that I’ve been missing,” she said. “… So [if] I do something and I mess up, I know I’m still safe. I know that they are counting on me to do better next time, rather than that being something that puts me aside or whatever the case might be. …
“It’s not something I constantly think of, but I feel it. And that’s something that I always needed in my life, and now I finally have it again.”
Now that she feels safe and welcome with the Mystics, Zahui B. wants to make Mike Thibault’s statement come true and rediscover herself on the court this season. She believes she has a statement to make in the WNBA.
“It’s almost like a redemption year,” she said. “I sat out last year. I did not want to sit out, so this is really like [an] ‘I’m back’ kind of thing.”
On May 12, Zahui B. stood in the Mystics’ huddle at practice, just as she had in seven practices and two exhibition games before that. As she listened to Eric Thibault talk, though, a thought popped into her head:
“I’m so happy.”
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.