June 2, 2022 

‘Backcourt bouncer’ Elizabeth Williams’ defense raises the Washington Mystics’ ceiling

The Indiana Fever will be seeing Williams in their nightmares after she had six blocks and 15 rebounds on Tuesday

Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen’s birthday was on Monday, and the team feted her by singing “Happy Birthday” in the airport en route to play the Indiana Fever. But not every teammate bought Hines-Allen a present to celebrate her big day.

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“I’m new here, so I didn’t get her anything,” center/forward Elizabeth Williams told reporters after Tuesday’s game.

No matter: Williams saved her present for the court in the form of a game-changing defensive effort in the Mystics’ 87-75 win. Williams had 10 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks in under 23 minutes off the bench, complementing the offense the Mystics got from starters Ariel Atkins (28 points), Elena Delle Donne (19) and Natasha Cloud (16 points and nine assists). According to Her Hoop Stats, the 6’3 Williams was just the 13th player in the WNBA’s 26-year history to post that stat line, the first to do it since 2019 and only the second ever to do it without committing a foul.

“You can see why we got Elizabeth [in free agency],” head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said postgame.

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Thibault signed Williams in February, convincing the 2017 WNBA All-Star to take a pay cut to join a deep Mystics roster that is built to contend for a championship. Williams had spent the previous six seasons with the Atlanta Dream and averaged 9.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 assists per game. In particular, she had carved out a reputation as an elite defender and shot blocker: She was named to the league’s All-Defensive First Team in 2020 and currently ranks sixth in WNBA history in blocks per game and block percentage.

“I’ve always respected her since she was a young player in college for her ability to talk on defense and kind of be that quarterback that sees everything on the back of the defense, to block shots and clog the lane and give us a presence,” Thibault said in Williams’ introductory press conference on Feb. 1. “I just think she’s so good at that. And I think that how she goes about the defensive thing rubs off on other players … With those kinds of players on our team, I think we can have a complete defensive unit.”

That vision of a complete defensive unit has started to come true, even though Williams missed the first five games due to overseas commitments. The Mystics currently rank third in the league in defensive rating, allowing just 94.1 points per 100 possessions. On Tuesday, they were even better, allowing 76.2 points per 100 possessions in the second half to overcome an early 11-point deficit and improve to 7-3 this season.

Although the Mystics’ comeback didn’t fully take hold until the second half, Williams got herself going in the first quarter with two offensive rebounds and a putback on the same possession. Then she locked down the paint by getting 13 defensive rebounds — four in the pivotal third quarter — to end Indiana’s possessions and spur the Mystics’ attack.

“I tried to, especially coming off the bench, just bring energy,” Williams said postgame, “and last game against Connecticut, we got outrebounded like crazy. So my big focuses were bringing energy and rebounding the ball and … talking and just being a presence in the paint. That was really all I was trying to do.”

“She was physical,” said Indiana rookie forward NaLyssa Smith, who managed just four rebounds all game. “She crashed the boards, and she got the outcome that she wanted.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Elizabeth Williams (1) leaps in anticipation of a shot by Atlanta Dream forward Naz Hillmon (00) during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC, on May 24, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Other times, though, Williams didn’t bother waiting to rebound Indiana’s misses and simply blocked them instead. Her first block stifled a Fever two-on-one fast break in the first quarter, and she not only blocked Smith cleanly but also controlled the ball to herself and zipped a pass to Cloud for a layup.

Several of Williams’ blocks came while she was the help defender, including one on Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell with 47 seconds left in the first quarter. Mitchell beat the Mystics’ defense so often in the first half that Thibault changed his defensive coverages at halftime, but Williams bailed out the Mystics on this attempt by helping off Smith and blocking Mitchell’s shot straight down.

Williams then had three blocks in the third quarter alone, one of which stymied the Fever’s final possession. By that point, the Mystics had turned an eight-point halftime deficit into a three-point lead, and the Fever were looking for a basket to mitigate the damage. They wouldn’t get it, and the Mystics went on to win the fourth quarter by nine points.

“[Williams’ blocks] gave us huge momentum,” Thibault said postgame. “It uplifts your whole defense because now you feel as guards you can pressure a little bit more because you know you got good helpers behind you. … [She] had [Indiana] kind of thinking about coming to the rim a little bit in the second half.”

Williams put an exclamation point on the win with one final block with 59 seconds remaining. “Blocking’s one of my favorite parts of the game,” a smiling Williams said postgame. “I mean, I just love it. I don’t care who it is — if you’re short, if you’re tall, I’m going to try to block it.”

But the veteran channels that enthusiasm wisely, managing to control the direction of her blocks and avoid fouls. Rather than pounding the ball into the stands, Williams kept all six of her blocks in bounds on Tuesday, giving the Mystics six opportunities to gain possession. She corralled two of them herself and a teammate rebounded a third, which helped fuel the Mystics’ 13 fast-break points.

In addition, despite giving up a few inches to some centers around the league, Williams hasn’t fouled out of a game since August 2019. Tuesday was no exception, as she committed zero fouls.

Asked how she accomplished that feat, Williams said, “I would say timing and knowing when to go for blocks, too. If I’m in good position, I’ll go; if not, I’ll just try to wall up or not swat or anything. And some luck, too, because sometimes fouls just happen. So a little bit of all of that.”

Williams’ performance on Tuesday could have been overshadowed by her teammates’ offensive outbursts, from Atkins’ season-high in points to Cloud’s dissection of Indiana’s defense. But her teammates, past and present, didn’t let that happen. Former Atlanta forward Brittany Brewer called Williams the “backcourt bouncer” in an Instagram story, and Delle Donne wrote, “Some of those blocks nearly took me out [joy emoji].”

“Protect your face,” Williams responded, using the same emoji.

Washington Mystics center/forward Elizabeth Williams reacted to congratulations from Elena Delle Donne (left), Brittany Brewer (center) and Alysha Clark on her standout game on May 31, 2022. (Screenshots from Williams’ Instagram stories)

Through her first five games with the Mystics, Williams averages 2.0 blocks per game and blocks a ridiculous 10.7% of opponents’ 2-point shots while she is on the court. Both of those numbers exceed her career averages, but even if Williams is merely average by her standards, she gives the Mystics a shot-blocking presence like they haven’t had in several years. According to Her Hoop Stats, the last Mystics player to match Williams’ career block rate of 5.0% in a season (minimum 10 games) and average at least one block per game was LaToya Sanders in 2015.

Thibault smiled broadly when asked what having that kind of interior presence is like, and Atkins spoke about Williams’ impact from a guard’s perspective. “It makes my life 100% easier,” she said, “because I’m out there blind. It’s super helpful and it makes you be more comfortable being able to pressure knowing that you got a shot blocker like E in the back, that she’s not fouling on the shot. But she’s knocking them down and they’re still in bounds, so it’s giving us extra opportunities on the other end, too.”

Williams’ defense on Tuesday helped the Mystics outscore the Fever by six points in the paint and outrebound them by 11. But, as the early deficit showed, there is still room for improvement. The Mystics often start games relatively slowly, allowing opponents to score 100.5 points per 100 possessions in first quarters on 47.2% shooting from the field and 48.9% from 3-point range. In the third quarters, in contrast, they allow 85.7 points per 100 possessions on 37.3% shooting from the field and 24.5% from distance.

“We have a team with a lot of vets, a lot of people with experience, and unfortunately, we kind of have put ourselves in [early deficits] before,” Atkins said on Tuesday. “So it’s a matter of us not losing our head and not getting away from the game plan when things kind of go south.”

The first-quarter struggles may partly reflect Thibault’s difficulty solidifying his lineups amid many player injuries and absences. Only Atkins has started every game; nine players have started at least two games apiece; and wing Alysha Clark, a two-time All-Defensive Team selection, has missed six of the team’s 10 games with a foot injury and a stint in the WNBA’s health and safety protocols. Thibault is still trying to determine his preferred rotations, to the point that no quintet of players has played even 30 minutes together this season.

The silver lining is that the team has ample depth for him to tinker with, and that shone through again on Tuesday with Williams — one of two current Mystics players who has not started this season, despite starting 186 of 187 games with Atlanta. Her performance upped her season averages to 6.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in an efficient 18.0 minutes per game.

“I thought maybe the biggest difference in the game was our bench in the second half,” Thibault said, praising Williams’ defensive impact and going on down the list of reserves.

As the Mystics continue to develop chemistry, the expectation is that they will defend like they did in the third quarter on Tuesday for longer stretches and banish the slow starts. They have begun the season strong defensively, but as players such as Williams work their way into the rotation and find their rhythm, the potential for even more is obvious.

Almost as obvious, that is, as what would happen to any Indiana player who drove to the rim on Tuesday against Williams.

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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