July 31, 2023 

‘Now look what I can do’: How Brittney Sykes has realized her potential with Washington Mystics

‘I'm in a place where what I see in the mirror, somebody else sees’

The first time Brittney Sykes noticed that things felt different with the Washington Mystics than they had with other WNBA teams was in the season opener on May 19. For one thing, the 5’9 guard nailed a 3-pointer for her first points as a Mystic after sometimes being discouraged from taking that shot earlier in her career. For another, the Mystics were using her differently and more expansively in their offense.

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“I don’t think I’ve ever scored on a frickin’ pass to the corner, up-screen from a post and I get a layup,” Sykes told The Next. “I never did anything like that!”

Sykes, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft, came to the Mystics in free agency this offseason after three seasons with the Atlanta Dream and three with the Los Angeles Sparks. Over those six seasons, Sykes had averaged 11.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game — and produced feats of athleticism like nearly touching the rim in pregame layup lines and chasing down opponents in transition to block their shots.

Though Sykes said she wasn’t necessarily eager to leave Atlanta or Los Angeles, she realized this offseason that she was looking for something new offensively.

“Every team that I talked to, that’s the first thing I said: ‘I don’t want to be in a box anymore … I want to be used to my utmost potential,’” she explained. “… My whole frickin’ career, I’m just shoved in a corner, and I made shit happen from that corner. But now look what I can do.”

The Mystics saw the same potential in Sykes that she saw in herself, and she is delivering on it — especially since three Mystics starters were injured in late June and early July. Before the injuries, Sykes was averaging 10.5 points per game on 39.8% shooting from the field and 31.0% shooting from 3-point range. Since then, she has averaged 18.8 points and shot more efficiently despite additional defensive attention.

This version of Sykes has come about because the Mystics have put her in the right positions to thrive and because she feels happy and supported in Washington. That confluence of on-court strategy and intangibles has set her up physically and emotionally to be at her best.

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Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) steals the ball during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on July 9, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Most discussions about Sykes start with her defense, which has landed her on three straight WNBA All-Defensive Teams. She said she was naturally a good defender growing up, in part because of her athleticism and long arms, but she didn’t fully embrace “the art of defense” until her time in Los Angeles with then-assistant coach Latricia Trammell. There, she learned to pride herself on limiting, aggravating and wearing out the best guards in the league.

“As much as I have to prepare to guard somebody like her, I’m pretty sure she’s like, ‘Damn, I gotta prepare,’” Sykes told reporters on June 2 about defending Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale. “And if she doesn’t, that’s still the thought process that I want to create.”

Sykes has continued her smothering defense this season and is on track to make another All-Defensive Team. She leads the league with 56 steals and a steal rate of 3.7%, and she ranks fourth in defensive win shares. In her last three games, she has recorded four, five and six steals.

“A lot of times, it’s hard to get into offense because she’s just such a hawk on the ball,” Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn told reporters in June. “When she’s off the ball, she’s in passing lanes, she’s aggressive, and she’s athletic enough to cover a lot of ground.”

“If I’m the opposing team, it’s hard for me to … prepare my team to play against a Slim,” Mystics assistant coach Shelley Patterson told The Next, using Sykes’ nickname, “because you don’t know it until you play against her. Then you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re talking about.’”

To Patterson’s point, some of the Mystics didn’t fully grasp how good Sykes was defensively until they saw it for themselves. “[When] you see it up close every day and just how much she disrupts with hands and feet, it’s another level,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters in May.

“I’m putting a ballot in right now: That is one of the best defenders in this league,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen told The Next after a June game in which Sykes blocked a shot so impressively that two of her own teammates collided trying to recover. “If not Defensive Player of the Year, definitely First Team for sure. Hands down. The way she protects the rim at her size is crazy. Her bounce, the way she gets off the floor so fast is crazy to me and impressive now that she’s on our team. And then the fact she gets in the passing lanes, it’s just, she’s so athletic the way she plays.”

While Sykes has maintained her defensive prowess with Washington, she has taken her offense to another level. She is posting career highs in points per game and player efficiency rating, and her 3-point percentage is her best in the past six seasons. She has also already tied her career high in offensive win shares with a third of the season still to play. Sykes can slice to the rim at will for layups, adding a dimension to the Mystics’ offense that it lacked in previous years.

In particular, after starters Shakira Austin, Elena Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins and reserve Kristi Toliver all went down with injuries between June 25 and July 11, Sykes took over. “She felt like she had to,” Patterson said. “… She took it upon herself to be more aggressive.”

Since the first game without Austin on June 28, Sykes is scoring 22.2% of the team’s points, up from 13.7% before the injuries began. She poured in 20 or more points five times in July alone, a mark she’d reached only 14 times in the previous six seasons.

Against the Indiana Fever on July 7, Sykes had 29 points on 10-for-19 shooting, including four 3-pointers. She matched that total two weeks later against the New York Liberty and added 10 rebounds.

Then, against the Minnesota Lynx on July 26, she was even more aggressive, scoring 13 points in less than seven minutes to start the game. She dropped 12 first-quarter points against the Atlanta Dream four days later en route to becoming the first Mystic in 18 years to have 25 points and six steals in a game.

“It’s been a great lift for us,” forward Tianna Hawkins said on July 30. “She’s definitely come in the last few games and set the tone for us on the offensive end.”

“She’s kind of spoiling us now because it’s becoming so consistent,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said on July 21. “… You kind of forget because she just does it so often. And it’s just like, ‘oh, Slim got another’” — she checked the box score — “29 points. Wow.”

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes controls the ball with her right hand as she scans the court for passing options.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes looks to pass the ball during a game against the Chicago Sky at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 18, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Part of what’s helped Sykes flourish offensively is that she is settling into the point guard position. She had played it in spurts in high school, in Los Angeles and overseas, but she is doing it more often in Washington alongside longtime Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud. That’s put the ball in Sykes’ hands more and made her an even more dynamic playmaker. And as she and Cloud have both upped their scoring amid the Mystics’ injuries, it’s given them better angles to find teammates.

Sykes said that running the point more has been “an adjustment” but not “tremendously hard.” She has enjoyed being able to collaborate and problem-solve with her teammates in real time on the court — a freedom that Thibault has encouraged in his first year at the helm.

“That’s amazing to go get some information, give some information, and just have everybody on one accord,” Sykes said. “It’s been really, really fun to be a point guard here. Not to say that it wasn’t fun anywhere else, but it’s hella fun here.”

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Three-point shooting has also been a major area of improvement for Sykes this season. She wasn’t known as a shooter in high school or for most of her college career — “If you ask anybody from high school, I shot line-drive baskets,” she said. “All my shots were front rim, hard. Just disgusting.” But she shot hundreds of 3-pointers daily heading into her fifth year at Syracuse and became a 39.3% shooter that season, boosting her WNBA Draft stock.

In the WNBA, Sykes shot 33.6% from behind the arc as a rookie, but she only cleared 30% once over her next five seasons, relying mostly on attacking the rim. She said she didn’t always have people telling her to keep shooting and helping her stay confident, and at times, they told her not to shoot.

“It just got to a point where it was like, my last year in LA, I blatantly did not shoot threes,” Sykes said. “… But I realized in some games … I would be the one open to shoot the three, and that can mess with you mentally.”

In contrast, from the moment the Mystics staff reached out in free agency, they asked why she didn’t shoot 3-pointers, knowing how well she had shot at Syracuse. Encouraged, she started taking them while playing overseas, and they started falling.

“I’m like, ‘Shit, I could have been doing this!’” Sykes laughed. “… Even when I shoot now … I’m like, ‘Man, that shit went in pretty good. Let me do it again!’”

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes holds three fingers in the air and sticks her tongue out in celebration.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) celebrates a 3-pointer during a game against the Seattle Storm at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 11, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The Mystics coaching staff also made some changes to Sykes’ form, including getting her feet underneath her and releasing the ball earlier in her jump. But the confidence piece is sometimes just as important, Patterson said. Now, Sykes wants to work on her 3-pointer and is confident taking big shots.

She has made big 3-pointers this season, including a game-tying one with seven seconds left against Minnesota on June 3. It helps, too, that opposing teams are so wary of her driving ability that they can’t close out hard on her jump shot.

“Are you going to contest somebody that jumps out the gym?” Quinn asked rhetorically in July. “She’s a tough matchup.”

“If you get too close, she’s going by you,” Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve said on July 26, “and even your shell help is, you’re just not going to get there.”

For Sykes, the faith that her coaches and teammates have in her 3-pointer is only a symptom of the broader trust they have in her offensively — and that feels like a revelation. It has also allowed her to make the leap from being “comfortable” in her early-season role playing alongside several stars to carrying a much larger offensive load without them.

“This is probably the first time in my career where I’m in a place where what I see in the mirror, somebody else sees, and what I believe in the mirror, somebody else believes,” she told reporters on July 11. “And it’s not just the coaches, it’s my teammates, and I get text messages from my teammates praising me and just encouraging me … My teammates just have so much trust in me and I had to kind of believe it myself …

“I had to realize that my team still had the same faith in me whether I made or missed a shot, and I couldn’t get on myself about that because they didn’t and they needed me.”

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes elevates for a left-handed layup, her outstretched left hand nearly touching the backboard.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) finishes at the rim during a game against the Phoenix Mercury at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Controlling how she reacts to mistakes has been a major focus for Sykes this season, not only because it helps her perform better, but also because it affects her teammates. Sykes and Cloud are the team’s two pulses, both seemingly always crackling with electricity. But an ill-timed power surge can take the whole team out.

“We can’t have two firecrackers,” Sykes said.

So on July 21, after giving up a late and-one against New York, Sykes resisted the urge to slam the ball down in frustration. Instead, she put it down gently and huddled her teammates. She and Cloud both appeared frustrated, but they kept their cool.

Similarly, on July 30 against Atlanta, Sykes nearly swiped the ball on the perimeter but instead was called for a foul. She was subbed out, and, looking livid, she strode to the end of the bench to compose herself. She grabbed a towel and bit down on it, flaring her nostrils as she took deep breaths.

She and Cloud have worked on their poise together, talking during the All-Star break about what the team needed from them and how to accomplish it. They balance each other out on the court, Sykes said, and have a feel for what the other — and the team — needs. Sometimes, they’ll tell each other to let their feelings out; other times, they’ll say to hold them in.

The results have been effective enough that their teammates are trying to emulate their composure. Asked what she’d learned from Sykes this season, Walker-Kimbrough said, “Kind of that ‘next play’ mentality.” And Hines-Allen, who is still finding her rhythm after offseason knee surgery, said Sykes has taught her about patience. Sykes, who suffered two ACL tears in college, told Hines-Allen that recovery can be a long process and to have grace with herself.

Thibault, too, has praised Sykes and Cloud’s composure, noting how much they’ve had to step up lately. “When you know you’ve got to carry the load, that’s a different weight, and I think they’ve handled it pretty well,” he said.

That weight comes with pressure, especially for a player like Sykes who wanted to reward the Mystics for believing in her. By her own admission, she put too much pressure on herself early in the season. “I’m on a new team. I can’t suck,” she thought to herself.

Sykes has shaken off that pressure, though, with help from her therapist and people in the Mystics organization who gave her perspective. Sure, she might turn the ball over too much for her liking in a game, but she is responsible for more of the offense than she has ever been. What’s important is that she stays aggressive and confident.

“I just have to have this ‘F it’ mentality,” Sykes said. “Because I think that’s where I get in trouble is when I start seeing things that I don’t like that I’m doing, and then I get hard on myself, and then I take myself out [mentally]. And I can’t do that.”

Sykes is still holding herself to a standard of “near perfect,” which includes taking good shots, shooting efficiently and taking care of the ball. But she understands she won’t ever be perfect, and she isn’t feeling the same weight of expectations as she did earlier in the season.

“Yes, I have to do more,” she told reporters on July 21. “But it’s not hard because everybody’s taking a piece of that load.”

Beyond the technical changes to Sykes’ shot, her larger on-court role and her mental approach, there’s another component to her standout performance that is difficult to quantify: the emotional security she feels with Washington. She has built strong relationships throughout the organization, but her bond with Cloud in particular has helped Washington feel like home.

Sykes and Cloud didn’t know each other well before this season, but they had always been friendly. In warmups when they would play against each other, they’d often make eye contact and start dancing, just like they do now as teammates. Cloud then helped recruit Sykes to Washington, and they have been inseparable ever since.

Cloud and Sykes often wear the same cropped Mystics T-shirts — they’ve nicknamed themselves the “papi crops” — and recently started creating TikTok videos. They’re fiercely competitive, including diving on top of each other to win a one-on-one ball-handling challenge at practice. They hold each other accountable, knowing they can be blunt to get the best out of each other. And they can have deep conversations off the court on a range of topics, giving each other emotional and practical support.

“There’s been moments in my day where I’ll be like, ‘I just need to hear my dawg real quick. Let me call her,’” Sykes said. “She’ll call me and we’ll be … talking like we just didn’t see each other in practice.”

“Slim has meant so much to me. I think our spirits do align in a lot of different ways, which is why, off the court, we were able to so quickly connect,” Cloud told reporters on July 26. “… She has been the papi to my crop. And I mean that. So it’s been a blessing.”

“It’s huge [having her],” Sykes added, “because I’ve been places where it didn’t feel like home, and not with just the league. In general playing basketball, I’ve been in spaces where … I wasn’t happy.”

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6’5 Minnesota Lynx forward Dorka Juhász (14) and 5’9 Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) take the opening tip of a game at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on July 26, 2023. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

In Washington, Sykes is happy and fulfilled, and she’s playing at an elite level for a team that has needed every bit of it. She has given the team every ounce of energy she can, even taking opening tips while Austin has been out because of her enviable leaping skills.

“You’re a warrior,” Patterson sometimes tells Sykes. What she means is that Sykes is always ready to give her best on another possession, no matter how many minutes she’s played or how many times she’s hit the floor on drives to the rim.

“I know her body’s tired,” Patterson said, “but it’s sort of like a gladiator who just has to keep fighting, fighting and fighting to the end. And that’s what she does. She has that mentality.”

That’s gotten Sykes exactly where she wants to be — and helped her fulfill the potential she always saw in herself.

“I play that game hard,” Sykes said. “… I want to be on that floor to die for that win. And that’s all I want. And … I finally am in a place [in] Washington where I can do that.”

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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.


  1. Eric on August 1, 2023 at 8:05 am

    another great article. really enjoy these player profiles. I hate all the injuries but seeing Sykes step up has been great. Just an amazing player. Hard to believe she’d been so underutilized on two teams previously

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