July 8, 2023
Known for her defense, Brittney Sykes is settling in offensively for Washington Mystics
Sykes had a career night on Friday and has been on a scoring tear lately
WASHINGTON — After Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes drove by defenders again and again on Friday night, scoring at the rim and from the free-throw line, she joked with reporters about her propensity for ending up on the floor.
“At this point, I feel like a mop,” she laughed.
Sykes scored a game-high 29 points on 10-for-19 shooting, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range, against the Indiana Fever on Friday. Down to only eight available players and missing three of their top five scorers, the Mystics badly needed her offense. She also chipped in five rebounds, two assists and a steal to help the team to a 96-88 win.
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Entering this season, the 29-year-old Sykes had shot 28.9% from behind the arc in six WNBA seasons with the Atlanta Dream and the Los Angeles Sparks. That made signing her in free agency seem like a curious decision for a franchise that has valued the 3-point shot enough that guard Ariel Atkins recalled a practice in 2018 where it felt like the team only shot threes.
“After we signed [Sykes], everybody that I talked to read me her 3-point shooting numbers,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters in May.
But the Mystics looked instead at Sykes’ 39.3% shooting from distance in her final collegiate season and bet that more confidence and a new system would unlock her shooting as a professional. They also liked her defense, as a three-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selection and the two-time league leader in steals.
“Going into free agency, one of the things that made my ear ring, it made my heart warm, was that the staff had so much confidence in me wanting to shoot the three,” Sykes said in May. “My teammates, they have confidence in me to shoot the three. So … I’m starting to shoot that with confidence and just poise, and it feels really good.”
She shot well to start the season — 38.5% from 3-point range through her first six games — but on Friday, she showed that she could carry the offense when needed. The Mystics were without All-Star and two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne, starting point guard Natasha Cloud, starting center Shakira Austin, and sharpshooter Kristi Toliver, and Sykes responded with the third-highest scoring game of her career.
“We’ve seen it against us, so it was nice to be on the right side of it,” Thibault said postgame, as Sykes scored 27 against the Mystics in 2017 and 21 last season. “But I thought she just made really big, timely plays. She was aggressive. … Her and Ariel were sensational. The All-Star Game will miss them next week.”
Sykes scored in a variety of ways on Friday, from mopping the floor with her drives to splashing in threes. All four of her 3-pointers came in the first half, when she shot 4-for-4 from that distance and had 18 points. After the last one, a corner triple in front of the Mystics’ bench, Sykes turned and high-fived Cloud and forward Myisha Hines-Allen before running back on defense.
Her first-half shooting helped open up the court for drives, and she ended the game with five baskets within two feet of the rim, including an and-one for her final field goal. On that possession, she brought the ball up and never relinquished it, driving for a right-handed layup. After taking contact from her defender, Indiana’s Lexie Hull, she landed sprawled on her back on the baseline. She let out a yell and flexed her arm muscles, wiggling her fists slightly in triumph.
“I told our players at shootaround that, if Elena didn’t play and Cloud didn’t play, that Sykes and Atkins were going to put their head down and take it to us, and that’s exactly what they did,” a frustrated Fever head coach Christie Sides told reporters postgame. Atkins finished with 26 points and shot 7-for-11 inside the arc.
“Between [Atkins] and [Sykes], every time we needed a bucket, they made a good play,” Thibault said.
Friday’s scoring outburst is only the latest strong offensive performance from Sykes, despite the questions in free agency about her offense. In the past eight games, she has averaged 15.5 points, up from 9.3 in the first nine, and has shot 55.6% from the field compared with 28.8% earlier in the season. Her shot is falling more both at the rim and from behind the arc. She has also increased her assists from 2.7 to 4.1 per game, including a career-high 10 against Atlanta on June 28.
|Shot type||Field goal percentage, first 9 games||Field goal percentage, last 8 games|
|Jump shots (any distance)||22.2%||47.6%|
The first game in that eight-game stretch came against the Phoenix Mercury at home on June 16. Sykes was seemingly everywhere in the first 13 minutes, pushing the ball in transition and recording eight points, three steals, three rebounds and two assists.
However, Sykes played a season-low 19 minutes in that game, exiting after being poked in the eye in the third quarter. She returned the next game with goggles, which she seemed to barely tolerate. She pushed them up onto her forehead during even brief stoppages in play, causing her teammates to constantly remind her to put them back on before play resumed. But the goggles didn’t slow her down: In her first game wearing them, she had 16 points and won the team’s Dawg of the Night award for the player who especially impacts winning.
On Friday, Sykes shed the goggles entirely for the first time since the injury. “They had to go,” she said postgame. “I’ll be honest, I got tired of my teammates yelling at me in the game to pull them down. So [the goggles] did their job … I’m just glad that my eye’s okay. Not wishing to see them again.”
The Mystics aren’t likely to make her bring them back out of superstition, either, after she had a career night shooting the ball without them.
“We had eight [players] last night and we believed in all eight, and obviously, everybody had to step up and answer the call,” Toliver told The Next on Saturday. “So I think when those situations happen and you have to rise to the occasion, you have the ability to expose more of your game and what you can do. And [Sykes] is getting more comfortable playing in that guard position and … did [her] job for sure in just setting the tone, not only offensively but defensively as well.”
Overall, Sykes is having one of the better offensive seasons of her career, despite the Mystics’ struggles on that end, while continuing her customarily smothering defense. Her individual offensive rating of 100.3 points scored per 100 possessions is one of the better marks of her career, and her defensive rating of 92.4 points allowed per 100 possessions is a career best. She has spoken often about how easy it was to acclimate to her new team in Washington and how much she enjoys playing alongside Cloud and Atkins, who like her have been named to multiple WNBA All-Defensive Teams.
Sykes also has the second-best effective field goal percentage (47.8%) and assist rate (19.9%) of her career, taking well to the challenge of playing point guard more often after previously playing mostly shooting guard or wing.
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As a result, the Mystics are much better on both ends when Sykes is on the court than when she’s on the bench. With her in the game, the Mystics outscore opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions, but with her on the bench, the team gets outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. That difference of 14.1 points per 100 possessions is the second-best on the roster, just behind Delle Donne’s 15.3, among players who have played at least 100 minutes.
“She does what [she] does, right, and that’s be disruptive on the defensive end,” Dallas Wings head coach Latricia Trammell, who previously coached Sykes as an assistant in Los Angeles, told reporters on June 2. “But what I’ve been really proud of her on, to be honest, is what she’s doing offensively. Everyone thinks of her as a defensive player and no, don’t sell her short on that other end. … She’s really developing into a whole player.”
Sykes showed her complete range of abilities on Friday, when the shorthanded Mystics most needed someone to step up. Seemingly every time she got hit, she popped right back up — and soon drained another shot.
“My mindset [was] just to be aggressive,” she said. “And when I’m aggressive, positive things come out of it.”
The Next’s Natalie Heavren 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 and Power Plays.