February 3, 2022 

Elena Delle Donne’s Mystics feel ‘reborn’ as Mike Thibault goes big early in free agency

Let's break down the massive week the Mystics just had, shall we?

On Monday, the Washington Mystics’ mascot, Pax the Panda, went rogue. Spying head coach and general manager Mike Thibault’s free agency paperwork unattended, Pax swiped the folder from Thibault’s desk and took off running. He eventually stopped, peeked inside the folder to see what Thibault did, and pumped his fist in celebration.

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Pax appears to have returned those contracts, because free agents could begin signing contracts on Tuesday and this time, it was Thibault who was on the move. He signed a whopping five players on Tuesday alone, four of whom have played for the Mystics before. The lone newcomer, veteran forward/center Elizabeth Williams, is a 2020 All-Defensive Team selection and a natural fit for the Mystics’ culture and style of play.

Adding to the Mystics’ fist-pumping, two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne said in Tuesday’s press conference that she felt “phenomenal” and “almost like reborn” after missing most of the past two seasons due to injury. With Delle Donne getting healthy and five free agents officially signing, the Mystics, too, are experiencing a sense of rebirth and rejuvenation after two tumultuous and injury-plagued seasons.

That rebirth started as soon as the 2021 season ended: The following day, Thibault pledged to reset his team’s culture, and he and associate head coach Eric Thibault both said on the Slappin’ Glass podcast in December that the Mystics staff and returning players had a different energy about them this offseason.

On Tuesday, Mike Thibault told reporters, “We needed to reset, not rebuild, but reset what we were doing, and I think that we are on our way to doing that … [This] makes us the kind of team that we want to be: people who go about things the right way, who play and compete every single day, who are unselfish players. … I think that we have put ourselves back into that group of teams that have the ability to compete for a championship.”

The signings

Players are listed in the order the team announced them. All salary cap figures are from Her Hoop Stats, and all basketball statistics are from Basketball-Reference.

  • Megan Gustafson
    • Signed a training camp contract (unprotected) for $72,141
    • 2021 statistics: 4.0 points and 3.6 rebounds in just 9.9 minutes per game; shot 59.4% from the field
  • Shatori Walker-Kimbrough
    • Signed a training camp contract (unprotected) for $72,141
    • 2021 statistics: 6.9 points, 1.4 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 0.7 steals per game; 51.3% shooting from the field
  • Tianna Hawkins
    • Signed a training camp contract (unprotected) for $72,141
    • 2021 statistics: 4.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.6 assists per game
  • Myisha Hines-Allen
    • Signed a three-year protected contract starting at $170,000 in 2022 and reaching $180,200 in 2024
    • 2021 statistics: 12.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game
  • Elizabeth Williams
    • Signed a one-year protected contract for $90,000
    • 2021 statistics: 5.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game; 51.6% shooting from the field
Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen (2) shoots over Connecticut Sun forward/guard DeWanna Bonner at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut on May 28, 2021. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

Depth in the frontcourt

Any discussion of the Mystics’ frontcourt begins with Delle Donne, who has played just 52 minutes of WNBA basketball since 2019 due to persistent back problems that required two surgeries. On Tuesday, Delle Donne said that she would be ready for training camp and had been pain-free for several months, despite doing individual workouts that required twisting and changes of direction.

“I feel like I am moving again like my younger self, but even better and more efficient,” she said. “… I had a day on the court recently where I was working a lot on my off-the-block [moves], like pivots and reverse pivots and counter-moves. And in that moment, it was like, ‘Wow, I feel so good right now. I feel springy. I feel like I’m able to change direction.’ And it just felt right. And I hadn’t felt that in such a long time.”

Delle Donne is not currently cleared to play five-on-five, but she will participate in a USA Basketball minicamp next week for the first time since the injury. Thibault expects her to be able to play in team pickup games by early April and participate in preseason training camp.

Around her, Hines-Allen and Williams were Thibault’s two offseason priorities, with Hines-Allen getting the longest and most lucrative contract of the team’s signees. “After I signed the contract, I went out to dinner and treated myself to a nice steak,” Hines-Allen said.

As a restricted free agent, the 6’1 forward took meetings with other teams, but the Mystics had the right to match any contract—which is exactly how she wanted it. “DC is like home for me,” she said. “… So for me, it was always DC and then keeping my options open, but [I] always wanted to be back in DC.”

Just 25 years old, Hines-Allen was drafted by the Mystics in the second round in 2018. She didn’t play much in her first two seasons, but the team saw her potential every day in practice—and the world finally saw it in 2020. That season, Hines-Allen was an All-WNBA selection and the runner-up for Most Improved Player after averaging 17.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game on 51.0% shooting from the field and 42.6% from 3-point range. A knee injury limited her to 18 games last season, but Thibault believes that she is just entering her prime and will continue to improve each year.

One area that Thibault has already challenged Hines-Allen and Delle Donne to improve in this offseason is defense, so they can join Williams and three of the Mystics’ guards as All-Defensive Team selections. “The pressure’s on those two to try to join … that group,” he quipped.

To become DC’s newest All-Defensive player, Williams turned down three other teams and took a nearly 25% pay cut from her $119,000 salary with the Atlanta Dream in 2021. She was sold on the Mystics because she felt “like I was really comfortable in that space and I could just add to the team. And I could come into a culture that’s already established, with players that are already established that want to compete for a championship. That was really important to me.” (It was also a plus that DC is closer to her hometown of Virginia Beach, and her mother now plans to attend every home game.)

Williams, a 6’3 center, is a former Most Improved Player and All-Star. She is also one of the best shot-blockers in WNBA history, ranking sixth in career blocks per game (1.68) and eighth in career block rate (4.96%). Hines-Allen said she is “super excited” to play with such an elite rim protector because of how it will impact the team on both ends. Other players can pressure the ball more knowing that Williams is there if they get beat, and when Williams blocks a shot, it can create transition opportunities for players such as Hines-Allen and point guard Natasha Cloud.

Beyond her blocked shots, Williams has averaged 8.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 27.4 minutes per game in her seven WNBA seasons. Her statistics last season were mostly below those numbers, but she was playing a near-career-low 23.4 minutes per game and had a career-low 11.8% usage rate.

That usage rate is eerily similar to the 12.4% usage rate that former Mystics center and current assistant coach LaToya Sanders had on the 2019 WNBA championship team. Sanders was a tenacious defender, rebounded, blocked shots, set good screens and hit shots when defenders sagged off her. Williams will likely fill a similar role, though she brings slightly more size to the position and a little less range on her jump shot.

Thibault acknowledged the comparison on Tuesday, calling both players “true pros.” He mentioned how Sanders developed her offensive game in DC and how Williams has been working on expanding her range and being able to pop out for open jumpers after setting screens. And having Sanders on the staff can’t hurt Williams’ development in a similar role, either.

Crucially for a Mystics team that was often injured and sometimes inconsistent last season, Williams has been both durable and consistent throughout her career. She has played in over 90% of her team’s games in six straight seasons and recorded an above-average player efficiency rating between 15.5 and 17.7 every season of her career.

Behind Delle Donne, Hines-Allen and Williams, Thibault has a deep bench of forwards in Hawkins, Gustafson and Erica McCall. All three bring energy and positivity, but Hawkins is the best floor spacer, shooting 34.0% from 3-point range in six seasons with the Mystics from 2014 through 2020. Hines-Allen and Thibault both gushed about how good of a teammate Hawkins is—“one of the best teammates you’ll ever have,” Hines-Allen said—and how much the Mystics missed that in 2021.

“It’s nice to have somebody who just can fill almost any role,” Thibault added. “We’ve played her at three, we’ve played her at four, we’ve played her at five. She’ll step up and take on whatever challenge you throw at her.”

Hawkins is also from nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and she said in the team’s press release, “I’m extremely excited for the opportunity to return to DC. This team exemplifies an amazing culture and a level of professionalism that is unmatched.”

Gustafson signed a training camp contract for 2022 after joining the Mystics last June on a hardship contract and eventually earning a rest-of-season contract. The 25-year-old had the best statistical season of her career last season and currently ranks sixth in the EuroLeague in scoring (17.7 points per game). She won’t be called upon for that level of production in DC; rather, her intangibles are what convinced Thibault that he needed to re-sign her.

“Megan demonstrated to us last season that she deserves the opportunity to battle for a post position on this team,” he said in the team’s release. “She came to us during a rough stretch of our season and worked every day to improve her game and make her presence felt. Her upbeat daily demeanor in the midst of a trying year was a breath of fresh air.”

McCall, another young forward who brings unmatched energy and relentlessness on the glass, rounds out the frontcourt. She signed an unprotected contract last winter that runs through the 2022 season.

Stability and youth in the backcourt

The Mystics’ backcourt may not be quite as deep as the frontcourt, but it boasts both stability and elite talent. Thibault will likely start Cloud at point, Ariel Atkins at shooting guard and Alysha Clark on the wing—a trio that has a combined seven All-Defensive Team nods and WNBA championship rings from 2018, 2019 and 2020. All three return from 2021, though Clark had to lead from the bench after suffering a season-ending injury in March.

Off the bench, Thibault can rely on Sydney Wiese, a 3-point sharpshooter who was acquired last May and is on an unprotected contract through 2022, and Walker-Kimbrough, a lightning-quick 5’9 guard who was yet another of Tuesday’s signings. Walker-Kimbrough was drafted by the Mystics in 2017 and played on the 2019 championship team before being traded the following offseason. The Mystics re-signed her partway through the 2021 season, and she proved to Thibault that she had improved her game and was worth keeping in 2022.

“She has become a big contributor at both ends of the floor,” Thibault said of Walker-Kimbrough in the team’s release. “I think she will play a key role this season.”

Thibault also indicated on Tuesday that the team would sign South Korean shooting guard Lee-Seul Kang and Swedish point guard Klara Lundquist to training camp contracts. He previously signed Kang to a training camp contract in 2020 and Lundquist to a contract that was suspended for the 2021 season, so he is familiar with both players even though neither has played in DC. Lundquist could fill a particular need as the team’s backup point guard, but she is also just 22 years old and may need more time to develop.

Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams (1) contests a shot by Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike (13) during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut on July 17, 2018. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

The defensive upside

The Mystics’ additions, combined with Delle Donne’s apparent return to health, give Thibault an ultra-versatile lineup on both ends of the court. He is perhaps most excited about the team’s potential to be more than the sum of its parts defensively. That starts with Williams leading from the back, much like Sanders did a few years ago.

“I’ve always respected [Elizabeth] 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. “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 …

“That was a factor when we went out and got Alysha Clark last year; that was part of the plan. And so now with those kinds of players on our team, I think we can have a complete defensive unit instead of a piecemeal effect or approach.”

At the top of the defense, Cloud, Atkins, Clark and Walker-Kimbrough can all pressure the ball and limit the vision and rhythm of opposing ball-handlers. Last season, Thibault occasionally had Hines-Allen, who is mobile and athletic at 6’1, trap the ball-handler with the 6’ Cloud to great effect, and there could be more of that this season. Thibault even said that he would be fine with Hines-Allen guarding some point guards one-on-one when the Mystics switch on screens this season. And the team’s depth should only enhance its ability to pressure the ball and sustain its defensive intensity over the full season.

A couple of stars not returning

Despite the Mystics’ bevy of signings, Thibault was never going to be able to fit every player he wanted within the league’s salary cap. The “elephant in the room,” as he put it, on Tuesday was Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP and longtime Mystic who decided to sign with the Chicago Sky this offseason.

Meesseman was drafted by the Mystics in the second round in 2013 and had played her entire WNBA career in DC, calling it “my home away from home” last summer. She averaged 11.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game on 51.3% shooting as a Mystic and was an All-Star in 2015. But she had missed some or all of several seasons to compete internationally with the Belgian national team, and Thibault expressed doubts in December about whether she would be available for the 2022 WNBA playoffs given that the FIBA World Cup begins on Sept. 21.

Yet Thibault said he still tried to sign Meesseman in free agency, working with Hines-Allen—one of Meesseman’s closest friends in DC—to try to fit both players under the salary cap. “All of us here would have liked to have found a way to do that,” he said.

“Free agency in the truest form allows players to make decisions for themselves and go where they want,” Thibault added. “… [Emma] made a choice that she wanted to do for her future. She was upfront about it with me in the past week, and we wish her well, but I’m excited about what we’re doing. … We wanted to have a reliable future going forward, and I think Myisha represents that for us.”

With the Mystics prioritizing Hines-Allen and also pursuing Meesseman, the odd player out is Tina Charles, whom Thibault did not mention in Tuesday’s hour-long press conference. The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland first reported on Monday that Charles would not return. There was always some doubt that she would want to re-sign, as she came to DC seeking a championship and instead played on a 2021 team that missed the playoffs.

Elena Delle Donne (right) high-fives Washington Mystics teammate Sydney Wiese during a game against the Atlanta Dream on June 17, 2021 at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

What’s left on the to-do list

The Mystics ended Tuesday with six players signed to protected contracts, the maximum allowed in the WNBA, after giving their last two such contracts to Hines-Allen and Williams. They will spend their remaining $353,900 on five players who are on unprotected contracts, likely including the upcoming No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft. (Teams are allowed to carry up to 12 players on their rosters, but with a minimum salary just above $60,000, the Mystics cannot afford a 12th player this season.)

Thibault hinted that he would soon sign one more player—a point guard to compete with Lundquist to back up Cloud—and that it would be someone who “people will be very intrigued by.” He is also still deciding who to draft with the No. 1 pick in April, but he told reporters that he would use the pick rather than trade it “unless something wacky happens.”

As Thibault ties a bow on his final free-agency presents, it’s a safe bet that Delle Donne will be involved—not only as the reborn franchise superstar but also as the ace recruiter. Her presence alone is a draw for players such as Hines-Allen and Walker-Kimbrough, and she was actively recruiting Clark last year and Williams this year.

“Coach T can tell you: I’m in his office every single day,” Delle Donne said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘All right, what [have] we got? What’s happening? … Can I text [Elizabeth] yet?’ … I mean, this is our team. It’s part of the offseason—if you want to grow this team and you want this organization to be all it can be, of course I’m going to reach out and do my best to get the right people on board.”

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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